For top-seeded Houston, basketball is a family affair
HOUSTON (AP) — Lauren Sampson remembers riding on the team bus in frigid winters as a preschooler during her father’s first head coaching job at Montana Tech, athletic tape affixed around the windows in a losing effort to stave off the cold.
Her family told her the team’s games were her parties and let the little girl run the show.
“They gave me a mic and I’d say: ‘Welcome,’” she recalled. “And then they would sew bells into my game dresses so they could hear me as I was wandering around.”
Her younger brother, Kellen, remembers using Washington State facilities as his personal playground when dad ended up there a few years later. He once slipped into the UCLA locker room when the Bruins came to town — he was no older than 5 — and wasn’t discovered until coach Jim Herrick was midway through his pregame speech.
“He looked at me and said: ‘Hey, little fella’s got to go,’” he said.
Decades later, the siblings are at their father’s side and both play key roles on coach Kelvin Sampson’s staff as Houston makes a run at its first championship.
Kellen Sampson is the team’s top assistant and Lauren Sampson is the director of basketball operations for the top-seeded Cougars (33-3), who meet No. 5 seed Miami in the Sweet 16 on Friday in Kansas City, Missouri.
The 67-year-old Sampson has turned around the once-proud program in his nine years at the school on the edge of downtown Houston. The Cougars have risen to heights not seen since t he days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama and have become perennial championship contenders.
Having Kellen and Lauren with him, he says, has made all the difference.
“It’s probably why I’m here,” he said. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think how lucky I am to be working with my family.”
The 40-year coaching veteran said having his children as part of a carefully cultivated staf has helped him last this long in the game. He once thought he had to do everything himself, now he delegates. And his children aren’t afraid to speak up.
“Kellen and Lauren, they know my idiosyncrasies, they come back at me, they disagree with me,” he said. “They tell me no, they say: ‘that’s not the right way,’ and they just help me. They’ve made me better.”
For Kellen Sampson, the path to where he is today was a linear one, as he knew from a young age exactly what he wanted to do: “I don’t know if I’ve spent a single second thinking about being anything other than this.”
He talked with dad about his college options and the elder Sampson wasn’t shy with a suggestion.
“The conversation was based on who do you think will prepare you to be the best college coach you can be,” Kellen Sampson said. “And he was really honest and said: ‘Look, I think I can prepare you to do that better than anybody.’ And I chose to play for him.”
After playing at Oklahoma and beginning his career there, he took jobs elsewhere — away from his father — to build his own path before rejoining him at Houston in 2014.
Lauren Sampson worked in sports for years before moving to pharmaceutical sales. It wasn’t long before dear old dad lured her back to the family business.
“The first year that my dad was at Houston, my grandfather had just passed, and he had always been the first phone call after a game,” she said. “And that first season at Houston, for a lot of games, I turned into that phone call, and he would kind of ask me questions throughout that first season.”
With her marketing background, he’d ask her what she would do to get more people at games, improve the arena atmosphere and other such scenarios. After a year of this back and forth he asked if she’d consider moving to Houston to work with him; in 2016, she did.
The elder Sampson seems just as fierce and engaged as ever on the sidelines. But his children have seen a change in a man whose storied career includes baggage brought up every time his teams make a big run. There have been no such headaches at Houston.
Just time with family, a lot of wins and more time for Coach Sampson with grandchildren Maisy and Kylen.
“He doesn’t spend hardly any time worrying about things that don’t matter anymore,” Kellen Sampson said. “And that allows him to be my daughter’s best friend. That allows him to be my son’s favorite jungle gym.”
“I think this is the most fun he’s ever had,” he added. “He’s not this big wound-up ball of stress. He allows himself to enjoy the journey way more now than he did 25 years ago, which is awesome. And I do think that the fact that we’re doing it as a family has given him more longevity.”
It’s also given the Cougars an advantage aside from the Xs and Os of basketball as they look to make another deep tournament run after reaching the Final Four in 2021.
“We all have so much love for each other,” star Marcus Sasser said. “From the coaching staff, the players, the managers, the trainers, everybody. Like this whole organization just love everybody. So, it’s like a big family, really.”
Kellen Sampson, 37, has had opportunities to become a head coach elsewhere in recent years. But in the end took the advice of his wife, Tonya, who asked what job was worth giving up what the family has now.
“‘You’ve got the rest of your life to be a head coach. You’ve only got this small window to do it next to your dad and with your family,’” he recounted. ”‘Whatever you accomplish as a head coach on your own is going to pale in comparison to these memories you’re creating every day with your family.’”
It’s hard not to look ahead to the Final Four next week and the possibility of Houston playing near home. Lauren Sampson, ever the coach’s kid who was there when her father took the Sooners to the Final Four in 2002 and was there two years ago, is cautious.
“It’d be great, but I’ve been a part of two Final Four runs and God, it’s so hard,” she said. “Winning a game in the tournament is so, so hard. I never take for granted the work that goes into just one game. So, I very purposely don’t look past the next one up.”
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