Road to the Big 12

How UH men’s basketball head coach Kelvin Sampson and his UH family led the school to new heights.

Collage of UH Sports including basketball coach Kevin Sampson.

Kelvin Sampson arrived at the University of Houston in 2014 with a coaching resume that included 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, a Final Four berth and an AP National Coach of the Year award.

And he felt sure he could restore the moribund Cougars—whose men’s basketball program hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1984—to their former heights. He just needed to recruit some fans, of which there were scant few.

So, in Sampson’s early seasons, before home games, he would gather a couple of members from the school band and hit Cullen Boulevard. The bandies would play the fight song, and the coach would hand out pamphlets and cajole undergrads, professors, staff, whomever, to get over to Hofheinz Pavilion before tipoff.

“I would go disrupt the student center,” he says. “I’d go into classes. I’d walk around campus just begging people to come to the game.”

Given the feverish state of UH hoops of late, Sampson’s campus tours sound quaint. But back in the fall of 2014, no one could’ve known what lay ahead for the program: weeks of national No. 1 rankings, a Final Four run, NBA Draft picks, 232 wins over the next nine seasons and strings of sellout crowds who now enjoy a $60 million overhaul of their storied on-campus arena.

“I would go disrupt the student center. I’d go into classes. I’d walk around campus just begging people to come to the game.” -Kelvin Sampson

The revival of the basketball program has highlighted a resurgence for UH and its varsity sports—a run of success that will culminate in a leap to the Big 12 Conference beginning in the fall of 2023.

Nothing against the American Athletic Conference (AAC), where UH has competed since 2013—but the Big 12, by comparison, is stacked. The Cougars’ launch will mean fatter budgets, greater TV coverage, stronger competition and a higher profile across UH’s six varsity men’s and nine women’s sports.

By just one metric: As part of the AAC’s revenue distribution in 2021-22, UH received $8.28 million. In the same year, Big 12 member universities received $42.6 million apiece, a figure likely only to increase, especially once a $2.28 billion TV extension with ESPN and Fox takes effect in the 2025-26 season.

The conference upgrade amounts to the biggest boost in athletic stature for UH since 1971 when the (now defunct) Southwest Conference invited UH to join as its ninth member. Along with the University of Cincinnati, Brigham Young University and the University of Central Florida, UH earned an invitation to join the Big 12 in the summer of 2021, a few weeks after the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas at Austin announced they’d be decamping for the Southeastern Conference by the fall of 2024.

Getting UH literally into the same league as Texas was no short hop.

A decade ago, Sampson saw UH’s untapped potential and hitched his star to the University. He attributes his success since then to the willingness of UH to invest in the future and the consistency that he and his staff have built—in no small part because they are, both figuratively and literally, a family.

The Band’s Back Together

Kellen Sampson was confident he could recruit the city of Houston. During a season in Nacogdoches as an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin, he had gotten to know the city’s high schools and youth leagues. When his father, Kelvin, called him up in early 2014 to talk about possible coaching jobs, the men had plenty of options—and maybe a chip on their shoulders.

After head coaching stints at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana, Kelvin was working as an assistant coach with the Rockets. He deeply wanted another crack at college coaching after waiting out a five-year administrative penalty from the NCAA stemming from recruiting violations at Indiana. Kellen, who played guard for his dad at Oklahoma and was on his staff at Indiana, had been fired after a humbling run as the assistant coach at Appalachian State.

A chance to rejoin his father, return to familiar recruiting territory and build a program almost from the ground up was tantalizing. The decisive factor was the city itself. The fourth-biggest city in America was, in Kellen’s read, a place that produced excellent players who preferred to stay close to home, if possible.

“I was honest,” Kellen says now. “I said, ‘That’s a really good job. We could get that thing turned around pretty quick.’ There’s so many good players here within a 20- to 30-mile radius. Native Houstonians like Houston. They like the weather. They like the diversity. They like the different pockets of life and action. They just need a reason to come.”

“Native Houstonians like Houston. They like the weather. They like the diversity. They like the different pockets of life and action. They just need a reason to come.” -Kellen Sampson

Kelvin accepted the job and brought with him a staff ready to put down roots.

From the first group the coach brought in 2014, assistant coaches Hollis Price and Kellen Sampson, along with trainer John Houston and special assistant K.C. Beard, have been steady on the sideline for nine years and counting. The associate head coach, Quannas White, played for Kelvin at Oklahoma and arrived at UH in 2017. Lauren Sampson, Kellen’s sister, joined the program in 2016 as director for external operations.

The head coach makes a point of building a staff with deep ties. “I saw Houston as an opportunity,” Kelvin says, “to kind of get the band back together again.”

Men’s Basketball Head Coach Kelvin Sampson talking into a microphone.
Men’s Basketball Head Coach Kelvin Sampson with members of the Spirit of Houston Cougar Marching Band.

Coach Kelvin Sampson (center) with members of the Spirit of Houston Cougar Marching Band.

Coach Kelvin Sampson (center) with members of the Spirit of Houston Cougar Marching Band.

Kellen and Kelvin Sampson at the University of Oklahoma standing on a basketball court.

Kellen and Kelvin Sampson at the University of Oklahoma.

Kellen and Kelvin Sampson at the University of Oklahoma.


The Big 12

Baylor, BYU, Cincinnati, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, Texas, UCF, UH, West Virginia. (Texas and Oklahoma will head to the Southeastern Conference in 2024.) 

Old Rivals

UH’s move from the AAC to the Big 12 will revive some choice historical rivalries from the Southwest Conference (active 1972-96), with Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and Texas, whom the Cougars will host on Oct. 21 for the first time since 2001. 


With 17 total national titles, UH ranks sixth among the 12 universities that will compose the conference after this season. 

Strong Suits

Recent national titles include:
Men’s Golf (Oklahoma State, 2018) 
Women’s Basketball (Baylor, 2019)
Men’s Outdoor Track & Field (Texas Tech, 2019)
Men’s Basketball (Baylor, 2021; Kansas, 2022)

UH basketball in the 1980s was the era of the legendary "Phi Slama Jama" teams including guard Clyde Drexler and Hakeeem Olajuwon.

UH basketball in the 1980s was the era of the legendary "Phi Slama Jama" teams including guard Clyde Drexler and Hakeeem Olajuwon.

Hakeeem Olajuwon

Hakeeem Olajuwon

From the Ground Up

The coaches’ first question was how to make UH a local talent destination.

Between 1982 and 1984, Coach Guy V. Lewis, guard Clyde Drexler and center Hakeem Olajuwon led UH to three straight Final Fours. Olajuwon declared himself eligible for the 1984 NBA Draft in part because he hoped to stay in Houston, and, indeed, the Rockets picked him first overall and won two titles with him at center—the second with Drexler at his side.

The legend of the “Phi Slama Jama” teams thus stretched across two decades of basketball in the city, and Lewis, Drexler and Olajuwon all went on to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

UH fell on leaner times in the years after Olajuwon and Drexler went pro. Between the 1984 National Championship Game and Kelvin Sampson’s hire in the spring of 2014, the program had just an 0-4 record in the NCAA Tournament.

But the Sampsons could see that the University was positioned for, well, a rebound. Wider improvements during the tenure of Renu Khator, UH’s president since 2008, made the University an attractive landing spot for a sought-after coach—as well as an attractive Big 12 applicant.

Under Khator’s watch, UH moved up to a top-tier research university in the Carnegie classification, established the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine, built the UH Technology Bridge research park and a slew of new student housing, and raised $1.2 billion in the “Here, We Go” capital campaign.

In athletics during the past decade, UH opened the $128 million TDECU football stadium, built the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility for the men’s and women’s basketball programs, completed a 100,000-square foot indoor football practice facility and tricked out its baseball facilities.

Historically strong seasons for the two biggest revenue sports—football and men’s hoops—followed. A decade that produced three top-25 finishes by the football team and six by the men’s basketball team raised the Cougars’ visibility.

The backdrop of fundraising, capital improvements and sustained attention by University leaders—including the UH System Board of Regents and successive athletic directors Mack Rhoades, Hunter Yuracheck and Chris Pezman—made it possible to build nationally competitive programs. Also key was the support of Tilman Fertitta, the Rockets owner and entertainment magnate who serves as the chair of the board and who put $20 million toward the basketball arena renovation.

“Coaches and players win games, but administrators win championships,” Kelvin says. “Hunter and Mack found a way to get that money to build that practice facility. Hunter, President Khator and Tilman Fertitta found a way to get the arena renovations started. And then the timing was good, because we started winning.”

From Wishing to Winning

Winning, ultimately, is what answered the question of what would make UH hoops a destination again. But in the early going, it took a couple of leaps of faith from local talent.

The first was a commitment by Galen Robinson Jr., out of Westbury Christian in southwest Houston, a 20-minute drive from campus.

Named the city’s top high school player in 2015 (that’s the Guy V. Lewis Award, if you’re sensing a theme), the 6-foot-1 guard wasn’t merely one of the best players in the state. He was the son of Galen Robinson, who scored more than 1,100 points for the Cougars in the 1990s. And he was a well-known, popular player.

“He made it cool for a Houston kid to stay home,” Kellen Sampson says. “He gave us a North Star—somebody we could point to and say, ‘Hey, Galen did it.’ Today, we call him the Godfather.”

More top talent followed. Damyean Dotson, a guard out of Houston’s Jack Yates High School, transferred from Oregon for his junior and senior seasons—and wound up getting picked in the Second Round of the 2017 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks.

Rob Gray, a guard who transferred from a junior college in Big Spring, Texas, developed into one of the top shooting guards in the country and hit the layup with 1.1 seconds remaining against San Diego State in 2018 that advanced the Cougars out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1980s.

The heights the program has hit since then just keep escalating. The Cougars opened the new Fertitta Center in December of 2018 with a win over the No. 18 Oregon Ducks. They went to the Sweet 16 that following March, and in the next NCAA Tournament, held in 2021, they advanced to their sixth Final Four in program history.

The timing couldn’t have been any better to make a final impression on the Big 12. Now, after six straight seasons of finishing first or second in the AAC, what comes next amounts to a challenge the likes of which UH hasn’t experienced in years.

“A little scary, but also exciting. Are we good enough? What do we need to do to get good enough? There are questions we’re asking ourselves that we haven’t asked ourselves in five years.”- Kellen Sampson

“A little scary, but also exciting,” Kellen says. “Are we good enough? What do we need to do to get good enough? There are questions we’re asking ourselves that we haven’t asked ourselves in five years. Because the answer was, ‘Yes.’”

A Family Affair

The night before the first Cougars home game this fall, the Sampsons will do what they’ve done before every home game Kelvin has coached since 1987.

He and his wife, Karen, will have the players and coaches over to their house. Their dog will bark at the freshmen until they get used to them; Karen will bake cookies. And as a team, everyone will break down film at the family home and go over assignments for the next day’s game.

The head coach will tell his players they’re part of a family. That’s an arrangement that comes with a lot of accountability.

But it also comes with a great deal of warmth—and the heat that fuels the Cougars these days.

“It doesn’t matter who we play—when we walk onto that court at the Fertitta Center, that place is electric. You can hold up an old matchstick and light it in there,” Kelvin says. “We’ve gone from, ‘We can’t get anybody to come to our games’ to now, our fans are disappointed if we’re not in the Final Four every year. That means two things. One, we’ve lost our sense of reality. The other side of that is our fans are excited about this program and they have high expectations. And that’s exactly where you want it.”

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Inaugural game at the Fertitta Center in December 2018 against the No. 18 Oregon Ducks.

Inaugural game at the Fertitta Center in December 2018 against the No. 18 Oregon Ducks.

Tonya, Kellen, Karen, Kelvin, Kylen, Lauren and Maisy Sampson at the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

Tonya, Kellen, Karen, Kelvin, Kylen, Lauren and Maisy Sampson at the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

UH team in China in 2015.

UH team in China in 2015.

The Sampsons at the Final Four in 2021.

The Sampsons at the Final Four in 2021.

Players at Coach Sampson’s home.

Players at Coach Sampson’s home.

Carl Lewis

Carl Lewis

Most Memorable Victories in UH Sports History 

No. 5. Al Lawrence wins the NCAA cross country championship as he leads the Cougars to their first team national title. (1960)

No. 4. The men’s golf team shoots a 291 to win its second straight—and 16th overall—NCAA championship, a total that remains the most of any men’s golf program in the country. (1985)

No. 3. Quarterback Andre Ware wins the Heisman Trophy as the top player in college football after a record-breaking junior season. (1989)

No. 2. Track phenom Carl Lewis, a six-time All-American during his two years at UH, wins four individual medals in the Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles. (1984)

No. 1. Eventual top overall NBA draft pick Elvin Hayes leads the No. 2 Cougars to a 71-68 upset of Lew Alcindor and the No. 1 UCLA Bruins—arguably the top college player ever, on the greatest college dynasty of all time. The so-called Game of the Century, held in front of 52,000 fans at the Houston Astrodome, snapped a 47-game win streak for UCLA and was the first NCAA regular-season game ever broadcast on live TV. (1968)

UH Tennis: A Global Racket 

The most eclectic program among UH’s varsity sports may well be the tennis program. There, head coach Helena Besovic (of Sarajevo, Bosnia) and assistant coach Giorgia Pozzan (of Milan, Italy) have assembled a roster of 10 athletes, each from a different country.

Represented on the 2022-23 roster were Argentina, Bolivia, Bulgaria, El Salvador, Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and Ukraine. Oh, and New Jersey, which, while not its own country per se, can feel like a land quite foreign from Texas.

As a young teen, Besovic moved from war torn Sarajevo to Barcelona, Spain, where she studied and played youth tennis; later, she earned her Ph.D. in Spanish literature at the University of Missouri. At UH, she also teaches Spanish, one avenue Besovic says helps her understand her athletes’ varied cultures. 

The team travels to away matches by van, and they get to know one another in part by rotating who controls the playlist along the way.

The city of Houston is a key to her recruiting abroad. It has a worldwide reputation, tennis-friendly weather and a huge international airport. But Besovic says the jump to the Big 12 will help her fill a conspicuous absence on her roster: that of Texas talent. 

Playing in one of the top conferences in the country will help players achieve and keep top rankings.

“I’m really hoping we’ll be able to attract more of the local kids,” Besovic says. “Once we join the Big 12, kids will know if they come to the University of Houston, they’ll be able to compete against some of the best universities in the country.”