KANSAS CITY, Mo. – He was standing in an empty alcove of a very quiet locker room, considering how things could have gone – and almost went – differently.
“We were right there,” Kelvin Sampson said, and he listed three sequences in the final minute of a 62-58 loss Friday night to Kentucky. If any of those had gone Houston’s way … but the coach didn’t go further.
Sampson knew the next question was coming, of course. It had nothing to do with the game and everything to do with where he might go next. Reports have Sampson as potentially the top target in Arkansas’ coaching search.
Will Sampson still be at Houston in the next few days?
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Sampson told USA TODAY Sports. But he added: “It’s gonna get resolved quick.”
When Arkansas fired Mike Anderson earlier this week after eight seasons, speculation immediately turned to Sampson, for several reasons. Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek was a senior associate athletic director at Houston when Sampson was hired in 2014. He had a prime seat to watch Sampson rebuild the long-struggling program into a success. And Houston, which reached the Sweet 16 this season for the first time in 35 years, was only Sampson’s latest project.
Although one Houston media outlet reported this week that Sampson and Arkansas were already headed toward a deal, it appeared premature. Echoing what he’d earlier told the Houston Chronicle, Sampson told USA TODAY Sports he would meet with Houston before talking with any other suitors.
“That’s still the plan,” he said Friday night.
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Sampson has two years remaining on a contract that pays $1.6 million annually. There are indications he was frustrated when negotiations were not completed before the season started. But although Houston athletic director Chris Pezman declined to address the topic Friday night, the school appears set now to offer a dramatic increase in years and dollars.
“It’s about these kids tonight, and coach (Sampson) and the job they just did,” Pezman said. “It’s been an incredible season. … Let’s get back home and when coach is ready to talk, we’re ready to go.”
Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire businessman who is chair of Houston’s board of regents as well as the school’s biggest athletics booster, attended the game and confirmed to Houston TV station KRIV that the school is prepared to offer Sampson a six-year, $18 million deal. The $3 million annual average would rank 21st among college basketball coaches, according to the USA TODAY Sports salary database, and second in the American Athletic Conference (Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall makes $3.57 million a year).
“We love Kelvin,” Fertitta told KRIV. “Kelvin’s done an unbelievable job. … We’re all happy with Kelvin. But if Kelvin doesn’t want to be here, there’s nothing we can do about it. We put $18 million on the table over six years.”
Fertitta added: “I’m sure Kelvin is thinking about it and looking at his options, and I sure hope he doesn’t want to go to Arkansas. There’s nothing better than the city of Houston. Fayetteville is a great place but it’s not Houston, Texas.”
Anderson’s annual salary at Arkansas was $2.55 million. It’s uncertain what Arkansas might pay to lure a new coach, though indications are the Razorbacks would have no issue surpassing $3 million a year – four SEC coaches made more than that during the 2018-19 season. But there’s potentially more involved than money.
Sampson might like one more shot at building a winner at a Power Five program; in 12 seasons at Oklahoma, he coached in 11 NCAA tournaments, reaching the Final Four in 2002. A two-season tenure at Indiana ended in turmoil in 2008, with resulting NCAA sanctions against the school and a show-cause order against Sampson, which effectively banned him from college coaching for five years.
Houston is prime recruiting territory, and the school now has facilities to rival any other program, including the $60 million Fertitta Center, which opened earlier this season and includes a sparkling new arena and team operations facilities. But Arkansas has similarly splendid facilities and can offer the brighter lights of the SEC.
Another potential factor: Sampson, 63, has indicated he would like his son Kellen, Houston’s lead assistant coach, to be formally named coach-in-waiting as part of any new deal. It’s unclear whether Houston – or Arkansas, for that matter – would be willing to do that. But Fertitta told KRIV, “I’m very appreciative of everything Kelvin and his son have done.”
Also of note: Arkansas chancellor Joseph Steinmetz spent 19 years at Indiana, though he left two years before Sampson became the Hoosiers’ coach.
After leaving Indiana, Sampson spent six years in the NBA in assistant coaching roles before returning to college coaching with Houston, where the Cougars are 116-52 in five seasons, with consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. This season, Houston won a school-record 33 games.
“I know Hunter would like to hire him,” Fertitta told KRIV, referring to Yurachek, Arkansas’ athletic director. “… I hope Kelvin stays with us for many years, but I cannot make him stay. The chancellor can’t make him stay. His players can’t make him stay. Kelvin’s gonna do what he wants to do.”