Kelvin Sampson keeps surprising

Kelvin Sampson heard the fan. Then he smiled at him. Even winked at him. Gave him a thumbs up. Spoke to him. And moments later, granted his wish; the fan’s night went from fun to memorable.

the daily #232 | 3/23/2024 | Archives

The fan was ecstatic, not believing that the head coach actually heard his cheering. Here he was, sitting in the front row, watching his top-seeded Cougars blow out Longwood in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He was wearing one of the new LinkingCoogs shirts and knew he’d definitely impressed his lady friend. Hell, he’d impressed me.

I’d never seen Kelvin do this for a regular fan. For his granddaughter Maisy? Sure. For a coaching friend or a UH legend, like Otis Birdsong, whom Kelvin spoke to after the game? Of course. But for the t-shirt guy in Memphis?

Kelvin Dale Sampson, seemingly oblivious to it all – the chatter, the taunts, the cheers, the screams, the pleas, the roars – hears it all. Most of it goes in and out, but he hears. They all do: Kellen, the dutiful son, the assistant next to him on the bench; Lauren, the get it done so it’s done right runner of things; Karen, the front-row matriarch that has a kind word for all and a newly-designed handmade bejeweled outfit each game (“most people eat at their dining room table,” the woman that, presumably, has a fully refreshed Jordan gear pack anytime she wants it, told me in Kansas City. “I use mine to make my clothes”).

But like any successful coaching family, they never respond to the noise. Sure, they trade stories about some of it, laughing at the absurdities of their lives. Husband and wife, graduates of UNC-Pembroke, the school they gave an opportunity to in an exhibition game in late October and where Karen is a regent, and brother and sister, graduates of Oklahoma, the school they daggered in Norman on a buzzer-beater from consensus All-American Jamal Shead, have come together to resurrect a moribund program and lead them to the most sustained success in program history.

But make no mistake: they hear it all.

Which makes NIL shirt guy’s experience all that more unusual. He was a section over from Karen and Lauren and about the same distance from Kelvin when the coach walked back to the bench towards his Dubble Bubble bucket of various gums and mints that’s traveled hundreds of thousands of miles with these Cougars. The fan had spent the entire game shouting encouragement to players as they returned to the bench. ‘Way to go, Mal!’ ‘Aight, Wanny!’ ‘Good job, Jay!’ I didn’t hear anything negative, but Kelvin would have. The fan’s player-boostering had to be part of the reason he got a response.

All smiles for Jamal Shead // Photo by Matthew A. Smith, courtesy of Houston Athletics

The moment came after the under-eight timeout in the second half. Houston was up 39, and a foul on Ramon Walker was called on the other end. The teams started to retreat to their benches, and Kelvin was on Ramon as soon as he crossed the free-throw line.

Everyone in the program had been giddy about Ramon ‘rejoining’ the program on this night. Their brother, their energy guy, their vice president of Culture, Inc. (answering only to J’Wan Roberts in the hierarchy), Ramon had been injured in a February 22 practice. That practice was cut short because of the devastating news, forcing reporters who usually sit around and wait for practice to end so we can speak to players and coaches (read: me) to rush across town to get to campus. After beating Baylor in OT in Waco two days later, Kelvin Sampson told me Ramon was lost for the season. But one month later, on March 22, Ramon went in a game as part of Sampson’s quick-hitting substitution pattern against Longwood.

When Ramon crossed midcourt, Kelvin was still giving him the business. When #3 got to the head coach, Sampson put his open palm on his chest to stop him, then crouched in a defensive position, reaching up to show him how he should have defended Longwood’s Emanuel Richards as he crossed the paint. Ramon seemed to give the Lancer guard a shoulder, which was the move Kelvin didn’t like. Kelvin kept after him when they got to the huddle, but he didn’t pull him from the game. He left Walker out there to keep getting the reps he’s been missing. From my vantage point, I saw Ramon sitting on one of the UH stools, his eyes trained on Sampson, but with the faintest hint of a smile. In his head, he had to believe he was back. His mini-honeymoon was over, and he had been fully reintegrated into the Culture, ass-chewings and all.

As the horn sounded, players started to disperse as assistant coaches and staffers gave last-second coaching to those returning to the floor and those on the bench. I’ve always thought the most important coaching isn’t to the five heading back out but to the guys on the bench, getting a few more pointers on what they heard in the huddle—more encouragement. More personalized.

From my angle and the angle of NIL shirt guy, the coaches and players were walking away from us while Kelvin walked directly toward us. In those moments, Kelvin seems distant, as far away from the arena as can be. But he’s wondering if he said everything he should have, if he missed anything, and how they will respond.

And that’s when I heard it. NIL shirt guy in the front row said, “Let’s get some Elvin!” He said it again and again as the whistle blew to get players in position. Sampson, deep in concentration from the start of the timeout until the sound of the second horn releases him, was walking back towards the bench in a straight line toward this man’s voice. “Let’s get some Elvin!”

Sampson set his dry-erase board on the ground, and as his concentration faded, he heard the 4th, or maybe the 12th, “Let’s get some Elvin!” exhortation. And like an actor on stage, you started to see Kelvin break character. “Let’s get some Elvin,” he heard again. Kelvin looked towards the scorer’s table, and a wry smirk was building. He finally turned to the guy, acknowledging him, the smile fully broken out, winked at him, and gave him a thumbs up.

“Couple more minutes,” he said, thumb still in the air. And with that, he whipped around and brought his focus back to the blowout. A hint of the encounter made the TRU broadcast following the Crazy Cougar’s TV moment:

Forty-seven seconds of game time later, Kelvin, standing directly in front of me, started down the bench and yelled, “RYO!” Elvin was ready to go and jogged to the scorer’s table as the clock ticked past 6:30.

Elvin played nearly four minutes before getting his chance. He missed on a pullup jumper, and you thought that would be it for him. Still, the NCAA Tournament! But Star Pizza’s celebrity spokesman was saved by a Mylik Wilson offensive rebound. Mylik brought it out and motioned for Elvin to move out of the corner. Wilson threw him the ball, and he dribbled out to the top. Elvin attacked, dribbled with his left, faked to his right, then crossed over a Longwood player and got in the lane. The defender rebuffed him; Elvin hesitated, spun, and swished a turnaround jumper. The next time down the floor, Elvin let it fly from two steps behind the three-point line and popped it. The bench was euphoric.

It was the routine end of a 1-16 thrashing, but Sampson gave three people a lifelong memory. A surreal breakthrough for a front-row fan. A March Madness breakout for the team-favorite. And another quick peek inside the world of Houston’s most fascinating figure for a constantly curious writer. Sampson also won a first-round game for the sixth time in six tries at UH, further cementing his legacy after pulling off the impossible rebuild.

It was a good night for the good guys.

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Ryan Monceaux
Ryan Monceaux
Ryan is the guy from GoCoogs. He is also a real estate agent and entrepreneur.

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