Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson’s Handpicked New Point Guard, a Big Player Surprise, Alaska Tales & Karen Sampson’s Loving Impact — Behind the Scenes of UH’s Latest Program Win

The UH Alumni Awards Shine a Light On More Difference Makers

BY // 04.16.24

When Emanuel Sharp, Terrance Arceneaux and Ja’Vier Francis suddenly appeared from the wings of the Hobby Center, Karen and Kelvin Sampson found themselves completely caught off guard. The first couple of University of Houston basketball knew that the three players had dinner with an important transfer recruit on this night — one Milos Uzan of Oklahoma. So they never expected three of the Cougars’ top returning players to help honor them at the UH Alumni Awards in a fancy Hobby Center setting.

But there Sharp, Arceneaux and Francis are, introducing the Sampsons to a black-tie crowd of University of Houston supporters. Which just about melts Karen Sampson’s heart. The hug she gives Arceneaux  is so encompassing and heartfelt that she almost engulfs the 6-foot-5 forward. Sharp gets a noticeable kick out of this show of real emotion.

“We had no idea,” Karen Sampson tells PaperCity later. “We knew they were supposed to be at a dinner with a recruit.”

It turns out that these UH basketball standouts are pretty good at multitasking. Everyone in Kelvin Sampson’s program is. And Sharp, Arceneaux and Francis still made most of that dinner. And Uzan committed to Houston the next day. It is another big weekend for Houston basketball. Kelvin and — more importantly — Karen Sampson receive the Chair’s Award for non-alumni who have done “extraordinary” things for the University of Houston. While a program that is already returning four of the five starters from a 32-5 team next season lands the point guard starter it needs in Uzan.

The 6-foot-4 Uzan showed playmaking and flashes of both shooting (41 percent from three as a true freshman) and defensive skills (1.2 steals per game as a sophomore) at Oklahoma. But the biggest thing going for Uzan may be that Kelvin Sampson, a point guard guru, identified him as a worthy successor to Jamal Shead (no one’s replacing what Shead did for Houston) who can be developed into an elite floor leader.

“I know what I’m looking for in a point guard,” Kelvin Sampson says. “I’ve coached enough of them.”

Sampson’s been at this college basketball coaching thing for 35 seasons and counting now, winning 763 games. Every one of those with Karen Sampson supporting him. Which made this weekend extra significant for a Hall of Fame worthy coach.

“It’s about her being honored, not me. . . That’s the main thing for me,” Kelvin Sampson says. “Karen and I have been together since we were 16, 17 years old. She’s been the rock for us. . . Karen graduated from college when she was 20. She had a first grade teaching job.

“So she sacrificed her profession, her professional goals and dreams, to follow me around the country.”

Karen followed Kelvin Sampson to Butte, Montana — land of the minus 40 degree windchill. But this coach’s wife did draw the line at Anchorage, Alaska.

“The athletic director from the University of Anchorage called me,” Sampson says of a 1985 moment. “. . . And he said, ‘I don’t want to interview you. I just want to hire you. I want you to be our coach at Alaska Anchorage’. . . So I was all excited.

“I went home and said ‘Karen. Guess what? I got offered a good job today.’ She goes, ‘Great. Where?’ Alaska! She went ‘Alaska. Like Alaska, Alaska? Look, I followed you from North Carolina to Michigan. Michigan to Montana. Montana to Washington. We’re not going any further West. . . So no, we are not going to Alaska.’ So I said, ‘So that’s a hard no?’

“So I called the guy the next day and said that’s going to be a no go on the Alaska thing, but I appreciate the offer.”

And that is the story of how Alaska missed out on having one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history practicing his craft in the 49th state. This tale also displays the still playfully loving relationship Karen and Kelvin Sampson have after all these decades of marriage, Kelvin Sampson excitedly tells his wife, “I told him the Alaska story!” Which draws quite the look from Karen Sampson.

These two are a team, much like this elite Top 10 national program is a team. Kelvin Sampson is excited that his entire coaching staff — head coach in waiting Kellen Sampson, associate head coach Quannas White, assistant coach K.C. Beard and assistant Hollis Price — are returning right along with those four starters. Even with two of his assistants receiving head coaching job offers this offseason.

“I’m excited about next year,” Kelvin Sampson tells PaperCity. “If you’re planning for two or three years down the road in this business, you’re in the wrong business. I’m excited about our team next year. I’m excited our staff will be back together again.

“I was watching some of our guys work out today. Houston basketball is not going anywhere.”

University of Houston 69th Alumni Awards Ceremony & Gala honoring Kelvin and Karen Sampson, Mark Berman and Kenny Rogers, among others was held at the Hobby Center
University of Houston basketball players Ja’Vier Francis, Terrance Arceneaux and Emanuel Sharp surprised Kelvin and Karen Sampson at the UH Alumni Awards. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The UH Alumni Awards are a night where the overwhelming success of Sampson’s program is celebrated. Even fellow honoree Don Chaney, the former UH basketball great turned NBA player and head coach, marvels over it.

“You have a coach who’s just doing a superb job,” Chaney says of Sampson. “He won games that he shouldn’t have won. And that just tells you how good he is as a coach. Sometimes you count him out and he’s right there to win games.

“I’ve learned to admire him over the years. Not just on the court. But also his relationship with his players. He loves his players. His players love him. But he really cares about his players. And I love that.”

“I’m excited about next year. If you’re planning for two or three years down the road in this business, you’re in the wrong business. I’m excited about our team next year. I’m excited our staff will be back together again.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson

UH Distinguished Alumni and Kelvin Sampson’s Future

The University of Houston love goes all around on this awards night. Chaney, U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett (UH Class of 1988), State Senator Carol Alvarado (UH class of 1992) and longtime Fox 26 anchor Mark Berman (UH class of 1978) all receive the Distinguished Alumni Award, one of the university’s highest honors that less than 200 people have been given since 1949. That’s less than 200 of the 310,000 alums who have come through UH over the decades.

Berman is introduced by Reid Gettys, the assist man of the Phi Slama Jama basketball era, and Case Keenum, the quarterback of the. . . well, Case Keenum football era, in hilarious fashion. Keenum feigns like he thinks he’s there to introduce John McClain, the legendary Houston football writer and radio regular, and mispronounces Berman’s name as “Beerman.” It’s a fitting tribute to a guy who also took what he did seriously but never took himself too seriously. Berman never made the story about him.

But this one was.

“When I got the call, I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Berman tells PaperCity. “These are not the kind of things you think about. But what hit me was — in September, it was the 50th anniversary of my first class at UH. So 50 years ago I was here as a student. Out of Hempstead, Texas. Graduating class of 50. My first class (at UH) was 500 kids.

“Now I’m here 50 years later, being honored by this amazing award if you will.”

Another touching moment happens when Mike Pede, the associate vice president of alumni relations who makes so much of this showcase UH night happen, comes out in Kenny Rogers’ leather jacket to honor the country music legend who attended the University of Houston with the Posthumous Distinguished Alumni Award. Pede cannot help but tear up a little as he talks about one of his personal heroes and drapes the distinguished alumni medal around the neck of Rogers’ uncle.

Natara Holloway Branch (Rising Star for Achievement Award), Kaitlyn Palividas (Billie Schneider Outstanding Volunteer Award), Charles D. Dorn (Distinguished Service Award) and the always energetic Katina Jackson (Distinguished Service Award) round out the award winners. Jackson, who it is hard to imagine anyone who’s been around UH athletics not knowing, even has her own band of fans wearing T-shirts with her face on them at the gala.

It’s that kind of feel-good event, one which fits the shining beacon of University of Houston athletics — Kelvin Sampson’s basketball program that is forever on the rise. Even as it continues to make history — and changes things up by returning four starters after so many seasons of having to replace three or four starters.

“That makes it nice,” Karen Sampson says. “It really does. We’re excited for Jamal (Shead’s) next chapter (in the NBA) obviously. Those other kids are great kids. I’m glad to be able to keep seeing them. I really am.”

“You know, I was 58 when they hired me (at Houston). Some people would say that might be too old. But I’m still a young man. I’ve got enough fire and vinegar in me.” — Kelvin Sampson

University of Houston 69th Alumni Awards Ceremony & Gala honoring Kelvin and Karen Sampson, Mark Berman and Kenny Rogers, among others was held at the Hobby Center
Reid Gettys and Case Keenum introduced Mark Berman to great comedic effect at the UH Alumni Awards. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Sometimes those kids will surprise you. Like Emanuel Sharp, Terrance Arceneaux and Ja’Vier Francis suddenly appearing to honor the coach and program mom they love.

“I treat our players like I would have wanted Kelvin and Lauren to be treated if they had gone away to college,” Karen Sampson says. “And I have taken that attitude from the very beginning.”

This is part of why Karen and Kelvin Sampson both fittingly receive the Chair’s Award. This UH basketball program is not close to what it is without Karen Sampson’s contributions. No one realizes this more than the man with those 763 wins. And the Sampsons want to keep doing this basketball thing together for at least a little while longer.

“As the years go and you get older, you realize that this is really a young man’s sport,” the 68-year-old Kelvin Sampson tells PaperCity. “You know, I was 58 when they hired me (at Houston). Some people would say that might be too old. But I’m still a young man. I’ve got enough fire and vinegar in me.

“I never think about my age until somebody mentions it really.”

Kelvin Sampson and his UH program certainly aren’t slowing down. A new award. A new handpicked Sampson point guard. Players surprising him in the best way possible. This is how University of Houston’s basketball program just keeps rolling along.