For Kelvin Sampson, competing is part of the culture. Seemingly once a week, Sampson tells the media there’s a difference between playing hard and competing. It’s a favorite go-to for Houston’s ninth-year head coach. He used it once again after the comeback win over Auburn.
“I thought we were playing hard, but I didn’t think we were competing. There’s a big difference in playing hard versus competing,” Sampson said. “At halftime, you know, we made a couple adjustments. I don’t think anything major. I think the biggest adjustment was in our attitude.”
Competing is an attitude, according to Sampson. It’s the culture. Competing is about standards and expectations, excelling under pressure, and showing poise when no one’s watching.
Sampson stalks players that compete. They are scouted, evaluated, recruited, signed, broken down, and built back up. When the team begins prep work each June, Sampson starts coaching toward competition, composure, and culture. If you are not competing, you don’t have composure. If you have no composure, you’re not living the culture. And if you’re not upholding the culture, you’ll be called out.
By your head coach as well as your teammates.
“It’s something you’ve got to be on all the time,” guard Emanuel Sharp said. “Especially in practice. (Sampson) is going to be watching you 24/7, so if you’re not tapped into the culture and how things are supposed to work, you’re going to get snapped on, which is why it’s so important to just be locked in during practice.
“You can’t relax and not be focused because the one time you don’t focus is the time it’s going to hurt you.”
Teammates holding you accountable to the culture is vital to UH’s success. For example, Jamal Shead has told the story – a few times, in fact – of how, as a freshman, he was told to run for his roommate oversleeping and missing their first practice. Shead had thrown a bad pass, and Sampson barked, “put 63 (seconds) on the clock,” which was Shead’s cue to run for his mistake. As he did, Tramon Mark walked in late and was told to run, also. When Sampson asked who his roommate was, Shead raised his hand and was told to get on the line with Mark. He was given the same punishment for the poor pass as for not holding his roommate accountable.
I accidentally found out about that level of accountability on my own.
Shortly before the season, I was at the practice facility to speak to a player for a story. We walked up to the second floor when he asked me to wait in the team lounge as he darted into the locker room. As I looked over my questions, he stepped back out a minute later to tell me there would be a quick team meeting, and then he’d be able to talk.
I nodded and went back to my notes. A few minutes later, players were voicing their displeasure toward a teammate. It was an accountability session. Then, it started to get heated, voices getting louder, with players starting to talk over each other. I sunk deeper into my seat, feeling awkward about overhearing it. Finally, the noise stopped, and a veteran spoke, explaining that the offender had stepped over the line and he needed to apologize.
The accused player was upset and loudly said so, but after a moment, he apologized. Almost immediately, there was the unmistakable sound of hands clasping and players bro-hugging, the tension cut and order restored. A moment later, the player I was there to meet walked out with another player. I sheepishly asked about what I had just heard. They both shook their heads and told me the teammate was late for a workout, which was not tolerated. The other rolled his eyes a bit as he nodded in agreement. I pressed my luck. “How late was he?”
A brief pause.
The amount of time wasn’t the issue, but the deviation from the culture. The deviation from the accountability to each other. If you cannot be trusted to be on time, how can you be trusted to compete? How can you walk on the floor, with 20 minutes to play, down ten, with the season on the line? Sampson explained it succinctly on Tuesday morning.
“Poise is something you can see when nobody else is around. We prepare when nobody’s looking, so when everybody is looking, we’re ready.”