Signing Sampson long term, the key to continued hoops success

For U of H, Sampson deal better not turn into Herman 2.0

Kelvin Sampson. Bob Levey/Getty Images

Key cog

Coach Kelvin Sampson has restored and re-built the Cougar Basketball Program

Kelvin Sampson. Getty Images

The University of Houston Men's Basketball team just wrapped up its most successful regular season in the program's history and the deepest NCAA tournament run in over 30 years. Head coach Kelvin Sampson did what he said he was going to do when he took over the program 5 years ago, as the team got better and improved their record every season leading up to this historic campaign. Sampson is now a free agent with his contract expiring after the Cougars fell to the Kentucky Wildcats in a hard fought contest that saw the Coogs fight back from a double-digit deficit and have several chances to win the game. Sampson and his staff constructed a roster of versatile talent that played both ends of the floor, guarded multiple positions and bought into everything Sampson was selling in terms of the desire and effort necessary to play winning basketball on a nightly basis. The coach more than lived up to his end of the bargain and contract he signed with the university. It's now time for the school to step and make sure he stays for the long haul and continues to build on the winning culture he created when he resurrected and re-built the program. Cougar fans have been there and done that when it comes to coaches that came in and found success, only to leave the first chance they got to springboard to a perceived bigger, better situation. The time is now to stop being a stepping stone for up and coming coaches and to send a message that the university is now a premier destination that rewards winning leadership with long term financial security.

Adios, Tom

University of Texas football coach Tom Herman

Tom Herman sold the Coogs out for a big deal with the Horns

Tim Warner/Getty Images

We don't need to look very far back in time when we scan the history of Houston Athletics to find a coach that had immediate success only to mislead the administration and scholarship athletes and jump ship just when everyone thought he was their long term solution that would be in H-town for years to come. Tom Herman had everyone fooled into thinking he loved the city, the school, the success and the opportunity to put the program back on the national scene as a perennial top 25 squad. His players bought into his passion well before he started kissing them as they got off the bus on game day and the administration and the biggest boosters of the athletic department were sold a bill of goods that he was here for the long haul. Just as fast as he had gotten the entire city to buy in and believe the hype train he had ridden into town on, he was gone like a rocket ship, soaring to greener pastures in Austin, when the University of Texas backed up the Brinks truck and made him an offer he wouldn't refuse. His departure would set the program back several years and a few disappointing seasons.

Bring on Dana

Dana Holgorson was brought back to secure stability and success to Cougar Football

After firing Herman's successor, Major Applewhite, the school put its money where it's mouth is and reeled in a big-time leader in West Virginia head man and former U of H offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorson. They were the aggressor and the hunter, instead of the feeding ground that was hunted, as they made him an offer he couldn't refuse and made sure that this time around the Coogs would not be in a position to lose. The move solidified the long term leadership of the program and gave them a chance to compete for every recruit as well as conference titles, major bowl games and potentially a whole lot more. If they use that process as a blueprint, the time is now for them to do the exact same thing with Sampson and the basketball team.

All about Fertitta

Fertitta Center

Tilman Fertitta could be the key in the Coogs keeping Kelvin Sampson

Tilman Fertitta made the Fertitta Center a reality. Houston Cougars Men's Hoops Facebook

We have all heard the rumors that Arkansas wants Sampson and Hunter Yurachek, the AD for the Razorbacks, knows him well and would love to steal him away to do for the Hogs what he has done for the Coogs. After all, Yurachek was the same guy in the same position at U of H, that brought Sampson in to turn around his hoops team. He would get his man and parlay that success, the winning football team, the other nationally recognized programs like track and all the new facilities into a bigger, seemingly better gig in the SEC. Yet another example of a "jumper" that used the opportunity in Houston to springboard him to more money and a better offer elsewhere. There are reports out there that Sampson has been offered a 6 year, 18 million dollar deal to stay on campus and continue coaching the Coogs if that is indeed the case he would be in the rare air of the top 25 highest paid coaches in the sport. He already has his family deeply involved with his son on his coaching staff and daughter in charge of Basketball Operations, which the University happily supports. The family likes Houston as a city and has roots here having been here for over nine years including his four years as a Rockets assistant. As long as the dollars make sense, it seems like a no-brainer that Kelvin can keep it all in the family and stay put on Cullen Boulevard. Let's hope the administration and their biggest booster, Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta, can make the dollars make sense and keep the coach where he belongs in H-town.

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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