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Friday, September 29, 2023

Men's Basketball

Kelvin Sampson’s initial vision for UH has arrived

Holding his grandson Kylen, Kelvin Sampson was all smiles after cutting down his seventh net as the UH head coach after the top-ranked Cougars' win over Wichita State on Thursday night. | Anh Le/The Cougar

Holding his grandson Kylen, Kelvin Sampson was all smiles after cutting down his seventh net as the UH head coach after the top-ranked Cougars’ win over Wichita State on Thursday night. | Anh Le/The Cougar

When Kelvin Sampson first arrived at Houston, he had to go around the campus with a megaphone begging people to come to games.

Nine years later, the Fertitta Center just set an attendance record for the third straight game and fans are waiting in a long line just to get a picture with the man who turned UH basketball around.

“This is what it’s supposed to look like,” Sampson said as the top-ranked Cougars celebrated their fourth American Athletic Conference regular-season title in five years after the win over Wichita State on Thursday night. “This was always part of the vision.”

Arriving at UH in 2014, the state of the men’s basketball program was clear as could be to Sampson.

The facilities were outdated. The care from the University’s administration was lacking. The fan base was few.

Sampson saw only one thing the men’s basketball program was good at.

“We didn’t spend money. We didn’t invest,” Sampson said. “All we were pretty good at was firing coaches.”

Even with being the new guy on the job, Sampson did not hold back his displeasure from the UH administration. 

Instead, he pointed out all the ways the University had failed to support its men’s basketball program.

“I got a little pissed off when I saw how bad it was,” Sampson said. “I realized how badly this school needed me and that I needed them too. I needed something to fix. I needed something to put my teeth on.”

Bringing UH basketball back to relevancy would be tough, but it was something Sampson was committed to seeing through.

Churning away each day, Sampson pressed the UH administration to raise money and build new facilities while he and his staff recruited the type of players to lay the foundation for what they hoped the program would become.

Sampson knew he would make some people angry, but he didn’t care. The now 67-year-old coach was going to do it his way.

“Those were some hard days,” Sampson said. “I’m sure a lot of people weren’t real happy with me, but my thought process is they’d get over it.”

Get over it they have.

A $60 million renovation turning what was once Hoffeinz Pavilion into the current Fertitta Center has reignited the UH fan base, transforming game days, which used to provide little excitement for the few fans that were in attendance, into an explosion of energy that makes for one of the best home court advantages in the sport

“He (Sampson) willed this into what this is,” said UH athletic director Chris Pezman. “This is a testament to him, his family, the assistants and the kids that he has recruited here to turn this into three attendance records three [games] in a row.”

No longer does the team have to worry about where it’s going to practice, receive treatment or watch film. The $25 million, 3-story Guy V. Lewis Development Center, which opened in 2016, has solved that issue.

Of course, winning — something the Cougars do on the regular under Sampson, racking up 171 wins and counting since the beginning of the 2017 season, the second most in the country behind only Gonzaga — helps too.

Cutting nets, which had been foreign to the Cougars ever since the Phi Slama Jama era ended in 1984, has now become the expectation at UH every March.

Four regular season conference championships, two AAC tournament titles and reaching the 2021 Final Four as the kings of Midwest Region have resulted in seven net cuttings at UH since the 2018-19 season.

To Sampson, each one is special and unique in its own way.

“I don’t take those things for granted,” Sampson said.

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