And on that note … the decades-spanning practice logs of UH’s Kelvin Sampson
To the naked eye, Kelvin Sampson has a pretty normal coach’s office.
The clean and inviting room overlooks the practice court at the Guy V. Lewis Development Center on the University of Houston campus. A large wooden desk resides in front of a sitting area with a couple of comfortable chairs. Framed photos of Sampson with former players hang on the wall, next to a large flat-screen television.
But there is so much more.
In most of the drawers and cabinets, the UH basketball coach keeps stacks of loose leaf paper. Each sheet contains a plan for a particular day of practice — whatever Sampson and his staff decided they’d go over that day. Next to the printed plans are side notes Sampson wrote during the practice: what worked that day and what didn’t; ideas on how to improve a defensive scheme; observations of a player’s body language.
The notes are meticulous. And Sampson has them for every practice of the last three-plus decades.
“I have every season’s practice plans since 1987,” he said. “I have filing cabinets full. So sometimes I’ll go back to 1992, for instance. If I have a team that I can compare to another team, I will go back and see what did we do in practice No. 45.”
The note taking is part of a method Sampson has developed over his past 30 years of coaching. And as his undefeated, 24th-ranked Cougars look to extend their winning streak to 10 in a home game against Saint Louis on Sunday afternoon, it’s clear Sampson’s method is working.
Sampson likes routines. He likes order. He’s set in his ways and sticks to them. And they have helped him earn success at every stop in his career. From Montana Tech to Washington State to Oklahoma to Indiana to the NBA and now UH, he has upheld his philosophies.
Taking care of the basketball.
Playing for each other.
At every stop, these have been the cornerstones of his teachings.
It’s easy to see these characteristics in the Cougars now. When Sampson took over as coach in 2014 — to the surprise of many — only five players stayed. He had eight scholarships to give and a boatload of work to do.
That season, the goal wasn’t to win. It was to build.
Sampson didn’t want merely to coach a team. He wanted to create a program.
At UH, that was a challenge. It wasn’t, however, a foreign challenge to Sampson.
He had to build something at Montana Tech, then again at Washington State. Oklahoma’s success was long gone when he arrived in Norman. Indiana was the one college team he went to that didn’t need to be patched back together.
He then spent several years in the NBA, where he quickly became a hot assistant coach. Three seasons with the Bucks preceded three with the Rockets, and Sampson likely would have landed a head coaching job in the league had he stayed.
But something felt right about UH. The opportunity intrigued him. The chance to build something excited him.
Not that he wasn’t aware his work was cut out for him.
“This was the hardest resuscitation because of the facilities and the apathy,” Sampson said. “The apathy was everywhere. It was a disease here. Nobody cared about basketball.”
If Sampson was going to change the program, he needed a big commitment from the university. Before taking the job, he put his foot down.
Recruiting was key. And when he brought recruits to campus, he needed to be able to show them something great.
At the beginning of his tenure, the Cougars were lucky to have a smattering of fans in cavernous Hofheinz Pavilion. The team was rough, but it worked hard. Sampson was uplifted.
He stuck to it, and recruits saw what was happening on the court. They also saw what was happening off it. Ground was broken for the Guy V. Lewis Development Center — a state-of-the-art basketball practice facility, and plans were underway for a Hofheinz overhaul.
The Cougars kept improving on the court and by last season were one of the hottest teams in college hoops, grinding their way to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing on a buzzer beater to Michigan, the eventual national runner-up to Villanova.
On Dec. 12 this year, UH opened its state-of-the-art Fertitta Center. On Wednesday, when the Cougars came from 15 behind to beat LSU and improve to 9-0, the arena was filled to the brim. The Cougars pulled out the 82-76 win by going back to the basics and getting clutch stops down the stretch.
The victory was the Cougars’ 22nd in a row at home. So while thrilling, it was also expected. And that’s a far cry from where the UH basketball program was five years ago.
As great as Wednesday night was, Sampson had moved on by Thursday. It was time to get back to work.
He and his team would watch film that afternoon. And Sampson, as always, was prepared — with a sheet of paper scribbled with notes.