Culture / Sporting Life

Fran Fraschilla On Kelvin Sampson’s Remarkable Grace and True Genius, and Why This Houston Team Will Be UH’s Best NCAA Tournament Team Yet

How Sampson Created a 25-Year-Plus Friendship Out One of His Worst NCAA Tournament Losses

BY // 01.12.24

Fran Fraschilla loves watching a Kelvin Sampson practice. Even though Fraschilla’s been an ESPN basketball analyst for more than 20 years and last patrolled a college sideline in 2002, once a coach, always a coach. And the coach in Fraschilla finds himself forever fascinated by seeing how one of the best coaches in the game does it.

Fraschilla is particularly interested in how Sampson gets things across to his University of Houston players.

“There’s always two or three quotes I write down that I say that’s genius,” Fraschilla tells PaperCity of listening to Sampson talk to, bark at and cajole his team.

In many ways, Sampson coaching his already nationally elite Top 10 UH program through its first season in the Big 12 makes for something of a fascinating case study. One that other coaches — and always coaches like Fran Fraschilla — are watching closely. One thing is certain with a 14-1 Houston team coming off its first loss of the season, heading into its second Big 12 road game at TCU on Saturday evening on ESPN. Fraschilla knows that Kelvin Sampson has a plan, a clear vision of what he needs to do to make sure Houston emerges from this conference of superpowers as the best version of itself.

As the true national championship contender that this team expects to be.

“He’s like a jockey,” Fraschilla says of Sampson. “He’s going to know in February when he’s got to cut back and save legs because of the physicality of the league. As long as they stay healthy, they should be primed to head into March on the up and up. ”

While some UH fans who’ve grown accustomed to nothing but complete dominance from Kelvin Sampson’s teams already seem rattled by the loss to Iowa State and have started direly predicting how many games this Houston team could drop in the 18-game Big 12 regular season, Fraschilla sees a much different reality. The coach who finally got Felipe Lopez and St. John’s to the NCAA Tournament in 1998, ending another Johnnies lull long before Rick Pitino arrived on campus, is certain this unforgiving Big 12 slate will make this Kelvin Sampson team that much tougher to beat in March.

Lions don’t get better by stalking hyenas after all. Lions get stronger by butting heads with other lions.

“The thing I’ve learned about the Big 12 is if you’re a coach that manages your team’s fatigue well, the Big 12 absolutely gets you ready for the NCAA Tournament,” Fraschilla tells PaperCity. “. . . More so than the American (Athletic Conference) did for Houston. If they stay healthy. . .”

It is no coincidence that two of college basketball’s last three national champions (Kansas in 2022 and Baylor in 2021) emerged from the hellacious fires of the Big 12, where six teams are currently ranked in the AP Top 25 and 10 in the Top 45 of the current NET rankings. Including Kelvin Sampson’s still No. 1 NET Cougars.

Playing what is essentially an NCAA Tournament-quality game every game from now until March provides a preparation that few other conferences can match. Arguably no other conferences. The SEC is next closest to the Big 12 with six teams in the NET Top 45.

“Every team in this conference has a great chance of getting into the tournament,” UH point guard Jamal Shead says. “Because we’re all so good and we all do what we need to do in the non-conference. Every game feels like an NCAA conference game.

“So it’s going to do nothing but help prepare us.”

Fraschilla Experiences the Grace In Losing of Kelvin Sampson

Fran Fraschilla is getting a close early look at that preparation come to life. He called Houston’s 57-53 loss to Iowa State in the snowbound confines of Hilton Coliseum and will be at the analyst mic again for Saturday’s 5 pm ESPN game at Schollmaier Arena. Those are just two of the four Houston games Fraschilla has this month.

So he made a special side trip to the Bayou City just to watch Kelvin Sampson’s team practice at home recently before heading to Austin to do a University of Texas game. Even though Fraschilla knew he’d see UH practice in Ames and Fort Worth the night before those games. Once a coach, always a coach.

Fran Fraschilla will always put in the preparation. You need to always do the work. That’s what good coaches do.

“The thing I’ve learned about the Big 12 is if you’re a coach that manages your team’s fatigue well, the Big 12 absolutely gets you ready for the NCAA Tournament.” — ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla

Fran Fraschilla, shown here in his Manhattan college days, upset Kelvin Sampson’s Oklahoma team in the NCAA Tournament.
Fran Fraschilla, shown here in his Manhattan college days, upset Kelvin Sampson’s Oklahoma team in the NCAA Tournament.

Fraschilla’s friendship with UH’s should be Hall of Fame Coach dates back more than 25 years now. Fraschilla traces it to one of the biggest moments of his coaching career and one of the more disappointing NCAA Tournament moments of Kelvin Sampson’s 40-plus-year run in basketball. That would be the 1995 NCAA Tournament game in which Fraschilla’s 13th seeded Manhattan team upset Sampson’s fourth seeded Oklahoma team in the first round.

The win meant plenty to Fraschilla, his future and the Manhattan program. But Fraschilla remains struck and touched by how Kelvin Sampson reacted to it. Rather than hold any type of grudge or ill feelings, Sampson invited Fraschilla in.

“Probably the best win of my career was Manhattan College over Oklahoma in 1995,” Fraschilla tells PaperCity. “But the beauty of that game is we became friends. All because Kelvin is the ultimate ball coach. He would recognize if somebody was doing a good job.

“And even today, he knows who’s really doing a good job around the country.”

Few things get by Kelvin Dale Sampson, even as he takes what he calls his “final lap” in college basketball at age 68. Without defining how many seasons this last lap will consist of.

Fraschilla has told Sampson that if he was young coach starting out given the chance to spend a year’s sabbatical with any basketball coach in America, he would chose Houston’s head coach. Without hesitation or any debate.

“He holds players accountable,” Fraschilla says of Sampson. “But his style still works. He’s tough, demanding. But the kids know he’s got their best interests at heart.

“. . . He’s new old school. He is old school in terms of the standards. In terms of he’s not going to let his best player or the last man on the team lower the standard any day in practice. So in that sense he’s probably the same way he was 25 years ago. But I also know he’s probably mellowed.”

You can see the somewhat new old school relationship Sampson has with his players in how many of them repeat the “Wins and loses turn into wisdom and learning” line he delivered to his team in their own media interviews this week. In the way so many of them call him “Coach Samps” these days, including a relative newcomer like Tempe transfer Damian Dunn.

“Probably the best win of my career was Manhattan College over Oklahoma in 1995. But the beauty of that game is we became friends. All because Kelvin is the ultimate ball coach.” — ESPN analyst and former coach Fran Fraschilla

In its first Big XII contest, the University of Houston Cougars beat the University of West Virginia Mountaineers at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston guard Damian Dunn needs to provide scoring punch off the bench. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

That Wisdom and Learning bit is the type of Kelvin Sampson saying that Fran Fraschilla loves to jolt down. Once a coach, always a coach. And coaches who’ve actually been in the battle know that true genius in the profession is often being able to simplify things for your players. To make them better everyday, sometimes without them even realizing it.

“The ultimate job of a coach is to get the most out of a player you absolutely can,” Fraschilla tells PaperCity. “And when you come here to Houston, you can know you’ll leave being the best player you can be.”

Just like Fraschilla is certain that this Houston squad will end Big 12 play as the most dangerous UH NCAA Tournament team yet.

“When the Big 12 is over and they go into March, nobody will want to play them,” Fraschilla says.

A coach always knows.

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