Culture / Sporting Life

Inside Kelvin Sampson’s Coaching Master Class —UH’s Coach Has Never Lost His Underdog’s Chip and It’s Led to a Clinic in Beating Back Adversity

Kellen Sampson Believes This is His Dad's Greatest Coaching Season Ever — and He's Not Alone

BY // 03.18.22

PITTSBURGH — It started on Christmas night, just two shorts days after those inside the University of Houston basketball program found out that Marcus Sasser, the team’s best player, was down and out for the foreseeable future with a broken foot. The Cougars’ first practice back — the first time they were together as an entire team since their season suffered a basketball natural disaster — hardly seemed festive. Then, Kelvin Sampson started telling his players how the Cougars would still win their league.

“From that moment, they were convinced we could win the league,” UH assistant Kellen Sampson says. “And his ability to handle this shows his greatness. I said something to my wife. I said, ‘You know, He’s still the head coach at Montana Tech.’

“Somewhere in his soul, he’s still the head coach at Montana Tech. And he loved it. In some ways, doing it this way, I think it rejuvenated him. I think it charged him up.”

Kelvin Sampson’s won 696 games as a college coach. He’s been to two Final Fours, three Elite Eights and five Sweet 16s. But he’s never taken a team into the NCAA Tournament quite like this particular Houston team. The Cougars lost both Sasser and Tramon Mark, arguably their two most talented players, and they’re still 29-5 and double champions of the American Athletic Conference (both regular season and tournament) heading into a Friday night Big Dance date with 12th seed UAB.

Sampson has somehow remade a talent robbed, depth challenged UH team into a squad that’s shown dominance. To Kellen Sampson, his dad has never been more in his element.

“I think the most uncomfortable feeling he can have if he’s the favorite.” Kellen Sampson says, shaking his head. “He is so comfortable coaching as an underdog. So comfortable with coaching with a chip on his shoulder. And this gave him that chip.”

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Maybe no one should be surprised. After all, Kelvin Sampson is a coach who was never given anything to start and then had to claw his way all the way back to where he’d already fought to get to after being saddled with an NCAA show-cause penalty for making extra phone calls to recruits, a sanction that looks ridiculous (and down right misguided and almost vindictive from the overlords of college sports) in retrospect. Especially considering what Sampson got leveled for is no longer against the rules. But this coaching lifer still fought back — and got back to the mountaintop. It’s what he does.

It’s not like the true essence of Kelvin Sampson is not there for anyone to see in the UH coaching offices. Heck, it’s all over the walls.

“Just the fact that one of his favorite lines — and he’s got it plastered in our coaches’ offices — is ‘Never Lose Your Chip,’ ” Kellen Sampson says. “NLYC. Never Lose Your Chip.”

Kelvin Sampson Drives On

Kelvin Sampson is 66 years old. He can coach at the University of Houston for as long as he wants — and he can probably coach almost anywhere else in the country now if he really wanted to too (he doesn’t). What he’s done with this University of Houston program should erase any last misguided doubts about whether he belongs in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. This is a guy who could be taking it easy if he wanted to, sitting back and completely leaning on his staff.

But that’s not Kelvin Sampson. That’s not John W. “Ned” Sampson’s son. That’s not Kellen and Lauren Sampson’s dad. Instead, this basketball lifer of coach is already getting his game face on as his team goes through a barebones open public practice at an arena that usually hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins on a Thursday afternoon in relatively quiet Steel City.

“I think Coach Sampson’s attention to detail, his ability to break things down in practice. Different drills. To be able to rep it out so everybody understands is probably the thing that stands out to me the most.” — UH center Josh Carlton

No one needs to tell Kelvin Sampson that Houston could lose to this dangerous UAB team with one of the more dynamic players in America in Jordan “Jelly” Walker. With Kentucky and Iowa — two of the most explosive teams in America all season — both going down in the first round Thursday, everyone else should realize it too. But Sampson knows most probably won’t. It’s no stretch to say that Kentucky and Iowa losing represent the biggest NCAA Tournament upsets since Virginia got blown out by UMBC as a No. 1 seed in 2018.

That’s how this 2022 NCAA Tournament is already shaping up.

There are days you can go over to Kelvin Sampson and talk to him about almost anything — and he’ll spin you a story that easily runs 10 minutes long, full of details and priceless anecdotes. This pre-tournament eve is not one of those days,

“He’s The Weather,” is how Kellen Sampson puts it to describe his dad’s totalitary effect on this Houston program. “When players start to learn that and adjust to The Weather, they’re on their way. You’d better know what The Weather is that day.”

University of Houston Cougars defeated the Wichita State Shockers Saturday January 8, 2022 at the Fertitta Center.
If you’re Kelvin Sampson’s point guard, you’re going to get plenty of teaching moments. Jamal Shead is learning as he goes. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Now, Kelvin Sampson is bringing his chip to the NCAA Tournament with the ultimate chip team. This UH starting lineup of Jamal Shead, Kyler Edwards, Taze Moore, Fabian White Jr. and Josh Carlton is nobody’s idea of a super team. Except their own.

Which fits a coach who’s always made his own way.

“I’ve just always believed in having a chip on your shoulder,” Kelvin Sampson says. “I never forget where I came from. Where I grew up. How I grew up. I think those experiences should stay with you. And then as you have success, just stay grounded.

“My dad was the greatest common sense guy I’ve ever been around. He was just real solid in everything he said — and the way he talked. He would say when you win games, you always give the credit to the players. When you lose games, you always take the blame.

“That’s something that always stuck with me. And I’ve tried to do that.”

“Somewhere in his soul, he’s still the head coach at Montana Tech. And he loved it. In some ways, doing it this way, I think it rejuvenated him. I think it charged him up.” — UH assistant Kellen Sampson on his dad’s response to losing Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark to injuries.

When you win games at nowhere Montana Tech (three straight 22 win seasons) and at Washington State (two 20 win seasons and an NCAA Tournament berth at a place where no one wins) to start out your career, you know things are not going to come easy. Kelvin Sampson earned that chip he still carries by winning at places where almost nobody wanted to coach.

“How I got into the profession,” Kelvin Sampson says. “I was a very below average NAIA basketball player. Guys like that tend to have chips on their shoulders. You move up and when I finally became a head coach in the Pac-10, I was 31 years old.

“You look over there and there’s Lute Olson (at Arizona), Mike Montgomery (at Stanford), Don Monson (at Oregon), Ralph Miller (at Oregon State), George Raveling (at USC). You know, I better have a chip on my shoulder. Because I wasn’t nearly as good as those guys.”

Those legendary coaches have never had a season quite like the one Kelvin Sampson is currently orchestrating at Houston, though. Not turning these kind of injuries into 29 wins (and counting). Even if UH’s head man would never ever say that himself.

Santa’s Wonderland and Watering The Chip

Kellen Sampson will always remember where he was when he found out about Marcus Sasser’s broken foot. He was taking his wife and two young kids to Santa’s Wonderland near College Station when his dad called. “What’s the worst news that I could tell you? Team related,” Kelvin Sampson asked his son and lead assistant.

“The first thing I thought is: ‘What happened to Marcus?’ ” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “. . . That was December 23, which put a little damper on Santa’s Workshop.”

When the remaining Houston players returned to practice on Christmas night, a different Kelvin Sampson awaited them.

“From that point, from the time of December 23 to December 25, he had already built this awesome chip on his shoulder,” Kellen says. “By Christmas night, the only thoughts he was entertaining were how do we win the league. Every conversation, every discussion, every idea was about winning the league.

“There was no woe is me, ‘How do we just make the (NCAA) Tournament, how do we’. . . He wasn’t entertaining any other idea or thought other than how do we win the league. It’s a master class in how to handle adversity as a head coach.”

When asked if he thinks this is the best coaching his dad has ever done — which is no small qualifier when it comes to Kelvin Sampson — Kellen Sampson does not hesitate.

“This is the best. This is just a master class,” Kellen says.

University of Houston Cougars basketball team clinched the American Athletic Conference crown with a win over Cincinnati, 71-53 at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson always brings a lot of intensity. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

These Houston players may not even realize they’re getting the best of a future Hall of Famer. But they understand it’s something special.

“I think Coach Sampson’s attention to detail, his ability to break things down in practice,” center Josh Carlton, who transferred in from UConn, says on tournament’s eve. “Different drills. To be able to rep it out so everybody understands is probably the thing that stands out to me the most.

“Really locking in on the details and to get everybody locked in.”

Kyler Edwards, the shooting guard who transferred in from Texas Tech, played for another elite coach in Chris Beard before arriving at Houston. But even Edwards sees something different in Kelvin Sampson.

“Coach has been around the game longer than we’ve been born,” Edwards says. “He knows everything about this game. And he just wants the best for his players.”

He’ll even show them how to build and carry a chip that can make anyone work harder. Kelvin Sampson’s Chip is still there, arguably more vital than ever this season. You just need to know where to look.

Sometimes son knows best.

“If there’s anybody that knows me, it would be him,” Kelvin Sampson says of his son, the third straight Sampson who is coaching basketball.

Kelvin Sampson is working his chip, getting it ready for another March with a team almost built around it.

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