INDIANAPOLIS — Fifteen years to the day from when Kelvin Sampson left Oklahoma for Indiana under a cloud of controversy — for a job that would ultimately bring more controversy, by his own hand, and torpedo his career — the man made it back to the summit of the sport.
Monday marked Sampson’s 1,000th game as a college head coach.
Of all places: He did it in the state of Indiana.
And of all years, and of all games, No. 1,000 coincided with Sampson steering Houston to its first Final Four since 1984.
Cougars 67, Oregon State Beavers 61. How the Midwest was won. Few late-stage coaching revivals parallel what Sampson — in his seventh season at Houston — has just accomplished. This is the second Final Four run of his checkered career. The first came with the Sooners in 2002, when OU was a No. 2 seed. Just like what Houston is here. And in ’02 Sampson beat a No. 12 seed, just like Houston did Monday night.
Half the Final Four is set. Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander recap Monday night’s action on the latest episode of Eye on College Basketball.
Sampson’s 19-year hiatus between Final Four runs is among the longest gaps by a head coach in college basketball history. The man paid a hefty price, had a comfortable-but-unfit exile to the NBA, then took the less-than-scenic route to link back up with his own rutted road to the Final Four.
Sampson, 65, cut his teeth in his 20s and 30s at Montana Tech and Washington State in the 1980s and ’90s. He got to Oklahoma in 1994 and steadfastly built up the Sooners into a top-10 national program. As the world changed in the early 2000s, cell phones and modern technology outpaced the tortoise-tempo updates to the NCAA’s rule book. Haphazard bylaws were put in place in attempt to keep up with ever-changing tech. They lagged. But rules are rules, and Sampson broke them. He flagrantly broke them.
Nowadays there are no limits on phone calls or text messages from coaches to recruits, at least not during live periods. But it was different 15 years ago. Sampson fled Oklahoma with the NCAA on his tail and he took the Indiana job, which amounted to one of the best coaching-swerve gambits in college basketball of that era. But Sampson couldn’t get out of his own way; Indiana was no better off when he took a $750,000 buyout and resigned in February 2008. The same violations that plagued him at Oklahoma did him in at IU. A five-year show cause came later, the punishment ranking among the biggest ever at the time for a former head coach. Sampson claimed the whole way he didn’t knowingly misinform investigators.
What was done was done. And in 2008, a lot of people thought Sampson’s time in college basketball was done. Forever.
He shuffled off the NBA, where he tried to adapt but didn’t find soulful satisfaction. Three years with the Milwaukee Bucks, then three more with the Houston Rockets. At one point early on as an assistant, Sampson was working in practice with a big man and laying into the player about jumping a screen on defense. Sampson was just being Sampson: a fiery teacher trying to better a player — albeit a veteran.
The player turned to Sampson, and this is a paraphrase, but essentially said, “Coach, you’re a great guy and trying to help. But let me tell you something. I will never jump a ball screen. Everything in my contract says I have to block shots and rebound. That’s where my bonuses are. So I’m going to block shots and rebound. I won’t be jumping one ball screen for you.”
Sampson knew then and there the NBA life was never truly going to be for him.
In 2013, when the show cause was lifted, he ached to get back to college. But what school would take him? The one in the city he lived in. There was a once-proud program down the street that needed more than a rebuild. It needed an architect, an engineer, an inventor and a force of coaching nature in one. Someone great enough to turn around Houston, but also desperate enough to take the job.
No candidate was better for it than Sampson.
Houston might have had the worst facilities (decades past their expiration date) and infrastructure of any program with multiple Final Four appearances to its name at that point.
“He took the job because he wouldn’t have to move,” one source close to the Sampson family told CBS Sports. “He was with the Houston Rockets. He liked the idea you could recruit in Houston and be home for dinner. It wasn’t a blue blood, and so there wasn’t huge pressure.”
The entry point was perfect, though the team was anything but. Sampson was 57 at the time. If he was going to coach again, it would be a family affair — literally. His son, Kellen, would join the staff. His daughter, Lauren, would be the director of external operations. Running a program comes with a lot of stresses, like engaging with oft-trying boosters. Lauren Sampson is the go-between. Many consider her the glue to it all. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in 2017, it was Lauren who ran the operation that brought loads of money donations and clothing that helped thousands in Houston and the surrounding region.
Sampson filled out his staff by hiring his former Sooner players — Quannas White and Hollis Price — men who are family to Sampson.
“It’s basically a team of people that he is super comfortable with that believe in him,” the source said. “After you watch how a situation like Indiana unfolds, where people are against you from the minute you get there, obviously you want people that you know are there for you.”
Sampson went from 13 wins in Year One to 22, 21 and then 27 by Year Four, which marked a long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament — for UH and for Sampson. The family operation, college basketball’s Mom and Pop Shop, made it big. Houston made the tournament again the next year, in 2019, and returned better than ever this season. It did so even after losing arguably its best player, Caleb Mills, to transfer early in the season.
The family stays tight. This Kellen Sampson tweet from Monday night speaks to that in a powerful way.
There have been bigger job opportunities in recent years, none more than Arkansas in 2019. The Razorbacks got Eric Musselman instead, and that’s working out amazingly well to this point. (The Razorbacks fell to Baylor in the other regional final on Monday.) But Houston is home. Kellen is in line to succeed his father, whenever Kelvin decides he’s had enough.
How could he stop now? The Cougars used to represent something magnificent in college basketball. For nearly two decades this was a nationally relevant outfit with some of the greatest players in the sport. In 1984 no one could have imagined the three-decade drift into obscurity that was coming. The man to restore the luster was someone who was forced into obscurity himself. Sampson is no redemption story; he knocked himself off down the mountain.
But he’s also proof that, if you are great at your craft in college athletics — ask anyone; Sampson is great — there is almost always a way back.
And if you’re willing to jump a ball screen, you might even get there a little bit quicker.