Sampson sells Khator on ambition
It took only 10 minutes for Kelvin Sampson to convince President and Chancellor Renu Khator that he was the right person for the job.
Though Sampson has a proven track record as a basketball coach, his 18 consecutive winning seasons and 11 trips to the NCAA tournament in 12 years isn’t what made him the right fit, Khator said.
She said she saw a coach who was contrite after NCAA violations at Oklahoma and Indiana derailed his career and a person with ambitions that matched those of the University.
“He said he regrets whatever happened. He said he’s hungry, has a fire in his belly. He wants to build the program,” Khator said. “He believes in the same goal that we have here, which is the pursuit of excellence. I could see in his eyes and through his body language that he means it, and he would just be the right fit for us.”
In turn, Khator sold Sampson on the UH experience and made him feel comfortable about leaving a job as an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets.
“Listening to Dr. Khator go on and on about all the great things that are happening in academia and in the University, and you get excited about it,” Sampson said. “You’re the basketball coach, but you’re a part of the University family. And I just want to be a part of the family.”
Now Sampson just has to convince the players who fill the Cougars’ roster to buy into his program, which is something he has experience with.
“The first thing I do with a young man is find out what his dreams and goals are. And those become my dreams and goals. … I gain their trust by being honest with them and getting them to understand the difference between playing hard and competing,” Sampson said.
Before becoming UH’s ninth head coach, he compiled a 500-270 record in 25 years with Indiana, Oklahoma, Washington State and Montana Tech.
Sampson’s teams have made 13 NCAA tournament appearances, including 11 in 12 years with the Sooners from 1994 to 2006. While at Oklahoma, Sampson led the team to 10 consecutive 20-win seasons, including an appearance in the 1999 Sweet 16, the 2002 Final Four and the Elite Eight in 2003.
Sampson wants UH to regain the national prominence it once enjoyed. However, the Cougars (17-16, 8-10) haven’t won an NCAA tournament game in 30 years, since legendary coach Guy V. Lewis patrolled the sideline.
“He spoke with us (Thursday) before this press conference, and he told us what his expectation for this season is. He told us we’ll run a fast-paced offense. He said he wants us to play great defense,” said senior forward Mikhail McLean.
Former coach James Dickey, who resigned in March for personal reasons, didn’t leave UH with an empty cupboard. The Cougars return their top five scorers from a talented squad that underachieved at times.
UH also has a closer connection to the city following Dickey’s tenure. After bringing in Houston-area five-star recruit Danuel House and four-star talent Danrad Knowles three years ago, the Cougars will welcome in Yates product J.C. Washington and Wesleyan Christian player JaQuel Richmond for 2014.
“We’ve built a foundation already, so we’re just going to continue to groom us and continue to get better,” McLean said.
Sampson’s six-year stint in the NBA could help the Cougars attract players who have professional hoop dreams. He served as an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks before joining the Houston Rockets’ staff in 2011.
Being hired at UH is Sampson’s return to college for the first time since 2008 after impermissible and excessive telephone calls and text messages led to a five-year show-cause penalty. A 2008 NCAA report that charged him with five major violations led him to leave Indiana before the end of his second season. The violations extended from his tenure at Oklahoma.
He vowed to run a clean program with his second chance.
“I made mistakes; I learned from my mistakes. I didn’t agree with all of the NCAA’s conclusions but accepted them and moved on, and I respect the NCAA as an institution,” Sampson said. “The head coach is responsible for his program. I will be responsible for the University of Houston basketball program, and compliance will be a high priority.”