Tilman Fertitta always believed getting Dana Holgorsen would be a coup for the University of Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kelvin Sampson has one of the better coaching staffs in America. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
There is plenty to shout about with this UH football team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston athletic director Chris Pezman appreciates Kelvin Sampson and Dana Holgorsen's impact. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Clayton Tune has grown into the quarterback UH needs. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH coach Dana Holgorsen has always been an inventive play caller. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH's defensive line has been keeping the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
DeJon Jarreau and Kelvin Sampson's player-coach relationship was one of college basketball's best stories last season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alton McCaskill and Nathaniel Dell give UH plenty of playmaking. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Dana Holgorsen has been building to this breakout season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
UH receiver Nathaniel Dell is difficult to cover one on one. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Kelvin Sampson wrapped his son Kellen and daughter Lauren in the hug of all hugs after Houston made the Final Four. Kellen and Lauren could not stop crying tears of joy.
The University of Houston administration could have listened to the noise — and there is always noise swirling around the well paid coaches of big time college athletics. It could have decided that Dana Holgorsen’s 7-13 record in his first 20 games as the Cougars’ $20 million coach was cause for serious alarm and drastic actions — rather than the result of an attempted redshirt building 2019 and a severely COVID altered 2020.
“Yeah, there was a lot of noise,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman tells PaperCity. “But it’s dried up fast. Now everybody understands what we saw. They’re seeing it. Be patient. Honestly, you see all these coaches being let go — and obviously, I’m not in those situations — but it concerns.
“Because there’s an element of patience you need to have. And I like where we’re at.”
Patience is not a virtue recognized in major college athletics these days. In fact, many influential boosters, college presidents and athletic directors can seem more trigger happy than a toddler known for throwing temper tantrums. Ed Orgeron is out at LSU just two years after winning the national championship with a dominant 15-0 season. Dan Mullen got fired by Florida less than a year after making the SEC Championship Game — and losing a shootout to Alabama in it. Skip Helton only got two games at USC this season after playing in the Pac-12’s conference title game in 2020.
Meanwhile, now Notre Dame and Oklahoma are both looking for new coaches with Brian Kelly jumping to take over LSU (with a $100 million sweetener) and Lincoln Riley leaving Norman behind for USC. If the coaching carousel was an amusement park ride, it’d be banned in 49 states.
Then, there is the University of Houston, seemingly set for the long haul with Dana Holgorsen, the coach of an 11-1 team that will play the program’s biggest game since the 2015 Peach Bowl Saturday at No. 3 Cincinnati, and Kelvin Sampson, coming off a ground altering Final Four berth. Both winning at an elite level (Holgorsen for the first time as the Cougars coach, Sampson as he always does). Both happy to be at Houston’s future Power 5 school.
“We have two incredible coaches,” Pezman says. “One that’s going to be a Hall of Fame coach and one that’s working on becoming a Hall of Fame coach. It’s peace of mind. Because we’ve got two great leaders in our two primary programs, we’re very, very blessed. And very, very fortunate.
“And my job is to make sure I don’t screw that up.”
Pezman smiles as we talk in a hallway of the Fertitta Center, just one of the new or completely reimagined athletic facilities that UH now boasts. But the Houston AD is not joking.
It is no stretch to say that the longterm promise of Holgorsen and Sampson gives UH another recruiting edge in its two most high-profile sports. A high school star who commits to UH can be reasonably certain that Holgorsen and Sampson will be there to coach them throughout their time on Cullen Boulevard.
There are not many universities that can make that claim in football or men’s basketball, let alone both sports at the same time.
UH’s Commitment to Staying Power, Sampson & Holgorsen Style
After building to this, Pezman, UH president Renu Khator and UH Board of Regents chairman and billionaire money man Tilman Fertitta (the biggest Holgorsen believer all along) are committed to making sure it stays in place — and strengthens.
“If you look across the country, it’s a pretty crazy cycle with coaches being let go,” Pezman says. “We’ve got some coaches who want to be here. It doesn’t mean we can be complacent. We’ve got to be smart.
“But having two guys who want to be here — in the city of Houston, at the University of Houston — we’re not left planning ‘Oh, what are we doing now?’ ”
Instead of having to chase a new course of action every few years, UH can concentrate on what Kelvin Sampson and Dana Holgorsen need as their programs transition into the Big 12. That includes the soon-to-be-announced new football building (read the PaperCity‘s exclusive on that plan here) and more. Including increased compensation packages for key assistant coaches.
“We have two incredible coaches. One that’s going to be a Hall of Fame coach and one that’s working on becoming a Hall of Fame coach. It’s peace of mind. Because we’ve got two great leaders in our two primary programs, we’re very, very blessed.” — UH AD Chris Pezman
That does not mean there is not the potential for key personnel losses along the way. UH defensive mastermind Doug Belk will be courted by traditional football powers. A major program would be smart to try and lure UH basketball assistant Kellen Sampson away from his dad with a head coaching job while he is still the Cougars’ designated head coach in waiting. Quannas White is another Sampson assistant who will be running his own program someday.
Still, there is a sense of mission with both men that is built around helping Kelvin Sampson win a national championship at Houston. Kellen Sampson and Quannas White’s pride with working for Kelvin Sampson is very apparent. And real.
“He spent so much of his career kind of under the radar,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity when I ask about his dad. “There was always a qualifying statement next to all of his success. For so long at Oklahoma, ‘Yeah, but they hadn’t won a tournament game.’ Because it took them five years. Or ‘Yeah, but they play a style that nobody likes watching.’ ‘Yeah, but he’s got the Indiana stuff.’
“After a while, there’s one common denominator that’s him. In the last what — 23 years — we’ve had one losing season and that was our first year here. Guys who can really, really coach win wherever they go. There’s only two guys in the history of the game that have won at a pretty high level at Washington State. Coach and Coach (Tony) Bennett.
“There’s been a lot of really good coaches at Oklahoma, but there is a reason he’s the school’s all-time leader in win percentage. And went to 11 NCAA Tournaments in 12 years. A lot’s been written and said about what happened at Indiana, but we won. And we won at a high level. And obviously what we’ve done here.”
Holgorsen’s football program has a long way to go to reach the level of a Kelvin Sampson program — which just may be a completely unattainable bar. But this 11-1 season, playing a Top 4 team for a conference championship, looks like the start of something.
It is what Holgorsen and Pezman talked about at the coach’s house in their Christmas meetings last winter. Going over every aspect of the program in those meetings over the 2020 post bowl game holiday break, the foundation for this breakout season was reinforced.
“Gratifying,” Pezman says when I ask what it means to see Holgorsen winning. “Dana will be the first to tell you that we’re not a finished product. Being around the program every day, I knew what we were trying to do. . . We play defense. We play a style of offense that’s complimentary.
“The way he’s managed the games and the roster, now you see us at the end of the year and we’re fresher than other teams.”
This is a point Holgorsen reinforces, noting, “We’ll be healthy as we’ve been (against Cincinnati in the AAC Championship Game).” The coach planned for this reality with the way he used players throughout the year — and it’s worked out.
College Athletics Gone Mad
Pezman looks around the rest of major college athletics — even Texas Tech of all places, fired a winning football coach — and sees the instant gratification and Amazon-ation of the sports he loves. The AD is quick to say he is not in position to judge any one situation, but he sees an alarming whole.
“A lot of it, you’ve just got to tune it out,” Pezman says of all the noise. “You just got to trust the process and know that you got into this hole for a reason — and that you’ve got it. Anybody who’s been around the university, we all knew what we were doing (in football). There were no issues.
“But there’s moments when you’re like ‘Gosh bless, everybody just take a breath.’ There was a year we tried some things with redshirting — and to be honest you’re seeing some of that. We wouldn’t have some guys playing now available if we hadn’t done what we’ve done.
“So it’s. . . we’re on the right path.”
Right now, UH is one of only five universities in America to have both its football and men’s basketball programs ranked in the Top 25. It is easy to argue that only Alabama and Michigan, both endlessly resource and money rich, are set up better for the future than the University of Houston is among those elite five (Baylor and BYU complete the group). And Michigan is only there because Wolverine athletic director Warde Manuel refused to listen to all the powerful boosters pushing for Jim Harbaugh’s dismissal last offseason.
Ignoring the noise is not a strategy in itself. But it can be part of a larger vision like the one Dana Holgorsen laid out last winter, like the one Kelvin Sampson always has proven he has, stop after stop after stop.
“We’ve got some good things going,” Pezman says. “Stay the course.”
That qualifies as revolutionary thinking in the bizarro impatient land of big time college athletics today. For the University of Houston, it’s good to be different. To be steady. It just may set you far apart from the crowd.