Monday marked Sampson’s 1,000th game as a college head coach.
Of all places: He did it in the state of Indiana.
And in all the years, and in all the games, the No.1000 has coincided with Sampson leading Houston to its first Final Four since 1984.
Cougars 67, Oregon State Beavers 61. How the Midwest was won. Few of the coaches’ resumes at the end of the camp match what Sampson – in his seventh season in Houston – has just accomplished. This is the second round of the Final Four of his eventful career. The first came with the Sooners in 2002 when OU was a No.2 seed. Just like what Houston is here. And in 2002, Sampson beat a No.12 seed, just like Houston did on Monday night.
Half of 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 break between Final Four races is one of a head coach’s longest gaps in college basketball history. The man paid a high price, had a comfortable but unfit exile in the NBA, and then took the less-than-scenic route to connect with his own rutted road to the Final Four.
Sampson, 65, cut his teeth in his twenties and thirties at Montana Tech and Washington state in the ’80s and’ 90s. He arrived in Oklahoma in 1994 and steadfastly built the Sooners in the top 10 national programs. As the world changed in the early 2000s, cellphones and modern technology overtook the turtle tempo updates of the NCAA rulebook. Haphazard statutes have been put in place in an attempt to keep up with ever-changing technology. They have fallen behind. But rules are rules, and Sampson broke them. He blatantly shattered them.
These days, there are no limits on phone calls or text messages from coaches to rookies, 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 job in Indiana which amounted to one of the best practice 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 in Oklahoma did so at IU. A five-year show cause came later, with the punishment ranking among the biggest at the time for a former head coach. Sampson claimed he did not deliberately misinform investigators.
What has been done has been done. And in 2008, a lot of people thought Sampson’s time in college basketball was over. Always.
He left the NBA, where he tried to adjust but found no moving satisfaction. Three years with the Milwaukee Bucks, then three more with the Houston Rockets. At one point, as an assistant, Sampson was working on training with a tall man and addressing the player to jump a screen in defense. Sampson was just Sampson: a fiery professor trying to improve a player – albeit a veteran.
The player turned to Sampson, and that’s a paraphrase, but basically said, “Coach, you’re a great guy and trying to help. But let me tell you something. I will never skip a ball screen. Everything in my contract says I have to block the shots and rebound. This is where my bonuses are. So I’m going to block the shots and bounce back. I’m not going to skip a bullet screen for you. ”
Sampson knew then and there, NBA life was never really going to be for him.
In 2013, when the show’s cause was lifted, he couldn’t wait to go back to college. But which school would take it? That of the city where he lived. There was a once proud program on the streets that needed more than a rebuild. It took an architect, an engineer, an inventor and a nature coaching force in one. Someone tall enough to turn around in Houston, but also desperate enough to take the job.
No candidate was better for this than Sampson.
Houston might have had the worst facilities (decades past their expiration date) and infrastructure of any program with multiple Final Four appearances at that time.
“He took the job because he wouldn’t have to move,” a source close to the Sampson family told CBS Sports. “He was with the Houston Rockets. He liked the idea that you could recruit in Houston and be home for dinner. It wasn’t blue blood, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure. ”
The entry point was perfect, even though the team was anything but. Sampson was 57 at the time. If he started coaching 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. There is a lot of stress associated with running a program, such as engaging with often grueling boosters. Lauren Sampson is the go-between. Many see her as the glue to it all. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in 2017, it was Lauren who led the operation which brought in a lot of cash and clothing donations that helped thousands of people in Houston and the surrounding area.
Sampson rounded out his squad by hiring his former Sooner players – Quannas White and Hollis Price – men who are part of Sampson’s family.
“He’s basically a team of people he’s super comfortable with and who believe in him,” the source said. “After watching a situation like Indiana play out, where people are against you as soon as you get there, you obviously want the people you know are there for you.
Sampson went from 13 wins in the first year to 22, 21 and 27 in the fourth year, which marked a long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament – for UH and for Sampson. The family-owned operation, College Basketball Mom and Pop Shop, has made it big. Houston made the tournament again the following year, in 2019, and came back better than ever this season. He did so even after losing arguably his best player, Caleb Mills, to transfer early in the season.
The family remains tight. This Monday night tweet from Kellen Sampson speaks powerfully about it.
There have been bigger job opportunities in recent years, nothing more than Arkansas in 2019. The Razorbacks got Eric Musselman instead, and it’s been working incredibly well so far. (The Razorbacks fell to Baylor in the other regional final on Monday.) But Houston is home. Kellen is in line to succeed her father, whenever Kelvin decides he’s had enough.
How could he stop now? The Cougars represented something magnificent in college basketball. For nearly two decades, they were a nationally relevant team with some of the sport’s greatest players. In 1984, no one could have imagined the three decades drifting into darkness to come. The man to restore the chandelier was someone who was himself forced into darkness. Sampson is not a story of redemption; he knocked himself out down the mountain.
But it’s also proof that, if you’re great at your varsity athletics craft, ask anyone; Sampson is awesome – there is almost always a way back.
And if you’re ready to skip a ball screen, you might even get there a little faster.