Hoops Off Season Update: Part 2

With less than a month remaining until your Houston Cougars men’s basketball team begins pre-season practice for the 2015-16 season, we continue with the second part of our off-season update from last week as head coach Kelvin Sampson gives his thoughts on conference realignment and how it pertains to the Cougars athletics program, refurbishing of Hofheinz Pavilion, his coaching and support staff, and other hot issue topics such as ‘pay-for-play’ and ‘cost-of-attendance.’

We begin with a topic everyone has been wondering about; the refurbishing of Hofheinz Pavilion and how it affects the athletics program vis-a-vi conference realignment. I would be remiss however, if I didn’t mention Sampson’s thanking of a major contributor of the program for paying for the China trip, “We had one of our big friends of our program, John Moores Jr., who wrote a check and funded this thing and every time I think of the China trip I think of him and his generosity and just how nice it was of him to do that.” In case you’re wondering, yes that is the son of John Moores, who donated a then record (to a public university) $51 Million to the athletics department in 1991 that led to the building of the athletics alumni center. Working for the athletics department from 1996 through 98 as a student assistant for ‘Cougar Video,’ I couldn’t imagine what the facilities were like before then.

I mention this because Sampson was animated when talking about how major donors need to come forward to fund the refurbishing of Hofheinz, which ties into the Cougars efforts at being included in the next round of conference realignment, “Hunter’s (athletics director Hunter Yurachek) really working hard to find major donors. He has trips planned to see this individual and this individual and I think it’s going good. For us to be able to take that next step in basketball, it starts with recruiting and this building here (the AAC). Last year when I got here when I recruited a kid I sat him on the couch in my office and that’s all. I would never take him anywhere. I wouldn’t take him to Hofheinz. We didn’t have a practice facility. When you look at Memphis, Cincinnati, SMU, Connecticut, Tulsa, Central Florida, South Florida, Tulane, Temple; you talk about nine beautiful arenas, up-to-date, modern practice facilities and when I came here I wanted to know why we are so far behind? Why, when all these other schools have done it? But now we’re catching up with this practice facility that’s being built.”

Then with his next statement comes the whammy. Sampson sounded pretty convinced when he said, “We’re really going to be spinning our wheels as far as trying to move into a P5 (power-5) conference until Hofheinz is addressed. We’re not a year away from being in a P5 conference. We’re not two years away. We’re five, six, seven years away because we can’t go to a P5 conference until we have a new arena. We’re not going to the Big12. They’ll laugh at us if we tried entering their conference with Hofheinz in the current shape it’s in. That’s reality.”

According to basketball Sports Information Director Jeff Conrad, no formal announcements have been made as talks are still on-going with the Board of Regents but coach Sampson has said he would like the refurbishing to be completed by the start of the 2017-18 season, adding, “It’s moving. It’s going to happen. Hunter’s doing a great job and he’s made it known in our coaches meetings that the number one priority in this athletic department is to renovate Hofheinz.”

In Part 1 of this off-season update we talked about the student-athletes who will make up the current team. I asked Sampson about the game itself in general and how the NCAA could make it more appealing to fans as scoring dipped to an historic low of 67.6 points per game last season, “First thing I’d do is in the last two minutes of the game is not play 94-feet. If you have a dead ball and a coach wants to call a timeout, instead of having to take the ball out of bounds and go 94-feet, just move it to half court.”

As far as lowering the shot clock from its current 30 seconds, “The game keeps evolving. I remember being a head coach when it was 45 (seconds). Then they moved it to 35 and then to 30. I hope I’m a head coach when they move it to 24.” Then Sampson started thinking out loud, “Why 24? Why not 26? Why not 25? We chopped 10 seconds off it to 35 and now we chopped 5 more so maybe in five, six years.” Coach trials off and starts laughing, “It takes years for coaches to agree on anything but I’d like to see a 25-second shot clock. I mean we’ve got this cost-of-attendance thing. Who ever thought we’d be paying players but we are. Who ever thought the shot clock would hit 30? One day it’ll be at 25. Coaches are starting to realize this game is for the fans and players and the more we do for them the better our game’s going to be. Coaches tend to be controlling and that’s why the pace of the game has become so slow. We want to call plays and slow it down because we think that’s what gives us our best chance to win. But coaches are smart and will adjust and learn to control the pace with a 30-second shot clock.”

Working as a member of the support staff back in the day I recognize how vital they are in contributing to the various athletics programs so I asked coach Sampson to talk about his staff, “We have as good an athletic trainer as I’ve ever been around in John Houston. We’re very lucky to have him. First of all he’s a man of great character. He works hard at his job and he’s cutting edge in almost every area and he really cares which is important for a trainer. He cares about his kids individually and they all respect him. The strength-and-conditioning coach is Jason Russell. He gets better every month. Our players really respect him. He’s a hard worker. He’s in early and out late. He’s got so many different stretching programs and flexibility programs that he’s always working on for our guys and then the strength training; adding bulk and weight to our bigs while maintaining that flexibility. We’re moving into a new practice facility hopefully in the next couple of months here and we have a new cutting edge thing called force plate technology. Jason’s really been spending a lot of time with NBA strength coaches and he’s really getting cutting edge with that so he does a really great job for us.”

While different at various universities, force plate technology is a computerized tracking system which pinpoints a basketball player’s weaknesses and designs the most advanced strength-and-conditioning program to optimize performance in the shortest time possible in many key areas to the success of a basketball player including: injury prevention, balance, flexibility, vertical leap, speed, agility and quickness and overall power or basic sport-specific movement efficiency (this all via explosive-athletes.com).

Sampson on his support staff when it comes to academics, “Our academics staff I don’t think we mention enough of along with our compliance staff; Lauren DuBois. Angel Shamblin in academics and I call her MC; Maria Peden (Associate Athletics Director for Student-Athlete Development). They’re all studs. We have a close group. We don’t have the largest budget but we have great people. I think that’s what makes this university so special.”

Coach touched on his coaching staff next, “As far as my staff, my son Kellen doesn’t have an area that he’s not good at. He’s really good in so many different areas. He’s energetic. He’s always on set and the players really respect him. If something were to happen to me I’m sure that’s who would move into that spot because he does almost all the workouts. He probably does the most with the players and I think he’s going to be a heck of a coach. Coach (Alvin) Brooks is the voice of reason. He doesn’t say a lot but when he does everyone listens to him. He does a great job for us here in recruiting this area and I really respect him. Coach (Talvin) Hester is getting better and better as he goes and he’s finding his voice. He’s never been (coaching) at this level so it’s taking him awhile to adjust to being at this level but he’s going to be really good too and I really like him. Hollis Price (Director of Player Development) played for me at Oklahoma. His value comes with his experiences. He does a good job of getting to these guys and telling them what to expect, how to act and basically is like a big brother. Mikhail McLean is our grad assistant. He’s the best. I love him. He’s got a bright future if he wants to coach in college and he certainly can and someone will be lucky to have him. KC Beard is the best video guy I’ve ever been around. As a matter of fact he’s in Mexico City right now with Canada’s national team. He’s outstanding. I met him when I was working with the staff of the Canadian team and (their head coach) Jay Triano and offered him the job over here. He’s really talented and serves a lot of roles. The more he’s here the more he does and he won’t be in that role (video) for long.”

Turning the interview to subjects off the court, we then discussed the ‘cost-of-attendance’ and ‘pay-for-play’ issues that have hit the college basketball world by storm recently. Over the summer the football coaching staffs at both Virginia Tech and Cincinnati explored fining players out of their ‘cost-of-attendance’ stipends as a future disciplinary measure. I asked coach Sampson about instilling the same type of system in his program, “No that cost-of-attendance stipend is theirs, but getting that check is a privilege and not a right. If I have guys that are missing class, that are not upholding their part academically, I would talk to the athletics director about sending a message by maybe withholding some of their money but I would never fine them. I’m not interested in that. The only thing I’m interested in is our kids graduating. I’m passionate about that. My job is I’m their surrogate father. If I missed a class I know what my father and mother would do and if they (his players) miss a class I let them know about it. If I see it (missing class) becoming a trend then I would consider it but it’s not something I’m in favor of.”

A lot lately has been made of the plight of the college student-athlete in whether they should be considered students first or employees with as much money as they’re generating for each university. Sampson was very passionate about this subject, “Definitely student-athletes first for sure. I think they’ve opened a Pandora’s Box with this thing. Coaches are smart. We all fight for equality. The problem with pay-for-play is a school that feels like this is our way of leveling the playing field. Like you have a Kentucky in the SEC. They don’t need this to get the great players, whereas someone in that league may say ‘you know what? Let’s pay this exorbitant amount under cost-of-attendance and that’ll help us recruit players.’ When they came out with this idea initially, nobody thought about that. That’s why we have to have a set amount. Here’s what cost-of-attendance is and here’s what we’re allowed to pay. This is the maximum and this is the minimum.”

Coach went on laughingly, “Things are changing though. One of the things about culture is we went from the baby-boomers to Generation-X to the Millennials and they’re all different. When you think about all the money that’s being made by the NCAA tournament and where that money goes, most people don’t realize that the money bowl games make doesn’t go to the NCAA. They fund the sports that don’t make money. There are only two sports that generate money on 99-percent of college campuses; football and men’s basketball. Those two sports fund the rest of them. When I look at the money that’s being made by ‘March Madness,’ not just the games, but the TV deals; where’s that money going? You think about all the things associated with that; the TV revenue, apparel, marketing, corporate sponsorships, all the money that’s brought in. The coaches are compensated, but to legally pay players? I’m in favor of EVERY student athlete getting something. I don’t want just our football and basketball players to be the only ones getting paid because I don’t think that brings any kind of harmony to an athletics department. I think it puts the athletics director and administrators in a tough position. I’m here early in the morning and I see our women’s cross country team, our women’s softball team, our women’s basketball team, our women’s volleyball team and I see their coaches. I see Leroy (Burrell) and Carl (Lewis) out there with the track team and how hard they ALL work. Football and men’s basketball players work no harder than these other athletes. We’re just more visible. So when there’s a pie to be cut I want ALL of our student-athletes to get a piece of that pie.”

Our next article on the hoops team will be days before their exhibition versus Montana Tech on November the 13th.

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