Culture / Sporting Life

Sampson City — With Coaching Succession Plan Locked in Place, UH Basketball Becomes a Rare Center of Sports Stability

Father and Son Vision Has NFL Stars Paying Their Respects, Wins Piling Up and a Steady Drumbeat of Big Moments Building

BY // 02.11.20

Greg Ward Jr. fires the football into the upper reaches of the Fertitta Center easily, showing that the man who helped save the Philadelphia Eagles at wide receiver still possesses a quarterback’s arm. Across the arena, Tyus Bowser is settled into his seat, taking in the screaming crowd, the flying fast breaks, the type of atmosphere not seen around University of Houston basketball when he roamed campus.

“Man, I just love Houston,” says Bowser, who now chases quarterbacks as a key young player on the budding powerhouse Baltimore Ravens. “Being around this city. Being around here, around fellow teammates. It doesn’t get better.”

Funny, Kellen Sampson is thinking much the same thing as he sits on the UH bench, in his customary spot right next to his dad. Kellen Sampson just signed his new three year contract that gives him the head coach in waiting designation agreed upon when his dad re-upped for a six-year, $18-million deal after last season’s dominant 33-4 run.

The man who will succeed his dad as the head of the rolling UH basketball program in the not-so-super-distant future is pumped by everything playing out before his eyes. And everything happening behind the scenes.

“A lot of trust, a lot of faith throughout this whole process, their belief in us,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity of the new contract. “I’m grateful. Really motivated to work with my dad for the next five years — or however long my dad wants to be here — more than anything.

“Without any hesitation or thinking in the offseason — ‘Do I try to be networking?’ No holds barred, no pumping the brakes, 10,000 percent committed to coach in the best place in America to play college ball.”

That feeling is driven home 0n an Oscars Sunday that sees Ward Jr. and Bowser, two of the Houston football program’s current NFL players, joining New Orleans Saints all-world tailback Alvin Kamara and former NBA big man Marcus Camby in the Fertitta Center crowd. The shiny second-year, on-campus arena is packed with a sellout crowd of 7,135. Even if directions to parking for the XFL, which debuted on campus the day before, are still flashing on some of the electronic signs outside, this is a decidedly basketball nirvana.

The Cougars validate the interest with a 76-43 annihilation of a Wichita State team that was in the Top 25 and considered one of the favorites in the American Athletic Conference before Sampson’s squad downed them in their first meeting on January 18. The runaway moves UH (19-5, 9-2 AAC) up to No. 2o in this week’s national rankings. It also ups the program’s record to 52-9 over the last two seasons.

None of that is what really gets Kellen Sampson excited though. That comes in the pro players in the crowd, in the feeling in the building itself.

“It just kind of gets me excited about the fact we’re not just having a great year or a good team,” Kellen says. “None of those factors. We’ve got a great program.

“For those guys to want to spend their free time to come out and embrace us… The fact they want to spend their own time at our game is special.”

It is a mutual feeling. Bowser, a former high school basketball standout who practiced with (and occasionally even saw a little game action for) Sampson’s beyond-depth-challenged early UH teams after football season ended, is swept up in the hoops success of his college.

“Coach Sampson is doing great,” Bowser says. “Just knowing ,coming into my second year (at UH), the plan he had for this program… I knew it’d be going in the right direction.

“I’m not surprised at all.”

Greg Ward Jr. UH
Greg Ward Jr. is a major fan of UH basketball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Ward Jr. finds it easy to talk up University of Houston basketball in his NFL locker room. Having your university make the NCAA Tournament and show up in the Top 25 is no small currency — especially when the football program happens to be going through its own struggles.

“It’s good to be back,” Ward Jr. tells PaperCity from a front row Fertitta Center seat. “When I was here, the basketball program was getting better and better. Now, they’re on a high road. I expect greatness from them.”

With Ward Jr. and Bowser both playing on East Coast NFL teams a relatively simple drive apart, it’s easy for these two former Cougars to check in with each other. “Me and Greg being about an hour apart, with me being in Baltimore and him in Philly, I got the chance to come and talk to him,” Bowser says. “We had a joint practice in the preseason and we talked.

“You know, he’s always been good. Stay focused. Control what you can control. And when that time came, he took advantage of it.”

UH’s Football and Basketball Union

All universities with major college sports love to crow about the fraternity within their athletic departments. During the Wichita State annihilation, you can actually see it at the University of Houston — and it crosses over between sports.

“I’ve actually been seeing them since my first year,” Chris Harris Jr., the only senior in UH’s rotation, says of Ward Jr. and Bowser. “They’ve been coming back to games. Just happy to see the support.”

This current Houston team is something of a collective army in itself, one capable of blowing out a conference opponent by 33 points with five Cougars reaching double digits but none scoring more than 14 points. Nine players log at least 11 minutes against Wichita State.

This is how a real program rolls, coming at teams in waves rather than depending on solitary stars.

Sitting on the bench, right next to each other, a father and a son set the stage. Welcome to Sampson City, where the floor burns are real, the expectations are as sky high as a DeJon Jarreau alley-oop fling and everyone plays defense.

The son will tell you this definitely qualifies as living the dream.

“It’s a unique feeling,” Kellen Sampson says of his future head coach status. “Appreciate it. I’m grateful and humbled that Mrs. (Renu) Khator, Mr. (Chris) Pezman and Mr. (Tilman) Fertitta would think so highly of me, so highly of what we have going. Especially at a place like this.

“This is a job that a lot of people would covet.”

If all goes right, no one but a Sampson will hold that job for a long, long time to come. Few college basketball programs in America have that kind of security. Few can tout that type of certainty to recruits.

By locking up the 64-year-old basketball lifer that engineered this remarkable UH turnaround and the hot young assistant who knows his methods better than anyone, the University of Houston has secured its basketball future. This isn’t nepotism, it’s rare forward thinking.

Kellen Sampson would have been courted for jobs rebuilding programs elsewhere. Now, he has no cause to look elsewhere.

There may be no such thing as basketball heaven. Especially in the AAC. But the view here is pretty nice, flying football and all.

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