Culture / Sporting Life

The Coach’s Wife — Karen Sampson on the Secret to UH Coach Kelvin Sampson Always Finding a Way

This Houston Program is a True Family Affair With a Have Not Attitude

BY // 03.26.22

SAN ANTONIO — Karen Sampson knows that sometimes she has to let Kelvin Sampson go into his cave. This is when the University of Houston basketball coach, Karen’s husband of 42 years, retreats into himself and figures out how to do things. Like how to keep winning big without Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, two of the most talented guards in America.

“You have to let them go into a cave,” Karen Sampson says. “You have to let him figure it out. Then all of a sudden he goes: ‘I got it. I know what we’re going to do.’ ”

Karen Sampson remembers Kelvin telling her that again before UH’s 72-60 takedown of No. 1 seed Arizona here in San Antonio. Sampson would head to the AT&T Center as confident as Karen has seen him all season.

The result? Sampson has UH in the Elite Eight for the second straight season, one win from both the Final Four and his 700th career college coaching victory. To Karen Sampson, her husband doing it with a team that many gave up for dead, once Sasser and Mark went out, feels natural.

This is what Kelvin Sampson has been doing throughout his coaching career. The spotlight just happens to be much brighter now.

“We have always been — we started at have not,” Karen Sampson says when I ask her what enables Kelvin Sampson to figure seemingly impossible obstacles out. “We grew up. . . when you don’t have the best players. You don’t have the best facilities. You don’t have. . .

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“You’ve got to figure out a way to do it with. You’ve got to make your have not into a have. He’s always done that. At Montana Tech, everywhere we’ve gone, that’s what he’s done. So this is nothing new for him.

“This is in his DNA.”

This is one of the great stories in recent basketball times, Kelvin Sampson turning the loss of Sasser and Mark into a 32-5 team. He’s done it by highlighting a traditional center that UConn gave up in Josh Carlton.  By letting a fearless 19-year-old point guard (Jamal Shead) grow into the type of floor leader that can win it all in March. By leaning on the transfer that almost everyone wanted (Kyler Edwards) and the transfer that almost none of the major programs knew what to make of (Taze Moore).

“It’s incredible. It really is. . .,” Villanova coach Jay Wright says of Sampson remaking this Houston team on the fly. “I do know if you look at any team in the country and take the top two players off, none of them are going to the Final Four. Or getting to the final eight.

“To get his team playing for a Final Four is incredible. I can’t say I’m surprised. I think he’s one of the best coaches in college basketball.

Karen Sampson isn’t surprised to see her guy turning have nots into haves. She’s been watching it for 40 years. In many ways, this Saturday night Elite Eight matchup with No. 2 seed Villanova, one of college basketball’s  traditional blue blood programs, offers both a look back and a look ahead at all there is still to come.

“This tournament at our age — which I’m not going to say — having it go back to our family, it’s euphoria,” Karen Sampson tells PaperCity. “It is special. Sometimes, you can take over a program and they’ve done things.

“To build this one out of clay again is special.”

This UH program is a true Sampson family affair with Kelvin as the head coach, son Kellen as the lead assistant/future head coach in waiting, Lauren Sampson as the do-everything director of basketball operations and Karen Sampson as the relentlessly optimistic heart centering everyone else.

But the Sampsons aren’t the only family story in this Sweet 16 for Houston.

“You’ve got to make your have not into a have. He’s always done that. At Montana Tech, everywhere we’ve gone, that’s what he’s done. So this is nothing new for him. This is in his DNA.” — Karen Sampson on her husband.

UH wing Taze Moore is determined to win and punch a ticket to the Final Four so his mom Kenya Sutherland can see him play on college basketball’s biggest stage. The NCAA does not help pay for the travel of student athletes’ families until the Final Four stage, making this especially significant for Moore. Though, Moore’s mom is able to make a surprise visit to see him play in the Elite Eight.

“I got to get my mom there,” Moore says. “I want her to see this — and be here with me. Just because that woman, she did everything for me. From practices, leaving work just to come see me. Leaving work just to come see me when I had a broken leg.

“Nobody wants to see their baby messed up. Nobody wants to see their baby boy, especially I’m the only child. . . Me being here in the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, I know I’ve made her proud. But getting her to the Final Four to see my dreams, where I always wanted to be, that would be something else.”

Kyler Edwards is playing for his mom Lori Alexander, his first and perhaps most demanding, coach. (Yes, including Kelvin Sampson). And for this roommate/transfer buddy Josh Carlton.

“My mom was one tough coach,” Edwards laughs.

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the SMU Mustangs
University of Houston coaches Kellen Sampson and his dad Kelvin Sampson know how to coach effort. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Karen Sampson knows it’s all about the village. That’s what she enjoys most about being part of Kelvin Sampson’s programs. When UH beats Arizona, Karen Sampson starts looking for people to hug.

“My first thing was let me get my girls,” she says. “Let me get Lauren. Let me get (Kellen Sampson’s wife) Tonya. And let me get this group hug. And all the wives. It’s not just Lauren and Kellen and Kelvin. But it’s all the other people. Including the fans.”

Karen Sampson is marveling at the sheer force in which UH fans have turned out in San Antonio. Arriving at the AT&T Center early before the Thursday night Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona, she quickly texted her daughter Lauren about how much red she was already seeing, noting the crowd looked like it was going to be something extra.

UH athletic director Chris Pezman jumps in to hug Karen Sampson from behind during our interview. Call it a hug bomb. Which is something this coach’s wife appreciates.

Karen Sampson is a hugger. She’ll even pull startled reporters into an embrace. That’s who she is. But she knew back on December 23 when word of Marcus Sasser’s broken foot hit, she needed to give her guy some space. She never doubted Kelvin Sampson would figure it out. He always does.

Just let him go into the cave. When Kelvin Sampson emerges with something, you know it’s going to be special.

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