Culture / Sporting Life

Other Coaches Marvel Over Kelvin Sampson’s 17-2 UH Magic Act — Watching a Hall of Fame Master at the Height of His Powers

Absolutely Refusing to Give Up On a Season Has Yielded a Completely Different Special Team

BY // 01.23.22

Joe Dooley’s seen a lot of basketball. He recruited many star players to Kansas and was one of the lead assistants on the Jayhawks team that won the national championship in 2008. This hard-nosed Jersey guy is not wowed by much in the game he loves.

But he’s marveling over what University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson is doing this season, remaking a Top 10 team on the fly.

“I think what Coach did was brilliant,” Dooley says. “He went from a perimeter orientated team to playing through the post.”

That’s like taking a TV show built around the comedy of Danny McBride and changing it into one built around the powerful presence of Oscar Isaac. It’s almost a completely different language.

This middle of the season overhaul — done with UH reeling from the loss of its two most talented players in Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark — reached a new level with a 79-36 annihilation of Dooley’s East Carolina team Saturday. The Cougars aren’t just continuing to win without Sasser and Mark. Now, they’re completely destroying teams again.

Houston sports fans are getting to watch one of the greatest coaching clinics of all time. Up close. At least those smart enough to be paying attention.

While much of the Houston sports media fixates on the Texans’ near comical attempts to justify the notion of making a guy who’s never coached above the high school level their next head man, the new name of the ex Sugar Land Skeeters and even the Rockets’ rebuilding baby steps, Sampson is putting on a master class.

There is no real way this Houston team should be 17-2 and every bit worthy of its Top 10 national ranking. But it is.

And other coaches like Joe Dooley are certainly noticing as one of the great stories of this college basketball season almost quietly plays out in the Third Ward. To Dooley, it’s simple.

“(Sampson) should be in the Coach of the Year conversation,” East Carolina’s head man says. “And he should be in the Hall of Fame. Those are two things I definitely think.”

There is something of a slow drumbeat building for Kelvin Sampson’s somewhat overdue election into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. ESPN’s most important college basketball voice Jay Bilas told PaperCity early in the season that he feels Sampson should be — and will be — enshrined in Springfield. And Bilas has kept advocating for that on Twitter.

This complete makeover season is just the latest exhibit in what was already a Hall of Fame resume. When the last two presidents of the United States have been 70 and 78 years old on taking office, we should be well past ageism in this country. But plenty of older — and even not very old at all — people in regular jobs can tell you that’s not the case. And at least one reporter asked Kelvin Sampson about retirement before this season.

Retirement? This 66-year-old basketball lifer is at the height of his powers. What Kelvin Sampson has done this season is not Bill Belichick winning 11 games with Matt Cassel as his quarterback. It’s better.

After taking two gut punches that would have left many power programs grasping for air, Sampson and his assistants quickly pivoted to finding a completely new way. Now, by playing through UConn big man transfer Josh Carlton rather than relying on the guard orientated attack that powered Houston to a 111-24 record over the last four seasons, Sampson’s opened up the game for former third and fourth options turned primary players.

There is Kyler Edwards putting up 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists (without a single turnover) against East Carolina. Without Houston calling one offensive set for him.

“I don’t think we ran one play for Kyler,” Kelvin Sampson says.

Getting the ball inside to Carlton is part of this reconfigured UH team’s game plan — and the still rapidly improving big man puts up 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. But more than even the numbers, the 6-foot-11 Carlton and the 6-foot-8 Fabian White Jr. are real presences inside. Altering and messing with everything East Carolina wants to do on offense.

University of Houston Cougars defeated the East Carolina Pirates 79-36 Saturday, January 22, 2022 at the Fertitta Center. Kyler Edwards had 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
East Carolina often felt they were surrounded by Cougars. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

There are anti-mask “protestors” on airplane flights who are less disruptive than Carlton and White are to the Pirates’ plans. This is part of this remade Houston team too. These Cougars are missing a lot without Sasser and Mark, but nothing is preventing them from playing even better defense.

What Kelvin Sampson has done this season is not Bill Belichick winning 11 games with Matt Cassel as his quarterback. It’s better.

In fact. this new UH starting lineup of the 6-foot-11 Carlton, the 6-foot-8 White, the 6-foot-5 Taze Moore, the 6-foot-4 Edwards and the 6-foot-1 Jamal Shead is a potential terror for opposing teams. It’s all long arms, quick hands, fast leapers and heart-first scrapers coming at you. With fire in their eyes.

You wouldn’t want to go against these guys in a Squid Game either.

“We had to pick it up because Marcus (Sasser) led the team in steals,” Fabian White Jr. says when I ask about the retooled defense. “So we’re missing a big part of the defense with that. But we all just had to play harder and really come into bigger positions. And figure it out.”

Kelvin Sampson, The Fixer

Kelvin Sampson’s made a career of figuring it out, often taking over jobs that others didn’t want. Including this University of Houston one. To call this season his masterpiece overlooks what he’s pulled off at places like Washington State and Oklahoma. Sampson did not become a Hall of Fame worthy coach this season. He’s been one for a long time.

“He’s without a doubt a Hall of Fame coach,” UH assistant coach Quannas White tells PaperCity. “All the guys he developed. Every school he’s been at, he’s won. And the job he’s done here at Houston, I think that’s just the icing on the cake.

“Taking a program that used to be great and had kind of fallen off and then he built it back up. I think that speaks for itself.”

White played point guard for Sampson at Oklahoma and he’s coached under him for the last five seasons at Houston. He knows what it’s like to learn from Kelvin Sampson as a player and as a coach.

“He’s not just a Hall of Fame coach,” White says. “I think what makes him a Hall of Fame coach is he’s a Hall of Fame person. I think that’s a huge reason why he’s had so much success. He cares deeply for his kids.”

Part of caring for his guys is making sure no one gave up on this season. Even with Sasser and Mark out with injuries. Throwing up his hands and throwing away a season would mean giving up on guys like Fabian White Jr., Josh Carlton and Kyler Edwards. And Kelvin Sampson does not believe in giving up.

“He’s outworked work,” White says. “He still comes down here at 66 years old with the same intensity that he had when I played for him in 2002.

“. . . I look forward to the fire and intensity that comes out of him every day. That’s what gets me going. It’s the best job in the country (being a Sampson assistant).”

The job of beating this now 11-7 East Carolina team seems to be over before many in the Fertitta Center have even fully settled into their seats. It’s 23-2 in a flash, on the way to 32-4 and 41-11. Mice in a research lab are given more of a chance than the Pirates are on this Saturday evening.

But still, even with UH up 77-34 with less than five minutes remaining, Kelvin Sampson is up on the edge of the sideline, screaming at his guys to get in the right positions. To beat their guys to the spots.

University of Houston Cougars defeated the East Carolina Pirates 79-36 Saturday, January 22, 2022 at the Fertitta Center. Kyler Edwards had 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
Jamal Shead is becoming a point guard leader for this Houston team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

During practices, the University of Houston coaches have certain areas of the floor taped up, depending on the opponent and the scouting report. These marked spots are the places that Sampson does not want certain opposing players to get. These are spots that the Cougars had better get to first.

This is not just all about heart or hustle. Or even Kelvin Sampson’s favorite word — and guiding mantra — culture. UH’s defensive game plans are intricate and complex too. Few coaching staffs can dissect how to take apart an opposing offense — down to the smallest of details — better.

“They’re elite,” East Carolina coach Joe Dooley says when I ask how this current, remolded Houston team compares to the other Sampson teams he’s faced over the last several seasons. “They’ve been elite for about three or four years. And I think once you do that, you can plug in different names and keep going.”

As long as the guy stalking that sideline stays the same.

“He’s outworked work. He still comes down here at 66 years old with the same intensity that he had when I played for him in 2002.” — UH assistant Quannas White on Kelvin Sampson

Let the rest of the Houston sports world obsess over the looming specter of Josh McCown. Or try to come up with stats that show Jalen Green is improving (while conveniently ignoring the feats of Evan Mobley). There’s a reason CBS Sports wrote an entire article this week about how relatively little attention Sampson’s Houston program gets compared to other elite basketball powers.

If you’ve ever covered another Top 15 program, you get it. If you’ve only spent time in the Houston media echo chamber, you probably don’t. The Hall of Fame Coach doesn’t care either way.

Kelvin Sampson will just keep teaching his master class. It happens to be open to anyone willing to pay attention. Plenty of other coaches all across America certainly are.

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