“If you can tell that we’re there, then it’s not a good thing,” Jonathan Loredo said after a recent Houston basketball practice. “Because we must not be doing our job.”
Loredo is the head manager for Houston Cougar Men’s Basketball. The manager program is a critical, but often unobserved, operational piece of the Kelvin Culture. From rebounding in practice and pregame to setting up the stools for Kelvin Sampson and the players during timeouts to prepping the locker room on game day, to laundry and mail delivery, to setting up facilities during recruiting visits, student managers are always there but rarely noticed.
Student managers must be ubiquitous, efficient, and reliable. Anything big or small that facilitates for the coaches or players, you’ll find a manager: pregame, post-game, practice, administrative, you name it. But, according to grad assistant Cole Rabedeaux, who manages the managers, their most important must be availability. Managers must have a flexible schedule and be willing to get to the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility whenever they are summoned. In addition, they need to know what is expected before they are asked.
“For the most part, our managers are really self-sufficient,” Rabedeaux said. “They hold themselves accountable, and they know what to do. They’re hard workers, and they get their job done.”
It takes a particular type of worker to handle all those responsibilities and the notoriously intense environment of a Sampson-run practice. The way the program finds those workers is to throw them in the deep end and see what happens.
After an initial interview, prospective managers jump into a two-week trial period. They are graded on handling the workload and meshing with the other managers and staff. If they excel, and the players, coaches, and other managers approve, they’re in. If not, they’re gone.
“It is kind of a shock because you’re kind of just thrown in,” said fourth-year manager Laith Akhras. “You don’t really have a period to settle in; the way you settle in is by being thrown in.”
For the managers chosen to stay, their lives revolve around the program. During the season, it’s an everyday balancing act between their classes and the team’s needs. In the summer, Loredo says managers could be in the building at five in the morning and stay until six at night.
The head manager is given a monthly stipend while the others volunteer their time. Students join wanting to be a part of an elite program, and some even stay after graduating. Matthew Criswell, a manager that wants to begin a career in coaching, the program is an opportunity to learn from the best in the business.
“It definitely keeps you busy, but it’s fun,” Criswell said. “This is something I want to do for a living, and getting to learn from Coach Sampson and all the assistants every day is really a blessing.”
Criswell grew up going to UH basketball games, and his father was good friends with Alvin Brooks, a Sampson former assistant coach who is now the head coach at Lamar. Criswell believes that seeing the Kelvin Culture in practice is a good learning experience.
Sampson demands accountability from his managers as he does with the players. When a manager screws up in rebounding, they have to run suicides. If a manager shoots an airball while everyone’s hanging around after practice, they must run up and down the court once, just like the players do.
“He’ll put us on the line just like he would the players,” Loredo said. “Anytime he’s on the court, you’re on your toes and ready to do whatever he asks.”
The current managers all remember their first mistake or their first time getting yelled at. For most, it’s not getting a ball to the right spot during a drill or not anticipating what is needed. In his first year as a manager, Akhras once dropped one of the famous rebounding bubbles used in practice when he tried to get it down from the basket.
“It was not pleasant, to say the least,” Akhras said of his first mistake in front of Sampson. “I ran because of that.”
The long hours, the intensity, and the accountability are parts of the all-encompassing “culture” that permeates everything in Sampson’s program. Managers must buy into it like everyone else.
“For us, culture is not a word. It’s a lifestyle,” Loredo said. “It does not take long once you join to either embrace or you’re out of here.”
“We’re always working hard, we’re always bringing energy in workouts,” Akhras said. “We’re sprinting after loose balls, and that’s where the culture comes in. Everything we do is with high intensity, and that’s where the culture falls on us to make sure everything’s right.”
UH players depend on managers to help them practice more efficiently, even when working on something alone. Whether in the off-season or after an off night, Jamal Shead knows he can count on the team’s managers to open the gym, get it ready, and get them the ball, shot after shot.
“They’re one text away on anything,” Shead said after a recent practice. “We can try to come up (to the gym) before games, game day, anything we need. They’re all one text away, you know, and we really appreciate that, and we don’t take it for granted.”