Culture / Sporting Life

How Kelvin Sampson Convinced Jim Nantz Houston Can Win a National Championship, Coached With an IV In His Arm and Taught Jamal Shead What Toughness Is

With Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead Both Fighting Injuries and UH Facing an NCAA Tournament Road Game, This Coach's Ability to Make Others Believe Is More Important Than Ever

BY // 03.18.23

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Just a few months after he took the University of Houston basketball job, Kelvin Sampson made a point of going over to TDECU Stadium for the naming dedication of the football press box. Houston’s press box is named the Doris Nantz Press Box in honor of the mom of Jim Nantz, the proud UH alum who is the voice of so many of sports’ biggest moments. Nantz sensed that Sampson wanted to talk to him on that day. To connect.

And boy, did Kelvin Sampson ever do that.

“He came up to me — and remember our program was in mothballs at this point  — and he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Jim, we can win a national championship here,’ ” Nantz says. ” ‘And I know how much this would mean to you. We can win a national championship here. And I know that would mean a lot to you.

” ‘And mark my words, we can do this. We can win a national championship at Houston.’ He said it with such conviction and he looked me right in the eye.”

Remember, Kelvin Sampson hadn’t even coached a game at the University of Houston yet at this point. He did know by then how horrible the UH facilities had gotten — and how much work needed to be done. But before any of that started, Sampson convinced Nantz, one of the most important UH alumni, that his vision reached much higher than anyone imagined. And that he wasn’t going to let anyone, or anything, deny that plan.

“I was almost moved to tears,” Nantz says recalling that encounter as the No. 1 seed Houston Cougars practiced in front of him at this NCAA Tournament site in Birmingham. “It was already an emotional day. Unbelievable. I thought, it was so powerful. I was speechless.”

If you know Jim Nantz at all, one of the real true gentlemen in sports, he’s almost never speechless. Nantz could get a Sentinelese tribesman living on the Indian Ocean, with no contact with the outside world, to become his best friend in an afternoon. But Kelvin Sampson knocked Nantz back with the strength of his vision on that day, before he ever coached a game at Houston.

If you are wondering how Sampson convinced his injured, beaten up and now largely doubted 33-3 team that it could win a defacto NCAA Tournament road game in Birmingham against Auburn, you might want to go back to that 2014 day when Sampson won over Nantz with one talk. While both All-American guard Marcus Sasser (groin) and lifeline point guard Jamal Shead (knee) say they are 100 percent playing with Houston two wins from the Final Four (heading into Friday’s Sweet 16 showdown with Miami in Kansas City on CBS Friday night), this is an anything but close to 100 percent Houston team. This is a group that may need some serious belief.

Enter Kelvin Sampson. The guy who coached several games at Oklahoma with an IV sticking in his arm.

” ‘Mark my words, we can do this. We can win a national championship at Houston.’ He said it with such conviction and he looked me right in the eye.” — Jim Nantz on Kelvin Sampson’s first message

This 67-year-old basketball lifer knows a little about showing up and going all out when you’re not feeling close t0 your best.

“The coaches were talking today about how at Oklahoma he coached with an IV under his suit,” Shead says with more than a little admiration. “Just hearing that, the dude’s tough. You really want to be tough too.”

The Kelvin Sampson IV Coaching Legend is very true. But Sampson himself dismisses it as just something that you do when I ask him about it on the eve of the Auburn game.

“We had a game,” Sampson laughs when I ask him what made him determined to be on the sidelines no matter his health issues at the time. “We had a game.”

UH coach’s says it like it’s the only answer that even can be imagined. Here’s the scenario. Sampson had what was later diagnosed as severe late onset asthma, scary spells that would make even breathing difficult.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Sampson tells PaperCity. “I was going to the hospital. Sometimes, they would admit me and then I had to come back.”

When Kelvin Sampson says he had to come back, he means he would check himself out of the hospital to get to practice on time. Or to coach a game, sometimes with an IV still stuck in his arm, tucked under the suit jackets he wore then.

“I’d just go check myself back into the hospital (after those games or practices),” Sampson says matter of factly. “Spend the night. Get my levels back up.”

Of course, his players at the time thought Sampson was crazy. Their coach would never even tell them he had an IV in his arm, but word got around.

“I want to say this happened my sophomore year if I’m not mistaken,” UH assistant coach Hollis Price, who played for Sampson at Oklahoma, tells PaperCity. “I knew how tough he was. But that took it to a different level. Because he had some prewrap, he’d wrap the prewrap over the IV he had, and he coached the entire game.

“The same old coach that you see now. We had no idea until one time during a timeout I saw it and was like ‘What is that?’ Our trainer told me that Coach had gotten sick. But man, you would have never known with how hard he coached that game.”

That is one of the moments when Hollis Price realized that Kelvin Dale Sampson is a different cat, one he would follow anywhere.

“That right there let me know how far he’s willing to go to let his team succeed,” Price says.

The University of Houston basketball team, led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, faced the Northern Colorado Golden Bears in their 2022-2023 season opening game at the Fertitta Center
UH coach Kelvin Sampson saluted the Houston students after win No. 700, just like he has for every home win at UH. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It turns out Kelvin Sampson is the real John Wayne type tough guy, only he’s a Native American which probably would have driven the racist actor John Wayne crazy.

“The coaches were talking today about how at Oklahoma he coached with an IV under his suit. Just hearing that, the dude’s tough. You really want to be tough too.” — Jamal Shead on UH Coach Kelvin Sampson

Sampson is one coach who definitely does not ask more about his team than he does of himself. The idea that Kelvin Sampson put Marcus Sasser at risk in a first round NCAA Tournament game is largely absurd. This is the coach who held Sasser out of that Elite Eight game vs. Villanova last March out of concern for his player’s longterm health. Even though Sasser was medically cleared and pushing to play. Even though one or two Sasser 3-pointers likely would have meant back-to-back Final Fours for Houston and Sampson.

This is a coach who does teach toughness though. Jamal Shead hasn’t missed a practice all season — not a single one — because of one reason.

“I’m not really allowed to,” Shead says of missing a practice. “He doesn’t practice without his point guard. So I’ve been there consistently.”

Kelvin Sampson and The Real Meaning Of Toughness

Playing for Kelvin Sampson can change your view of what toughness truly is. Jeff Van Gundy, the former coach turned No. 1 NBA analyst, often says that availability is a skill as important as any other basketball skill. Sampson certainly drives that home to his players early.

“I think Coach Sampson has made me play through pain,” Shead says. “My first few practices, if I had a little knick or knack, I used to try and sit out. But he’d make me run for trying to sit out. Little stuff like that prepared me for moments like this.

“He says it all the time. Some people have a high tolerance for pain. Some people have a low tolerance for pain. He’s made me have a high tolerance for pain. I’m kind of used to playing through a little bit of injuries. Especially if it’s for your guys and you get your adrenalin going, you can get through a lot of stuff.”

Jamal Shead will play on a knee that sometimes barks at him, knowing he’ll have months to rest and recover in the offseason. Marcus Sasser will play through a nagging groin injury, knowing his entire college basketball career, and everything he came back to UH for, is one loss from ending. And Kelvin Sampson will try to give his battered, beaten and shaken No. 1 seed a mountain of belief going into this Saturday night for the Sweet 16.

Jim Nantz will tell you not to bet against that last one.

“Kelvin sometimes, he gets that look in his eye and he shakes his head like he’s telling you something he knows and he’s sharing it with you,” Nantz says. “And he wants to make sure that you have absorbed that message. That you’re hearing him loud and clear.

“It’s very powerful. Just to see it in his eyes.”

Kelvin Sampson has a way of making people believe no matter what the situation around him seems to say.

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