Culture / Sporting Life

Inside Kelvin and Karen Sampson’s Incredible 43-Year Marriage, Their Dedication to Pembroke and the National Championship Chase at Houston

With UH's Season Opener Looming, Changing Lives Remains the Real Driving Goal

BY // 11.04.23

Karen Sampson is clear when asked if she and her husband, University of Houston basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, decided to go to college at UNC Pembroke (then known as Pembroke State) together. “I wasn’t going where he was going,” Karen Sampson tells PaperCity. “He kind of came where I went. He followed me.”

That is a decision that worked out tremendously, and continues to pay dividends, for all the parties involved. Including the now Division II school with more than 7,000 students.

For both Karen and Kelvin Sampson continue to do everything they can for Pembroke. UH played its lone exhibition game this fall against Pembroke for that reason. And it’s more than just a game with the Sampsons holding a special reception for everyone from Pembroke who came after the 86-47 Houston win. Which includes several of Kelvin Sampson’s former college teammates.

As UH prepares for its season opener Monday night against Louisiana Monroe at the Fertitta Center, Sampson seems to be a world away from that North Carolina town with a full-time population of 2,812. He is the coach of a Top 10 national program, having secured a revised contract in the offseason that pays him nearly $5 million per season and rightfully places him among the 10 highest-paid coaches in college basketball.

In many ways, Kelvin Sampson is on top of the world. But Pembroke remains part of his soul. In fact, if you really want to know Houston’s program resurrecting coach, you need to understand why he and Karen remain so committed to Pembroke. How it helped shape them and how they continue to give back to it today.

“Kelvin could shoot the lights out,” Tony Dellinger, one of Sampson’s former Pembroke basketball teammates, says. “He could really shoot. We didn’t have the 3-point line back then, so before practice (Pembroke NAIA All-American) Tom Gardner and Kelvin would go out past where the 3-point line would be by a few steps.

“And they would shoot from out there. The rest of us? We couldn’t even think about it.”

Tony Dellinger thinks enough of Kelvin Sampson that he boarded an airplane for the first time in his life — in his late sixties — to be able to attend the exhibition game between Pembroke and UH.

Dellinger helps to organize a reunion of former Pembroke basketball players every year. Sampson took the time to send a video to the group last season. His impact on the university is hard to measure in just numbers. Tony Dellinger will tell you he sees it in so much more than the checks Kelvin Sampson will write unprompted to cover a party or help with a renovation.

“Our coaches believe the same thing as Kelvin,” Dellinger says. “You don’t play defense, you don’t rebound, you can sit right down there on the end (of the bench).”

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Sampson’s alma mater went 26-4 last season. A few days after playing the exhibition game against Houston, the Braves played one at Duke.

Of course by the time, the UNC Pembroke players arrived at Cameron Indoor Stadium, they’d already been royally spoiled with perks galore during their time in Houston. Including a top hotel and lavish meals. Karen Sampson, who is a member of UNC Pembroke’s board of trustees, made sure of that.

“She’s stressing me out,” UH basketball’s do-everything director of basketball operations Lauren Sampson says of the preparation demanded for the Pembroke visit. “Full on the pressure is like we’re preparing for another Senior Night. I had to, like in July, corner the marketing staff and be like, ‘We’ve got to get a plan.’

“It’s crazy.”

“This is our school,” Karen Sampson shoots back to her daughter in protest. “This is our hometown school. So I was excited.”

Kelvin Sampson UNC Pembroke
UH coach Kelvin Sampson played both baseball and basketball at UNC Pembroke.

Few realize the impact a school like Pembroke could have on the largely Native American community where Kelvin and Karen Sampson grew up. Pembroke was never just a school to them. Or their hometown.

“You know, I grew up in Pembroke and that university meant a lot to our community,” Kelvin Sampson tells PaperCity. “Most of the people in our community that graduated from college all went to Pembroke because they couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. Pembroke changed a lot of lives.

“I had an opportunity to go to other places to play ball, different sports. But my dad, he was the all-time leading scorer in the history of that school for a long time. . . Both my mom and dad both graduated from there. My sister graduated from there. My wife graduated from there.”

“Started dating when we were 16 and we’ve been married now for 43 years. A special place in heaven for coaches’ wives I’m telling you.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson on his wife Karen

Kelvin Sampson Stays Connected to Pembroke Amidst Loss

Sampson brought UNC Pembroke to Oklahoma and Indiana in his prior coaching stops and it’s now been two Pembroke visits to Houston during his time in the Third Ward. It is a way for Kelvin Sampson to stay connected to his past, to some of the people he’s loved the most.

“My sister passed away (last March) and my mom and dad passed away and Karen had a brother who passed away,” Sampson says. “So we don’t have a lot of family. But we do have a lot of friends. And we have a shared love for UNCP. It brings back memories when I see UNCP.”

Four of Sampson’s former Pembroke teammates showed up for the game at Fertitta Center, which shows you how connected the Sampsons have remained nearly five decades since their undergraduate days. “Four of the kids I played with,” Kelvin Sampson says. “I say kids. We’re all grandfathers now.”

Sampson chuckles. One of the things about getting older is you appreciate some things a little bit more. You’re not in such a rush to move onto to the next big thing, to speed ahead.

There will be a lot of talk about Kelvin Sampson’s quest to win a national championship the next few seasons. It is something so many want for the should be Hall of Fame coach, really the only thing potentially missing from a legendary resume.

Sampson himself brushes off the idea of a national title being the end all, though.

“If you think of the coaches that have never even been to a Final Four,” Sampson says when I ask him about the national title quest. “John Chaney from Temple. Gene Keady of Purdue. . . So if you’re basing your career on that, it’s pretty shallow. The impact that I’ve had on these kids’ lives and the impact they’ve had on my life, that’s what I’ll remember most.

“Not what I accomplished or didn’t accomplish. And that’s not coach speak. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. . . You got to get lucky. And be playing good at the right time. But you’ve got to get there. Getting there is the hard part. . . It’s not easy. Would you like to win one? Absolutely. And we do keep giving ourselves chances.

“It’s like Tiger Woods says. If you just get to Sunday on the back nine, you’ve got a chance. That’s all you ask for. To just have a chance.”

With Sampson’s UH team once again ranked in the nation’s Top 10 heading into this season and Monday’s opener, the old coach is giving himself another chance. These Cougars have one of the best point guards in America, probably the best defensive guard in the country, in Jamal Shead; a beyond natural scorer in Baylor transfer LJ Cryer; a fierce freshman who is as committed to rebounding as Olivia Rodrigo is to sticking out her tongue in JoJo Tugler; and maybe one of the deepest teams in the entire land.

“Kelvin could shoot the lights out. He could really shoot.” — Kelvin Sampson’s college teammate Tony Dellinger

The Power of a Coach’s Wife and Real Teamwork

Kelvin Sampson will tell you that none of that matters as much as impacting someone’s life. And mean it. After all, he began dating a girl in high school who is still changing his life today.

“Started dating when we were 16 and we’ve been married now for 43 years,” Kelvin Sampson tells PaperCity. “A special place in heaven for coaches’ wives I’m telling you. I think we’ve lived in. . . We got married in North Carolina and lived in an apartment (there) for about two months. North Carolina, Michigan, Montana, Washington, Oklahoma, Indiana, Texas.

“So we’ve lived full time in seven states. She’s either built or bought seven homes. And then we have two more homes in North Carolina presently. She’s been the straw that stirred the drink. Everybody knows about me and everything, but behind the scenes she’s the one who keeps this thing together.”

Karen Sampson had a big hug for her husband, University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, after he reached 700 wins. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Karen Sampson had a big hug for her husband, University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, after he reached 700 wins. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Karen Sampson is still keeping it together as Kelvin Sampson heads into his 38th season coaching college basketball. This couple is still supporting Pembroke too, still trying to lift others up. That’s why Sampson’s old college teammates have never lost touch.

“Having played for his dad who was a coach, I think the knowledge you bring in is greater than the other players,” Sampson’s former Pembroke teammate Tom Gardner tells PaperCity. “He knew the game so well. But he was a better baseball player than a basketball player.”

“But his love was basketball,” Karen Sampson interjects.

Love may not conquer all. But it sure can set up a lifetime of difference making.

For more of Chris Baldwin’s extensive, detailed and unique insider coverage of UH sports — the type of stories you cannot read absolutely anywhere else — bookmark this page. Follow Baldwin on Twitter here.

Catch up on more of PaperCity’s unmatched preseason coverage here:

LJ Cryer Brings a Hidden Edge to UH Basketball

Emanuel Sharp’s Obsessive Post Practice Shooting Routine Gives Houston Basketball an Early Edge

Jim Nantz to Do Spring Break With Kelvin Sampson 

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