Kelvin Sampson had been on the job only a couple of days in 2014 when a FedEx box showed up in his office at the University of Houston. Inside he found an aluminum ladder and a note written on University of Oklahoma letterhead. Not the usual congrats-on-the-new-gig coffee cake.
“I hope you’ll need to use this a lot during your journey as a Houston Cougar.”—Joe
OU athletics director Joe Castiglione knew the ladder would touch Sampson like almost nothing else could. He’d seen Sampson’s magic up close when the coach led the OU men’s basketball team to eleven NCAA tournament appearances in twelve seasons between 1994 and 2006. Among the ladder-climbing highlights were three straight Big 12 tournament championships and a 2002 trip to the Final Four.
“We always talked about how symbolic the ladder was when you cut the nets down,” Sampson told me. “Every one of those steps on that ladder represents someone’s support.”
That ladder and all its symbolism arrived as Sampson, then 58, was embarking on one of the most daunting challenges in college sports: resurrecting a UH program that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game in thirty years and had been rendered largely irrelevant by failure, apathy, and dreadful facilities.
Three decades removed from the days of Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Michael Young leading Phi Slama Jama to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA title game in 1983 and ’84, UH had resigned itself to cycling through coaches and hoping for a miracle without addressing the program’s larger problems. Besides, many UH fans had lost hope after the Southwest Conference’s 1996 breakup left the school without a major conference affiliation.
Look at them now. The Cougars, members of something called the American Athletic Conference, check every other major box: 82–15 over the last three seasons, two Sweet 16 appearances, an $80 million investment in facilities, and, perhaps most of all, a coach who has done precisely what he set out to do.
Houston’s Sweet 16 matchup against Syracuse on Saturday in Indianapolis is a byproduct of Sampson’s cajoling, arm-twisting, and pleading with fans, alumni, and the Houston business community to see UH for what it could be rather than what it had become. Ask him about this and prepare for a sales pitch that feels like a full-court press.
“Some people didn’t see this as a championship program,” he said. “I thought it was a gold mine. Are you kidding me? We’re in Houston, Texas, one of the greatest cities in the world.
“Look at what our city stands for: diversity, ambition, people that became successful by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. We’ve got oil and gas, technology, thirty Fortune 500 companies.”
This is the spiel Sampson has made hundreds of times to recruits, administrators, and alums. His most significant buy-in came from Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the UH System Board of Regents. In one of their first meetings, Fertitta asked the new coach: “Do you think you can win a championship?”
Fertitta made billions from his Landry’s Restaurants empire, purchased the Houston Rockets in 2017, and has vowed to put UH sports back on the map. Sampson was hoping to hear just that question.
“That got my blood going,” he said. “I laid out my vision. He believed in it, and three years later, wrote a $20 million check to put his name on the Fertitta Center (the rebuilt arena formerly known as Hofheinz Pavilion). Without him believing, we couldn’t get where we are.”
UH spent $60 million in all on the new arena and another $20 million on a state-of-the-art practice facility to impress recruits.
“Listen, I’m not about to take the credit for where we are,” Sampson said. “This happened because a lot of people believed we could do this. There was no guarantee this thing was going to get turned around.”
Sampson has done it by recruiting mostly overlooked high school prospects and shaping them into a group that reflects his defense-first coaching style. As former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said: “Kelvin is a defensive genius.”
Houston (26–3) has already had a close call in this year’s tournament, shooting 37 percent from the floor and rallying from nine down in the final five minutes to beat Rutgers 63–60 in the second round.
But the Cougars are one of just four teams ranked in stats guru Ken Pomeroy‘s top eleven in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Houston routinely gives significant minutes to nine players and is a tenacious rebounding team.
“His attention to detail is crazy,” said guard Quentin Grimes, a Kansas transfer and former five-star recruit. “He goes over everything multiple times. He’ll question you during practice. Coach knows how to get to players. It’s how hard you have to go all the time, no matter if it’s a shoot around or a real practice. That carries over with everything you do.”
There’s an obvious NBA influence on how the Cougars space the floor, fire up three-pointers, and prioritize speed and athleticism over size.
Grimes is averaging 18.1 points per game and shooting 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. Forward Justin Gorham is averaging 8.5 points and 8.6 rebounds, and point guard DeJon Jarreau played through a painful hip injury against Rutgers in a sort of mini–Willis Reed performance.
“He’s by far our most indispensable player,” Sampson said of Jarreau.
Sampson’s Cougars don’t overcomplicate the game: they crash the boards, they play smothering defense, and they move the ball on offense. When everything is working, Houston—like Baylor, Texas’s other Sweet 16 team—is capable of beating anyone.
“I love giving good players freedom,” Sampson said. “I always have. The thing I tell my best players is I’m going to hold you accountable for these things, but the flip side is I am not going to overcoach you.”
All this success began with Sampson’s decision to return to the college game rather than pursue an NBA head coaching position. In fact, he might very well have the Rockets job by now if he’d stayed on as one of the team’s assistant coaches. Instead, he recently signed a contract extension that pays him $3.1 million per year and will likely keep him at UH through at least 2027.
Looking back on the past seven years, Sampson may have needed UH as much as UH needed him. Banished from college basketball in 2008 for recruiting violations at OU and Indiana, Sampson remade himself during a stint in the Spurs front office and in six seasons on NBA coaching staffs with the Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks.
He’d been out of work one day when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich telephoned to offer a job as “observer, consultant, whatever title you want.” Years later, Sampson’s wife, Karen, would tell the Houston Chronicle: “In the darkest moment, somebody said ‘I want you.’”
His time with the Spurs led to assistant coaching gigs in Milwaukee and Houston. Sampson poured himself into his new life, and as Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post wrote in 2019: “He outworked his shame.” He filled legal pads with notes on game preparation, strategy, player relationships—anything that could help his teams win. He learned that for all the success he’d already had, there was still plenty he didn’t know.
“I said, `God, look at what you didn’t know,’” Sampson told Brewer. “I was learning. I was like an intern. I had done it one way, and we were good at it, but all of a sudden, there were sections to libraries being opened that I didn’t realize were there. I could feel myself growing and growing and growing.”
If some saw the University of Houston as a lost cause, Sampson believed it was a perfect next stop. “I wanted to invest in a program where I could fix something,” he said. “I needed to rebuild a program. I needed to go somewhere where they needed me.”
Sampson remembers interviewing for the position, and former UH athletics director Mack Rhoades bluntly laying out the sorry state of affairs. UH had been trying for years, without success, to raise money. Without a significant investment in new facilities, there was no clear path to success. “I said, ‘That’s all? We can get that. That can be built. Those things are attainable,’” Sampson said. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Mack never told me no after I shared the vision with him.”
Let’s push the pause button here to consider the violations that made Kelvin Sampson persona non grata in college basketball back in 2008. Yes, he made hundreds of impermissible recruiting phone calls at Oklahoma and Indiana. For those sins, he was fired by Indiana with a show-cause NCAA penalty that banned him from college basketball for five years.
Most of the rules he broke, however, are no longer NCAA violations. That should add some needed perspective to his career. His head coaching career began in 1981 at Montana Tech, where he drove the team bus, taped ankles, and swept the gym floor. Now, at 65, with 665 victories on his résumé, he’s two wins away from his second trip to the Final Four and another triumphant chapter in his basketball life.
Give Sampson five minutes to discuss the UH rebuild, and he’ll speak with pride about what he has done even as he repeats again and again that what he wants most is that climb up a ladder that ends with cutting down the net. Leading the Cougars to a national championship is what this is all about.
“It doesn’t take much to motivate me,” he said. “It doesn’t take much to activate this chip I have on my shoulder. You’re either with us or against us. If you want to be against us, we’re still going to do it anyway.”