TULSA — How far has Kelvin Sampson brought basketball at the University of Houston?
The Cougars have the nation’s best record (31-3) and a 3-seed going into Friday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Georgia State at the BOK Center.
Considering the breadth of the wilderness in which the program has wandered for most of the last two decades, saying Sampson has brought the Cougars all the way back is not hyperbole.
It’s Houston’s highest seed since 1984, the program’s first back-to-back NCAA Tournament trips since 1982-84, and the Cougars’ first outright conference championship since 1984.
When superlatives like “first time since Phi Slama Jama” are invoked, that’s a long, long way.
“It’s been tough — and fun,” Sampson said Thursday. “I’ve enjoyed every step of this adventure, this journey that we’ve been on, getting this program back going.”
Senior guard Galen Robinson remembers games at Texas Southern University, two miles away, with no students — and really, no crowd at all.
“Looking back at everything and how far we’ve come as a program, it’s really nothing short of a blessing,” Robinson said.
While the Cougars’ new Fertitta Center — and, to a lesser degree, Sampson’s program — was under construction, UH fans were hard to come by.
“I remember we had to go to frat houses and knock on peoples’ doors and tell them, ‘Come to the game,’ ” Robinson said. “They’d tell us, ‘We’re coming,’ just to get us off their doorstep. And then they still wouldn’t come to the game.
“I could hear my mom’s voice (during games) — ‘Come on G, push the ball!’ — like, I can’t even hear her anymore.
“Coach Sampson, that’s the dude. That’s the guy.”
From 1994-2006, Sampson elevated Oklahoma to Final Four heights, including 11 NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2008, he was sanctioned by the NCAA after two seasons at Indiana, and he set off for the NBA. He never intended to return to college basketball and didn’t miss the game, but he eventually returned to college when Houston hired him in 2014.
That first season was bumpy, 13-19, but he has won at least 21 games each year since, steadily building a new tradition at UH. Last year the Coogs were 27-8. This year, they’re one tournament win away from a 32nd victory — the program’s first since 1984.
Sampson had a good gig in the NBA and was in no hurry to leave. As Houston was interviewing him, he was interviewing Houston.
“We had to get some things ironed out, find out what their commitment was,” Sampson said. “Even then, for a year and some change we played all our home games at Texas Southern University.”
Eventually, the Fertitta Center came to fruition (it opened this season at a cost of $60 million and crowds of 6,052; capacity is 7,035). That added to the plush, $25 million Guy V. Lewis Development Facility nearby, which opened in 2015, Sampson’s second season.
Those two facilities, Sampson said, were game-changers after that rough start. His commitment to winning at a high level became a steady stream of constructive complaints. That ruffled some feathers, but it also got the attention a program like Houston needed — and deserved.
“When we brought kids on campus, we didn’t have anywhere to take them,” Sampson said. “… When you’re recruiting a young man, he’s taken other visits to other schools, so when he comes to your school he’s going to compare.
“There was a lot of frustration. I got frustrated with people. I said, ‘What are we doing here? You guys say you want to win, but what are you doing to win?’ I know a lot of people were probably frustrated with me … I don’t know if ‘demand’ is the right word. We kept saying, ‘We have to do this.’
“I think the worst thing you can say to someone is, ‘Well, this is what we’ve always done,’ especially when you haven’t had success. If that’s what you’ve always done, let’s stop right there. Let’s evaluate what you just said. So we had to change our attitudes. Before you can change attitudes, you have to change behavior. That was the biggest thing in Houston was changing the behavior.”
Under Guy Lewis, Houston was good but became a powerhouse in early 1980s with legends like Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and others. Those high-flying Cougars went to the went to back-to-back Final Fours, were a miracle putback away from winning a national championship in 1983-84 and earned arguably the greatest nickname in the history of American sports: Phi Slama Jama.
But Lewis’ last two teams went just 16-14 and 14-14, beginning a three-decade slide into mediocrity. Six coaches — including Drexler, whose two teams from 1998-2000 went 10-17 and 9-22 — could muster only moderate success, mostly by Tom Penders (121-77 in six seasons from 2004-10).
Things didn’t change right away even after the school hired a coach of Sampson’s pedigree. But they did change eventually. Sampson can be persuasive.
“I know our people that follow us are sick of me saying this, but our administration is the reason why,” he said. “They stepped up. Before I got there, every four years they’d fired a coach. They didn’t change anything. They were going to fire me in four years, too. I wasn’t interested in going in that situation.”
Sampson said when he left Indiana for the NBA, he lost interest in college hoops. But he was too busy learning an entirely new level of the game, with nuances he’d never considered.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know,” Sampson said. “I don’t think I was a good enough coach to help an NBA team win a game when I first got to that league.
“I think my ‘hello’ moment was when I was in San Antonio with Pop (Gregg Popovich), and Mike Budenholzer and Bret Brown and Donnie Newman were doing all the scouting reports. So when you’ve been a head coach your whole career, you’ve never seen another guy do it. I was head coach when I was really young, so I had to experiment and fail and fail and fail and figure it out.
“Just the freedom, the delegation that Pop gave his assistants and how they came up with how to guard actions on their own — it was their decision. That jumped out at me. I’d never done that before. I’d made all the decisions.
“I said, ‘Wow, man, I got a lot to learn. These guys are way smarter than I am.’ ”
While Sampson was relearning the game at the NBA level, the Cougars were searching for that one coach who could remake the program and restore the roar.
Sampson said Houston’s plight could be traced back to the dissolution of the Southwest Conference and UH’s omission from the merger with the Big 12.
“I think Houston kind of become a little bit of an orphan,” Sampson said. “… You know, fans, they want to connect to something. When they moved conferences, I think they lost a little bit of the fan base. I think the administration, I don’t think, valued basketball enough, and I don’t think they invested. I think that’s where it starts.”
Inclusion into Conference USA didn’t move the fan base. Neither did a migration to the American Athletic Conference — at first. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, Houston had fallen so far it wasn’t even very competitive in that league, going just 8-10 and 4-14 in its first two seasons.
But then Sampson got things rolling, and the Cougars have gone 54-18 in AAC play in his last four seasons. The fan base is back.
“What coach Lewis did with Elvin Hayes and that group, what he did with the Phi Slama Jama era people can identify with,” Sampson said. “There was a history. It had been done. When something has been done before, it can be done again. It’s just a matter of getting the right pieces and people together, and that’s what we did.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.