Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson’s Wild Ejection Shows Why Houston’s Players Love Him So Much — By Sticking Up For Jamal Shead, UH’s Coach Makes a Statement

Sampson May Not Be Talking About It, But His Players Are Buzzing Over It — and Another W

BY // 02.07.24

If University of Houston football coach Willie Fritz had been timing how fast Kelvin Sampson sprint stalked right up the court to go after the officials, the Cougars might have a new 68-year-0ld gridiron recruit on this National Signing Day morning. For Sampson was moving. And bringing all the heat, clapping and throwing his fist in the air, screaming, letting one referee hear it and then pivoting on a dime like an in-his-prime Kevin McHale (with the best post moves in the game) to get in the face of another referee before the chap even knows what is headed his way.

“I didn’t even see him coming,” UH point guard Jamal Shead laughs. “I didn’t know he was out there until I heard the first whistle for the first tech.”

This is what happens when Kelvin Sampson feels like one of his players is being put in danger. There are Mama Bears who are less instinctive, less quick to roar. Sampson quickly picks up a second technical foul too, getting ejected for the first time in his 10 seasons and 329 games as UH’s head basketball coach. The ejection comes because Kelvin Sampson is sick of seeing extracurricular stuff from a physical Oklahoma State team go uncalled. Finally, watching Houston’s lifeline 6-foot-1 point guard Jamal Shead get shoved straight in the back by 6-foot-11, 245 pound Cowboys center Brandon Garrison with no whistle sends Sampson over the edge.

Sampson is all the way down the other end of the court, making that much-talked-about coaching box look like it’s drawn in crayon. No. 5 Houston will end up beating Oklahoma State 79-63 (with the final score only that close because of a 13-2 Cowboys run in the final four minutes). But that’s not what this is about. Sampson isn’t fighting for the game when he’s tossed with 15:07 remaining. He’s fighting for his players.

“I love when he’s hyped like that,” Shead says, answering a PaperCity question leaning against a back hallway in Fertitta Center. “He was doing it for me. He’s protecting me and he was emotional about it. And he tells us to show emotion. And this was the one night he showed emotion.

“It got him ejected. But I loved it.”

This ejection is a great example of why Kelvin Sampson’s players absolutely adore the relentlessly demanding, often-practice-screaming old school coach some of the bolder ones among them call Samps. If you only know the caricature of this coach, you miss the caring, do-anything-for-his-guys side of Sampson. Kelvin Sampson’s players learn this side. But everyone in America sees it on this Tuesday night in February. If they know what they’re looking at.

Sampson loses it because he has his players’ backs — and they know it.

“When your coach gets ejecting protecting one of your guys, that does something to you,” Shead says.

It might make a stronger team even stronger. This now 20-3 (7-3 Big 12) Houston team is a full game ahead of traditional Big 12 ruling power Kansas (6-4 Big 12) and a half game up on Iowa State and Baylor (both 6-3) in the standings with eight conference games remaining for the Coogs. Of course, after this one, no one wants to talk about that. Or Houston reaching at least 20 wins for the ninth straight season under Sampson. Or even Shead’s 23-point, four-assist, three-steal masterpiece of a game that sees the point guard finish with a plus 29 plus/minus rating in 29 minutes and get to the rim as easily as a river runs downstream.

Everyone wants to talk about Sampson’s ejection instead. Well. . . except Kelvin Sampson.

“I have no thoughts,” Sampson says when asked about the ejection. “If I say something to answer your question, they fine me $25,000. What part of $25,000 are you willing to pay? So don’t ask me silly questions. Because it’s a $25,000 fine if I tell the truth. So I can’t.”

It turns out that Kelvin Dale Sampson has never been fined for talking about the officiating despite coaching 1099 games as a college head coach. “No,” Sampson says when I ask if he’s ever been fined for questioning the officiating. “Because I’m smarter than the person asking the question.”

Still, on this one, you almost wish Sampson buddy Gregg Popovich was sitting over his shoulder, urging Houston’s coach to just take the fine. Popovich once got ejected for telling an official bluntly, “You’re a terrible referee” and the San Antonio Spurs coach never seems much concerned with the NBA’s wraith. On this night in college basketball. UH athletic director Chris Pezman attends Sampson’s postgame press conference (an unusual occurrence with Houston regular season basketball). But Pezman just stands on the side and watches the show.

“I love when he’s hyped like that. He was doing it for me. He’s protecting me and he was emotional about it. .  . It got him ejected. But I loved it.” — UH point guard Jamal Shead on Kelvin Sampson’s ejection

 

The Houston Cougars defeated the Oklahoma State Cowboys 79-63, behind Jamal Shead’s 23 points. Coach Kelvin Sampson was given to technical fouls and ejected from the game in the 2nd half at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson had to be held back as he got ejected. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kelvin Sampson never needs backup. On this night, it does help to have associate head coach Quannas White holding him back and steering him away from the various officials in the heat of the ejection moment. Even if Sampson seems rather annoyed by it in the moment. Moments later, UH director of sports performance Alan Bishop, a hulking figure who could play Jack Reacher’s stunt double, accompanies Kelvin Sampson on his way to the locker room. Kelvin’s wife Karen Sampson will catch up to them in the hallway, joining her husband in his referee-mandated rest-of-the-game purgatory.

This isn’t exactly how Kelvin Sampson expected to spend his Tuesday night, but a coach reminding his team just how much he cares isn’t exactly a bad thing.

“Nobody follows anybody that’s not in the trenches with them,” Sampson says, talking about leadership in general and not the ejection scenario. “Then you become a boss. There’s a big difference between a leader and a boss. A leader enables people to be the best version of themselves they can be. A boss just points at you and tells you what to do. I’ve never had a boss. And if I did, I didn’t listen to him.

“I listen to leaders. But I don’t listen to bosses.”

Kelvin Sampson is a leader, not a boss. So is Jamal Shead.

Sampson isn’t fighting for the game when he’s tossed with 15:07 remaining. He’s fighting for his players.

Kelvin Sampson, Getting Ejected and Leadership Moves

Sampson is one of the smartest voices in sports period, a should be Hall of Fame coach who can beat you coaching his and probably beat you coaching yours. Only Sampson only wants to coach his Houston team this season. You get the idea that Sampson still thinks this is a special group, no matter how many others freaked out over the loss at storied Kansas that knocked these Cougars out of first place for. . . all of two days.

This Oklahoma State runaway shows what this Top 5 Houston team can be when it pushes the pace (it’s 15-4 UH in fast break points in this one), using a defense that is as disruptive as a firecracker in a library (Shead and The Swipers rack up 11 steals and force 17 Oklahoma State turnovers) to get out in the open floor where good shots are easy to come by. With Houston running, invaluable swing guard Emanuel Sharp (16 points on  6 for 11 shooting) will find his shooting stroke and bench energizer Mylik Wilson will glide his way to 12 points in 21 minutes, hitting one over-the-shoulder shot without even looking at the basket.

 

But it all starts with Jamal Shead, who shakes off any Kansas doldrums of his own with a fury. Even John Wick doesn’t come out this determined to kick ass from the opening jump.

“They’re different in the sense of — they just don’t stop,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton says of what makes this particular Houston defense even more fearsome than a typical stifling Kelvin Sampson defense. “Like literally, five guys are constantly in motion (on defense). And you talk about that offensively a lot. But very few people, young players, college players, can really buy into constantly moving and being engaged every possession defensively.

“Jamal Shead’s play in transition to stop us from making a layup when we were kind of still in the game early, that’s a great example of that.”

Boynton says Shead “played like an All-American. A first team All-American to be clear. And the Player of the Year who was not going to be denied tonight on either end.” Sampson adds something even more profound, putting Shead in a UH point guard class of his own for the first time.

“Jamal’s the best leader we’ve ever had,” Sampson says.

The Houston Cougars defeated the Oklahoma State Cowboys 79-63, behind Jamal Shead’s 23 points. Coach Kelvin Sampson was given to technical fouls and ejected from the game in the 2nd half at the Fertitta Center
The Houston Cougars defeated the Oklahoma State Cowboys 79-63, behind Jamal Shead’s 23 points. Coach Kelvin Sampson was given to technical fouls and ejected from the game in the 2nd half at the Fertitta Center, February 6, 2024

That almost gets lost amid all the ejection talk. What none of Kelvin Sampson’s players miss is how he sticks up for them though. Just because you wear referee stripes does not mean Kelvin Sampson is going to let anything go. Certainly not if he thinks his players are being treated unfairly.

“When your coach gets ejecting protecting one of your guys, that does something to you.” — UH point guard Jamal Shead

Maybe 10 minutes after Sampson finishes his press conference, UH director of operations and basketball strategy Bobby Champagne (a former longtime coach) makes a stop in the media room. “Anybody want to ask me about the officiating?” Champagne volunteers out loud. “I’ll take the fine.”

No need. Kelvin Sampson took care of his players when it mattered most. In the heat of the battle. Sampson will make the long walk to the locker room to the Fertitta Center crowd chanting “Kel-vin Sampson! Kel-vin Sampson!” But his players want to shout for him too. Their Coach. Their Leader.

“There was just a little physical altercation,” Shead says. “And I just feel like it was going on the whole game. And he got a little fed up with it. And he approached it in his own way. And he got what he got.”

That’d be a most memorable ejection. And the continued undying support of his players. Coach Samps has got these UH players’ backs. And more importantly, they know it.

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