Culture / Sporting Life

The Chris Pezman UH Firing Fallout — Kelvin Sampson Needs to be the First Call in Houston’s Search For a New Athletic Director

No One Understands What UH Needs For the Future More Than Its Most Successful Miracle Maker Coach

BY // 06.21.24

Chris Pezman certainly did not help himself in a weird last year that saw him go after the University of Washington athletic director job and seemingly fixate on those Houston Oilers-style blue uniforms at a time when his University of Houston athletic department faced so many much more important issues. He definitely annoyed the most important figures at UH with some of his actions and alienated many more. PaperCity wrote about Pezman being on the clock last November after the Dana Holgorsen dismissal/football buyout, at a time when no one else discussed the real pressure UH’s AD found himself under.

Still, the timing of Pezman’s sudden dismissal is curious, no matter how Houston’s administration tries to spin it. It invites more questions than real answers. Especially when one considers that UH let Pezman lead a fan outreach event with major donors present just the night before his firing.

But no matter what the full story really is on this timing (and it’s not that a meeting was already set for Thursday), one thing needs to be immediately set in motion for the University of Houston to have any real chance at getting this next AD hire right. University of Houston president Renu Khator and billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta must lean on Kelvin Sampson to find the right athletic director to lead the school into the future.

No one on UH’s campus is more respected in the world of sports than Sampson. No one has better contacts. (Sampson even helped bring John Calipari and the University of Arkansas together this hiring season). No one knows what Houston needs going forward better than Sampson. No one knows what it takes to actually build a true national powerhouse program at the highest level like Sampson.

The next University of Houston athletic director should be someone that Kelvin Sampson strongly recommends. Someone who Kelvin Sampson believes in.

In fact, if Khator and Fertitta haven’t reached out to Sampson already for his guidance, they are already off to a bad start in this “national” search.

Kelvin Sampson sounded more like a strong athletic director with a real vision himself in a recent session with local reporters than Chris Pezman has in a good while.

“NIL by itself has changed the landscape of athletics more than anything that’s happened since I’ve been involved,” Sampson said then. “And that’s almost 44 years. . . It’s impacting people’s jobs. It’s impacting whether we keep sports or not keep sports. It’s created a tsunami of far-reaching affects.

“And I stand by what I said earlier. We have to evolve. I’m not going to jump on social media or talk radio and talk about it. I don’t have time for that silliness. We’d better dig in if we’re going to make it work. Because it’s not going to go away.

“. . . We’ve got to be tough enough to deal with this stuff. I have zero interest in complaining. That doesn’t solve anybody’s problems. All I care about is solutions. A village idiot can figure out the problem. You don’t have to be very smart to tell me what the problem is. . .

“Solution. What’s the solution? Let’s talk about how we’re going to fix this. Let’s talk about a path forward. Long term. What are we going to look like in five years from now? What’s this going to look like three years from now? That’s what I’d work on. I’d work on solutions.”

The Chris Pezman Divide

One of Chris Pezman’s real failings as Houston’s athletic director was his inability to completely connect with the most important program on the campus. Pezman tried to endlessly flatter Kelvin Sampson which is just about the last thing this coaching lifer is interested in. Sampson has no use for a lot of empty words, no matter how flowery they are. He is all about action and seeing people actually get done what they say they’re going to get done. This is what Kelvin Sampson demands of absolutely everyone on his own staff. It’s the excellence he’s always demanded without quarter.

“I have great respect for every college and university in this country. But I only love one. And that’s the University of Houston. I care about our university. I care about us going forward. I care about all our programs.” — UH basketball coach Kelvin Sampson

University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson cut down the net after winning the sweetest of Big 12 titles. Something Bob Huggins never expected to see. (@UHouston)
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson cut down the net after winning the sweetest of Big 12 titles. (@UHouston)

When Pezman bungled what should have been a no brainer contract extension for Sampson and his most important assistants a few years ago, turning it into a brief public spectacle, he probably put down the first bricks on the road to his eventual dismissal. Several beyond trustworthy sources close to the basketball program told me that Pezman did not tell the real story in his public comments at this time, that he misrepresented what had been offered and what had been done for the program. I certainly never looked at him the same way again, regarded anything the AD told me with more suspicion, quoted him less and less in stories.

Pezman could always find someone willing to spread his message though. He is charming and often a great quote. For several years, starting in 2018, I wrote more stories around interviews with Pezman than anyone. A few years ago, I would have told you he was a rising star AD. The follow through eventually stopped living up t0 his talk though. UH’s most important figures noticed too many things not getting done. Too many opportunities lost. Or never even seen.

Want a small example? As Kelvin Sampson’s UH basketball roared through a Big 12 championship season, emerging as a sure lock to be a No. 1 seed weeks before Selection Sunday, rather than seize on the excitement and let UH fans reserve NCAA Tournament tickets early and build a list of eager ticket seekers, Pezman’s athletic department marketers waited until after the bracket came out to even mention tickets for the first time. Within the basketball program, this did not go unnoticed — and it arguably helped keep the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament crowds from being as large as they could have been last March.

“What, did they think there was a chance we weren’t going to make the tournament?” someone within the basketball program pointedly joked to me at the time.

Kelvin Sampson, AD Speaker

Pezman seemed to lose his way in the last few years, to lean on too many of the new people he hired for often misguided advice and non-impact ideas. He did plenty of good in his run though, deserves praise for being a good public face as Houston secured Big 12 membership and transitioned into the league. He talked eloquently and passionately about the University of Houston’s growing alumni base and immense potential, almost always casting an optimistic tone until some of his more recent remarks on the impactful pain of that $14.8 million Holgorsen buyout. Some of Pezman’s football stadium improvement ideas are going to pay off in a major way in the coming years.

Yes, Chris Pezman was directly involved in the way-too-early Dana Holgorsen extension and unnecessary mammoth buyout (though Fertitta played a driving role). Yes, Pezman showed way too much blind loyalty to coaches in a number of underperforming sports (women’s basketball, baseball, softball, acting too late in women’s tennis) seemingly requiring little accountability as programs floundered. Yes, this is someone who still thought sports talk radio meant the world. . . in 2024, when the genre’s never been less significant.

But he is also a dedicated father (it is hard not to admire how Pezman brought his daughters to so many UH games), a former University of Houston football player whose love for the university could never be questioned. He is a guy who cared immensely who lost his job. That is never something to celebrate.

When you jettison someone in this type of position, you’d better make the next hire count. You’d better get it right — and do it in a classy manner. Leaning on Kelvin Sampson is the way the University of Houston can make that happen. One of the best coaches in college basketball history already thinks like an athletic director in many ways.

“What’s the plan here, man?” Sampson said last week. “Give me a plan. Let’s talk about our plan. And if you don’t have a plan then I’m going to figure out a plan.

“. . . I have great respect for every college and university in this country. But I only love one. And that’s the University of Houston. I care about our university. I care about us going forward. I care about all our programs. I care about Carl Lewis and the track program. I want them to be successful. I love (new football coach) Willie Fritz. Awesome dude. We’re so lucky to have him.

“But we’ve got to give him every resource to be successful.”

Kelvin Sampson sounds more like a strong athletic director with a real vision himself than Chris Pezman has in a good while.

University of Houston Cougars defeated the Texas A&M University Aggies during the Halal Guys Showcase in the Toyota Center
Billionaire believer Tilman Fertitta and UH president Renu Khator have plenty to talk about. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kelvin Sampson knows what it takes to be a great athletic director. Heck, it’s easy to imagine him being a hugely impactful AD himself if he ever wanted to get into that after he retires from his Hall of Fame worthy coaching career (which would be many UH fans somewhat farfetched fantasy). Sampson can help identify the type of athletic director candidates who can truly plot a bold future for the university he’s grown to love like no other.

He’d better be leaned on. First, last and foremost.

It’d better be in Kelvin Sampson we damn trust. Otherwise, the University of Houston really is lost in this new athletic wilderness.


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