Don’t sleep on Kelvin Sampson’s revival project taking place at the University of Houston, which is both business and personal.
While the majority of college hoops fans watch in admiration at what Coach K has cooking at Duke with his freshmen phenoms, Zion Williamson‘s recent injury not withstanding, there’s an equally compelling, though admittedly less sexy, story being authored by head coach Kelvin Sampson at the University of Houston.
Over the weekend, the Cougars beat Tulane 85-50 to secure their tenth straight victory. At 25-1, Sampson has guided the program to its first Top Ten ranking since the days of Phi Slamma Jamma.
Back in 2008, Sampson, then the head coach at Indiana, was banned from college basketball by the NCAA, which hit him with a five-year show-cause penalty for hundreds of impermissible phone calls to recruits. Most thought he’d never coach another game, let alone resurface with such a vengeance.
Now, more than a decade after his unceremonious departure from Indiana which seemed to signal a halt to his eventual Hall of Fame induction, Sampson has guided Houston to four consecutive 20-win seasons, locked up consecutive NCAA bids and has the Cougars looking like a potential Final Four squad.
After stints as an assistant with the Spurs, Bucks and Rockets in the NBA during his NCAA banishment, the University of Houston was willing to give Sampson a second chance at the college level.
And he’s taken the opportunity to fashion an incredible redemption story and remind everyone that he’s one of the greatest coaches the game has ever seen.
His current Cougars crew may lack a transcendent superstar, but like many of his teams of yesteryear, the sum of their overall talent is greater than their individual parts.
His squads have always played with a controlled belligerence and aggression. And this year is no exception, with Houston among the country’s best when it comes to effective field goal percentage defense and defending 3-pointers.
In a way, his teams have always been a reflection of the man himself as a slept-on underdog with the heart and passion to succeed no matter the obstacles.
Sampson is a Lumbee Native American who was born and raised in North Carolina. After a stellar athletic career at Pembroke State University, now known as UNC – Pembroke, where he lettered in both basketball and baseball, Sampson took a gig as a graduate assistant with Jud Heathcoat at Michigan State the season after Magic Johnson departed East Lansing with a national championship.
A few years later, he was leading his own program at Montana Tech in the NAIA. After going 7-20 in his first year as a head coach, he led them to three straight 22-win seasons and a pair of Frontier Conference titles.
After five years at Montana Tech, he took a leap into the world of big-time college hoops as an assistant at Washington State. Two years after arriving in Pullman, he was named Washington State’s head coach.
When he led them to the NIT in 1992, it marked the first time the school had participated in postseason play since 1983. Two years after their NIT bid, Sampson led them to the NCAA Tournament for the school’s first March Madness appearance in 11 years.
In his first season at the helm with the Oklahoma Sooners in 1995, he was named national coach of the year after guiding the program to an undefeated record at home while going 23–9 overall. His Oklahoma squads went to the NCAA tournament 11 times in 12 seasons, including a remarkable run to the Final Four in the 2001-2002 season.
At Indiana, he won 43 games in less than two seasons before his ouster due to those hundreds of impermissible phone calls to recruits, which led to the five-year NCAA coaching ban.
Now at the University of Houston, he’s resurrecting a once dominant program that is far removed from the glory days of Elvin Hayes, and the dynamo that took college hoops by storm with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Benny Anders in the early-to-mid ’80s.
After making three straight Final Four’s from 1982-84, the Cougars basically fell off the map. Sampson is now putting them back on.
Houston went 13-19 in his first season. Last year, they almost advanced to the Sweet 16 before Michigan hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win by a point.
With Sampson leading Houston’s resurgence, the resources and energy are now in place for the program to make some major noise in the days and years ahead.
Indicative of this renewal was the opening of the $60 million renovated Fertitta Center.
Houston is in the mix for the school’s highest NCAA Tournament seeding in 35 years, all without one household name on the national scale.
Sampson’s often said that he wants his players to become addicted. Not to winning but to becoming better.
In retrospect, the NCAA did Sampson dirty by banning him. Those telecommunications violations that he was supposedly guilty of, the one’s that brought about his unceremonious ouster, are no longer in the rule book.
Thankfully, he was given a fresh opportunity to redeem himself. And the magnitude of what he’s accomplishing should escape no one.
The hardships and obstacles to get Houston back to national relevance have been beyond substantial. There was the destruction of Hurricane Harvey that decimated the area. Their home arena, Hofheinz Pavilion, was dilapidated and neglected to the point that strong rains would leak through the ceiling and onto the court.
Last year, during the renovation that would eventually transform Hofheinz into the sparkling Fertitta Center, the Cougars had to practice and play their games at Texas Southern.
Less driven men would have crumbled, but it was a small thing to a giant as far as Sampson was concerned. He was pushed out of coaching for years over some nonsense, but fought his way back.
Sampson is one of but two coaches of color, the other being Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, leading a program that’s currently ranked in the Top 25.
When talking about this year’s Houston team, Sampson told CBS Sports, “They deal you the cards, you pick them up, look at them and say, ‘Here’s what I got’ and figure out where to go from there.”
Sounds like the same philosophy he’s used in life.
So as March Madness approaches and folks start touting the usual suspects of Duke, North Carolina, Michigan, Kansas and others, don’t sleep on Kelvin Sampson’s revival project taking place at the University of Houston.
It’s both business and personal, and perhaps the best college basketball story that very few are talking about.