Culture / Sporting Life

How Kelvin Sampson Finally Made Tilman Fertitta Pay Attention and Changed Everything for Houston

A Basketball Lifer of a Coach and a Mercilessly Driven Billionaire Tycoon Found Common Ground in One Bold Vision — Now It's Coming True for UH

BY // 03.26.21

INDIANAPOLIS — Anyone who’s spent any amount of time with Tilman Fertitta understands how hard it is get his full attention. There is always something else pulling on the billionaire tycoon behind a Fortune 500 empire, usually several other things he needs to address. Plus, Fertitta’s mind naturally runs at a thousand miles per minute. If you come into a meeting with Fertitta unprepared, you have no chance.

No matter how big or important you think you are.

Kelvin Sampson’s come prepared every day of his life. But in his first lunch with the billionaire who could change everything for a basketball program, University of Houston’s coach found himself caught in that typical Tilman vortex.

“I think he was half paying attention to me, half looking at his phone,” Sampson says. “And I said, ‘You can win a national championship at Houston.’ And he just looked up like ‘What did you just say?’ I said, ‘I think you can win a national championship here.’

“Then, he put his phone away and he started listening to me.”

With one bold statement — a vision Sampson had already laid out in his own mind — the then-brand new Houston coach shifted the entire trajectory of the UH basketball program. Sampson mapped it out first — and then he made power players like Tilman Fertitta believe.

That lunch — and those bold Sampson words — put Houston on the path to this high-stakes weekend in Indianapolis. Sampson’s program is back in the Sweet 16 for the second straight NCAA Tournament (played), two wins from the Final Four berth that could once again change so much for the University of Houston.

This dominant dream season — the 26-3 record, the Top 10 ranking virtually all season, the epic comeback against Rutgers in the Big Dance — has already brought tens of millions of dollars in national exposure for the program and the university. As UH athletic director Chris Pezman detailed in a PaperCity exclusive.

Beating Syracuse late Saturday night and the winner of Loyola Chicago vs Oregon State game on Monday to reach the Final Four would quadruple those numbers into a new stratosphere.

Of course, it’s not about that to Kelvin Sampson, the 65-year-old basketball lifer whose resurrection of this beyond dormant Houston program is the stuff of sports movies.

“My agent talked to me — there was, I think, three schools,” Sampson says of the moment when he was deciding to get back into coaching in college. “Two of them were already in good shape. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to build a program. And I wanted to do it with (his son) Kellen (Sampson) and (his daughter) Lauren (Sampson).

“That was important to me. Nothing else.”

Now, Houston is one of the best programs in America and has been for several years now (even if some local Houston outlets just seem to be realizing that this week). With Kellen Sampson as the head-coach-in-waiting and Lauren Sampson as the do-everything director of external operations.

Nostradamus only wishes his visions came through as clear as Kelvin Sampson’s have at the University of Houston.

But first, before he could start winning games, Sampson needed to win that first lunch with Tilman Fertitta.

“I told him what we had to have done,” Sampson says. “We had to have this, this and this. And he was a huge ally. He wrote a $20 million check to put his name on the building and I think that gave us some instant credibility with other alumni.

“They said if he’s willing to do that, then he must see something there.”

Fertitta Center Scissors
Tilman Fertitta cut the ribbon at the Fertitta Center in a feel-good UH moment. (Photo courtesy University of Houston.)

The 2018 opening of the Fertitta Center, the showcase on-campus arena that the program hasn’t really had ever (even in its “prime,” Hofheinz Pavilion never really qualified), drastically altered the equation for Sampson’s program. Of course, it would not have meant so much if the Sampsons had not built the basketball program up to the point where Houston had teams good enough to take full advantage of the new facilities.

“I said, ‘I think you can win a national championship here.’ Then, he put his phone away and he started listening to me.” — UH Coach Kelvin Sampson on his first lunch with Tilman Fertitta.

Kelvin Sampson has convinced countless doubters in his seven years at University of Houston. But first, he needed to grab Tilman Ferttita’s attention with that national title talk. And the rest of the higher-ups in UH’s athletic department, too.

“I wanted to be the best in the best group,” Sampson says, the NCAA March Madness logo over his shoulder — and all over the backdrop behind him. “And I felt like I had a vision for how to do it. But they had to buy in. They had to buy in.

“I had to recruit them as much as I had to recruit players here.”

Recruiting Tilman Fertitta is one whale of a get. I spent chunks of several days with Tilman Fertitta working on an extensive profile of him a few years ago. Including times when Fertitta was filming his TV show — Billion Dollar Buyer. I witnessed countless people approach him, only to fade away when they could not hold his attention. Sometimes, Fertitta is testing someone. Sometimes, he is just not compelled.

Kelvin Sampson broke through those barriers by being bold and saying something the billionaire booster did not expect to hear from a new coach. Sampson made Fertitta put down his phone and supercharged one of college basketball’s most amazing rebuilds.

When Fertitta heard national championship all those years ago, he locked in. Now, Kelvin Sampson has the whole college basketball world listening.

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