Men's Basketball Sports

Oklahoma trip a homecoming for UH basketball program

Kelvin Sampson (left) coached at Oklahoma from 1994 to 2006. Four members of the program, including his daughter Karen and son Kellen (right), went to or played under Kelvin at OU. | Sean Thomas/The Cougar

On Saturday, head coach Kelvin Sampson and the No. 1 Cougars will travel to Norman, Okla. to play the Oklahoma Sooners in the team’s penultimate road game and first game in March.

It’ll be a tough game for a Houston team that looks to further tighten its grip on a potential Big 12 regular season title against an equally tough opponent inside Lloyd Noble Arena. But for Sampson, it’ll be the first time back in the gym he coached in for 12 years and won four Big 12 titles.

“I probably grew more as a coach there than anywhere I’ve been,” Sampson said. “I learned a lot about coaching and life.”

Two decades before, Kelvin Sampson was hired in 2014 and built Houston into the bona fide, perenially-title-contending men’s basketball program that it is today, a then-38-year-old coach did the same thing in Norman.

The hires were made almost exactly 20 years apart — April 2, 2014, at UH and April 25, 1994, at OU — and have yielded similarly successful results.

In 12 years at OU, Sampson’s Sooners made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, including Final Four and Elite Eight berths in 2002 and 2003. They battled in a notoriously tough Big 12 conference against plenty of bitter rivals.

Sampson has led the Cougars to six conference titles, five straight tournaments, four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and consecutive Final Four and Elite Eights in 2021 and 2022. Currently, he is navigating UH through the gauntlet that is the Big 12 in his 10th year.

I’ve always had a deep appreciation for Oklahoma athletics,” Sampson said. “The Oklahoma-Oklahoma State rivalry is unlike anything I’ve ever been involved in, and we had a lot of success.”

Kelvin’s son Kellen and his daughter Lauren largely grew up in Norman, having been kids when their father took the job, and both eventually graduated from OU towards the end of his tenure. Kellen rarely missed his dad’s practices when he wasn’t playing basketball himself for middle and high school teams, eventually playing under his father for two years from 2004-06. Even after Kelvin and Lauren had long left Norman, Kellen returned in 2009 to spend two years as a graduate assistant.

“Everybody deserves a hometown. It was my hometown,” Kellen said. “I fell in love with basketball in that community… I didn’t just go to OU, I was an Oklahoman.”

When Kelvin came to Houston years later, his family wasn’t just along for the ride. This time, they’ve built the foundation with him.

Kellen joined Kelvin as an assistant coach and is after to become head coach once his father retires while Lauren heads the operations side of the program. Also, special assistant to the head coach Hollis Price — OU’s all-time winningest player — and associate head coach Quannas White headed the backcourt of OU’s Final Four and Elite Eight teams under Sampson in ’02 and ’03.

“It’s the best job I’ve ever had. And I’ve stated that as stand by it because I get to work with my kids,” Kelvin said. “Back then they used to think I was smart and they’d ask questions. Now they’re the boss and they try to tell me what to do.”

The combined experience of all those former Sooners has greatly informed how Houston was built when Kelvin arrived. Oklahoma served as a proof of concept that rebounding and toughness can bring massive success as pillars of a college basketball team. Roadblocks and wrong turns made in Norman were recognized and avoided in Houston, and crucial pieces such as the “50/50 Club,” the program’s fundraising branch, and night-before-game film sessions were inspired or taken from the time at OU.

“We didn’t make a lot of mistakes when we were putting infrastructure of this place in,” Kellen said. “There’s so many program-foundational things (from OU) that have translated to here and we’ve been able to inject additional fresh ideas and create this thing to what it is.”

Meanwhile, former players turned coaches like White have been able to use their experience playing for Kelvin to help recruit and guide players into fitting into a tough, rigid culture.

“Being able to help these guys navigate through some of the hard times. The experiences, things that I went through — it’s a huge reason why these guys come in and they buy in,” White said. “I’m able to relay those messages because of my experiences at Oklahoma with Coach.”

Saturday’s game will be Kelvin’s first time coaching in Norman since his departure in 2006. It will be a chance to revisit old friendships and acquaintances, remember those that have since passed and relive countless memories that are 20-plus years old. Still, Kelvin is adamant that the focus remains on the game itself.

“I still have so many dear friends in Oklahoma now. I look forward to seeing them. I’ve had some dear friends pass away,” Kelvin said. “So it’ll be some bittersweet memories, but it’s still a basketball game, and the focus will be on our kids on the court.”

For Price and White, it will also be a chance to wash away a bitter taste in their mouths that has lasted nearly 21 years.

Between 2001 and 2003, Price and White lost just two games at Lloyd Noble in his two seasons with the team, helping make the arena a hellscape for any Big 12 opponent. However, on the pair’s Senior Night on March 8, 2003, the Sooners lost a tough game to bitter-rival Texas, leaving their final memory at Lloyd Noble as one of defeat. On Saturday, Price and White can finally make things right in their old stomping grounds.

“It would be good to get that win,” Price said. “That can be the closing of that chapter — that I finally got another win in Lloyd Noble.”

[email protected]

Leave a Comment