Culture / Sporting Life

UH Working On Raises, Reworked Contracts for Kelvin Sampson, Coach In Waiting Kellen Sampson and Other Key Basketball Staffers

Inside the Plan to Keep Houston's Basketball Heaven Going — A PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 03.28.23

University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman is determined not to take basketball heaven for granted. Being ranked No. 1 in the entire nation f0r large stretches of the year, winning big season after season after season, watching the Fertitta Center transform into one of college basketball’s best atmospheres anywhere. . . Pezman and other university officials knows it all comes back to Kelvin Sampson. And they’re determined to keep their coach and their coach in waiting, Kelvin Sampson’s son and lead assistant Kellen Sampson, happy and aware of that appreciation.

Part of that plan includes increasing the salaries and reworking the contracts of Kelvin and Kellen Sampson and other key basketball personnel this offseason. While Kelvin Sampson is under a contract that could take him through the 2026-27 season and Kellen Sampson is signed through next season, Pezman and other key UH decision makers are determined to be proactive — and plan to sit down with the Sampsons.

To Pezman, that’s part of how a top athletic program shows love for a job beyond well done.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Pezman tells PaperCity. “Because Kelvin’s a prideful guy, he’s not the kind of guy where you walk in and say ‘Great job.’ Prove it, show it. We’ve got to continue to do that because of what he’s done for us.”

When Kelvin Sampson actually signed his six-year contract extension with UH in 2021, his $3 million plus annual salary ranked among the 18 highest in college basketball. But as new deals have been signed across the country at major college programs, Sampson’s current contract has dropped him well out of that Top 20 range among college coaches. In its latest annual analysis of college basketball coaching salaries, USA Today found that Kelvin Sampson’s $3.2 million salary ranked 3oth in the country for the 2022-23 season. Behind coaches such as Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel ($3.6 million), TCU’s Jamie Dixon ($3.5 million) and Louisville’s Kenny Payne ($3.49 million).

“We’ve got to step him back up,” Pezman says. “We’ll find a way to do that. That’s what I’ve been working on.”

UH is equally determined to keep Kellen Sampson around — and ready to step in as the new head coach whenever his 67-year-old dad decides to step away and retire.

“Kellen is our coach in waiting,” Pezman tells PaperCity. “And we have to be ready. He’s going to get other opportunities. And we have to be prepared to be proactive. And have a plan. It’s easy to think with Coach Sampson here, ‘Oh we’re fine.’

“But there’s a path here to keep this thing going. And Kellen is integral to that plan.”

That hinges on making sure Kellen Sampson feels just as appreciated financially — and otherwise. UH’s athletic director has no doubt that the younger Sampson is a future coaching star.

“What he’s been exposed to from birth,” Pezman says. “Growing up in a basketball family. You watch him work and coach, he’s got it. When the time comes he’ll be ready and we want to make sure it’s here.”

For his part, when I asked Kellen Sampson during this March run about his contract and Pezman’s desire to do more monetarily to keep him at Houston for the long term, he expressed gratitude for that support.

“I’ve always said this, it allows you to guilt free coach the University of Houston men’s basketball,” Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “I don’t feel like I have to solicit. This time of year when job openings are coming, I’ve never felt like I’ve had to look. Because of the commitment that’s been made. I’ve never felt like I’ve had to interview. Or get my name out there. Or really, really  track down leads.

“I’m a thousand percent full focused and invested on the University of Houston’s men’s basketball program.”

The relationship between the University of Houston and its head coach in waiting is built on a foundation of trust. The buyout in Kellen Sampson’s current contact is relatively low and would not serve as a barrier for another university looking to hire him as its head coach. Doing that is one way of building trust. The idea is that UH wants Kellen Sampson to want to stay at Houston — now and long into the future.

“What he’s been exposed to from birth. Growing up in a basketball family. You watch him work and coach, he’s got it. When the time comes he’ll be ready and we want to make sure it’s here.” — UH athletic director Chris Pezman on Kellen Sampson

University of Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson always brings a lot of intensity. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston assistant coach Kellen Sampson always brings a lot of intensity. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kelvin Sampson has revealed that both his son and UH assistant Quannas White have both turned down head coaching job offers during their time at Houston. Both Kellen Sampson and Quannas White could have made sure those offers became public if they had wanted.

Instead, they both seem as driven as ever to help Kelvin Sampson and Houston both win their first national championship. Pezman and the UH leadership is determined to keep Kelvin Sampson around for as long as he wants to keep coaching. Whether that’s for two more seasons, five more seasons or some other timeline.

“My job is to make this job as good for him as I possibly can,” Pezman tells PaperCity. “Let him know how important he is to me and us as I possibly can. There’s no one more important than him to us. Period. He’s done it. Period. Everything he gets, he’s earned and deserves.

“I’ll say this. Kelvin willed us to where we are. And I don’t say that lightly. Because it was. . . You come into something and there’s no momentum. It’s hard. He willed this into being.”

This is four Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and a Final Four in the last four NCAA Tournaments played (COVID cancelled the 2020 Big Dance). This is a Fertitta Center that sells out every game, with the on-campus arena turning into one of the hottest venues in all of Houston, a place where big names want to see and be seen. This is UH being the number one ranked team in America for three different stretches this season, getting mentioned on every sports radio station in the land, bringing a new level of spotlight and a consistent SportsCenter presence.

“The staff that (Sampson) has around him, the way we compensate them, the salary pool,” Pezman says. “All those things — the operational budget. All those things have to continue to grow. It’s not like you get into the Big 12 and say we made it.

“We have to continue to match what those other elite teams are doing. And grow into what they’re doing. Operational budgets have to continue to grow. Every line has to continue to grow. And it will. Everybody understands and respects the job that Coach and his staff have done.”

Sampson Program Commitment Means Better Travel, Revamped Facility

One of things that will see a bump is the way this UH basketball team travels. That means the 30 seat charter planes that Kelvin Sampson’s teams have been using will become larger planes, the better to accommodate a still growing program on the move.

“Coach, everything we can do to make his job better and make him want to coach as long as he wants to coach is my job,” Pezman tells PaperCity. “How we travel. We normally travel on a 30 seat plane. Great, you charter everywhere. Which is great. We didn’t do that four years ago. Three years ago we didn’t do that.

“But now our travel party’s grown because our staff’s bigger. Because that’s what an elite basketball program looks like and that’s what it needs to have. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

The renovation of the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility is another important step in setting up the future of UH’s shining light program. Pezman calls it a “$5.5 million locker room renovation” when we talk. The revamping of the six-year-old building — a lifetime in the arms race of major college athletics and trying to impress teenage recruits — will benefit both the men’s and women’s basketball programs at Houston.

“You’ve got to continue to just upgrade and keep it fresh because if they’re coming to Houston (for a visit), they’re going to Kentucky or to Duke,” Pezman says. “That’s the spectrum of schools we’re competing against.

“So we have to give our coaches and players every opportunity to be successful and compete against that.”

Lauren Sampson, UH’s do-everything director of basketball operations, is putting together the plans for the reimagined basketball facility.

“She had one idea and now she’s pivoted to another,” UH coach Kelvin Sampson says. “Think about that. In the past, I had to do all that. I had to design the locker room. Now, I don’t worry about it. Because if Lauren is in charge of something, I’m good. Because it’s going to be done. And it’s going to be done right.”

“I don’t feel like I have to solicit. This time of year when job openings are coming, I’ve never felt like I’ve had to look.” — UH assistant and Coaching in Waiting Kellen Sampson

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team opened their 2021-2022 season with an overtime victory over the HofstraPride, complete with the presentation of a banner commemorating their trip to last season’s Final Four, Tuesday night at the Fer
The 2021 Final Four is up in the Fertitta Center, a symbol of a special team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

University of Houston president Renu Khator, Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta and Pezman want to keep this great basketball momentum going. Pezman talked to me about the salary increase plan before the NCAA Tournament even started in a long sit-down interview, but asked that it not be made public with the Sampson’s team still playing to not create a distraction. If you think a loss to Miami in the Sweet 16 gives anyone involved pause, you know nothing about college basketball, the fickleness of March and the rarefied air Kelvin Sampson’s program occupies on the national scene. This is no impulse move.

It’s been in the works behind the scenes for months with a sit down with the Sampsons always planned for after the season.

Now, the time for more upgrades and a renewed commitment — to show appreciation — is here.

This is the first in a series of stories on the University of Houston athletic department, the future of sports at the school and the historic transition to the Big 12. Come back to PaperCity for more stories in the weeks to come. The basketball season is over, but things are just heating up in many ways.

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