MARCH MADNESS

Here's the driving force behind the spectacular rebirth of a storied Houston program

The Cougars face off against University of Alabama-Birmingham on Friday. Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images.

To borrow from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, last Sunday was the best of times and the worst of times for Houston basketball fans.

That same day, the University of Houston Cougars breezed 71-53 past the Memphis Tigers and won the American Athletic Conference tournament. That same day the Houston Rockets got plastered 130-105 by the New Orleans Pelicans and thudded to the worst record in the NBA.

You know what that makes the City of Houston, right? We’re Even Steven. One team is sky-high and is headed to March Madness, the other can’t sink any lower and is praying for a lucky ping-pong ball.

Let’s accentuate the positive. It’s sort of hard to believe, but this is the first time since 1992 that the Cougars won both their conference regular season title and year-end tournament. Despite losing four players from their Final Four team of 2021 and missing two of their best returnees, guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, to injury, the Cougars finished 29-5, their second-highest win total ever, surpassed only by the 33-4 team from 2018-19.

The 5-seed Cougars start their road back to the Final Four against USA Conference champs University of Alabama-Birmingham at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. It’s a perilous 5-12 matchup, but the Cougars have talent and experience on their side. UAB is making its first Madness appearance since 2015. The Coogs are favored by 8.5 points. The game will be televised on TNT starting at 8:20 p.m. Friday. If Houston wins they will play the winner of No. 4 Illinois vs. No. 13 Chattanooga on Sunday.

Kelvin Sampson was hired as UH’s head basketball coach in 2014. Let’s see how it’s worked out. The Cougars have won 196 games and lost 69 times. They’ve won at least 21 games each season since 2015, averaging 26 victories. In 2018, they finished in the national Top 25 rankings for the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler drove UH to Final Fours in the early ‘80s. In 2019 UH won a school record 33 games.

During Sampson’s tenure, UH has built a $25 million practice facility and spent $60 million renovating Hofheinz Pavilion, now called the Fertitta Center for obvious reasons. When it comes to renaming an athletic arena, nothing is more obvious than a big fat donation.

Kelvin Sampson has restored UH’s basketball glimmer and glory, the Cougars are a national powerhouse, prepared for their promotion to the Big 12 as soon as next year.

Maybe it’s time to erect a statue of Sampson outside the Fertitta Center. He represents the honor of UH athletics and the soul of our city.

There’s so much to like about the guy. His son Kellen is an assistant coach of UH basketball. Daughter Lauren is UH’s Director of Basketball Operations. Wife Karen bakes chocolate chip cookies for the players. The night before a home game, Sampson invites the team to his house for dinner and camaraderie.

Not that you need any more reasons to like and respect Sampson, but here’s my No. 1. He loves dogs. In fact …

I met Sampson in 2016 when someone tipped me, “Kelvin Sampson has a dog named Fajita who’s 20 years old and there’s no stronger love on Earth than those two.” I contacted the tough, rough, no-nonsense coach.

"Fajita has my heart," Sampson said. "I love his unconditional love. He has grown up with Lauren and Kellen and so many of my teams. He is such a loyal and loving friend. My whole family loves him as much as I do. I have a hard time envisioning life without him. Twenty-plus years is a long time. He has been a great friend.

"I named him Fajita because that's my favorite Mexican food - and he's a Mexican Chihuahua. Fajita has appeared with me and my family on College Game Day. The crew - Jay Bilas, Sean McDonough and Bill Raftery - all made a big fuss over Fajita at my house. In the early 2000s, Whitey Herzog, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals would come over and watch basketball games. Fajita sat with us and watched the games, too."

Kellen always knew his ranking on the Sampson family depth chart.

"Fajita's well-being and quality of life has been his primary concern for a long time. Hearing him refer to Fajita as 'my boy' always let me know exactly where I stand,” Kellen said

Fajita passed away a year later. Sampson was devastated and didn’t know if he could adopt another dog to replace Fajita.

He could and he did.

“My parents did get a new dog! Her name is Roxie!” Lauren Sampson reported.

Poor Kellen, knocked down another peg. It’s nothing another Final Four appearance wouldn’t soothe, though.

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