The Rise, Fall and Rise of Kelvin Sampson

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At the first press conference of the first NCAA Tournament I ever covered, I came prepared with a question for then-Oklahoma head coach Kelvin Sampson that felt controversial; at least, in my college-kid mind.

One question before my turn, Sampson absolutely roasted an Oklahoma City radio jock who pushed the coach about the intensity of his team’s practices shortly ahead of a First Round matchup with Niagara.

Already sheepish about the topic I hoped to broach, Sampson’s skewering led to me squeaking out my question in a decibel barely above a whisper.

You’re a popular name in Tucson as a successor for Lute Olson. Having coached in the Pac-10, and being out here now for the NCAA Tournament, can you see this as a place for you one day?

Perhaps he recognized my youth — wearing a shirt and tie for off-day media sessions may have been a dead giveaway I was a college kid. There’s a distinct chance I grimaced after getting off my dumb question, in preparation for a certain butt-chewing.

Whatever his motivation, Sampson didn’t roast me. He even gave a thoughtful non-answer, praising the McKale Center crowd from his days at Washington State, lauding the culture Olson built at Arizona, and so on.

I never actually wrote my column suggesting Kelvin Sampson as the choice to replace Lute Olson, but if I had, he provided me worthwhile quotes.

Sampson was indeed a hot name at the time, not only in the Arizona basketball circles I followed, but across college basketball. In 2002, he coached Oklahoma to its first Final Four appearance since Billy Tubbs’ outstanding 1988 Sooners. OU reached the Elite Eight the next season.

Oklahoma became a worthy rival to Kansas in the Big 12 by this juncture, and primed to position itself as the conference’s leader as the Jayhawks adjusted to life after Roy Williams. In Tucson, Sampson was arguably known as well for his tenure at Washington State, where he built the program into a competitive player in the Pac-10.

Sampson’s time in Pullman culminated with an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1994. He’s one of only two coaches to take the Cougars to the Big Dance in the past 35 years. The other, Tony Bennett, leads the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s Tournament.

Kelvin Sampson also coached a young LaVar at Washington State, and didn’t run screaming into the Palouse.

Put simply, Sampson had an impressive resume that was destined only to improve — barring catastrophe.

I opened with the NCAA Tournament anecdote both to set the scene of Sampson’s prominence in the game at that particular time, and because it’s the first thing that pops to mind for me when I hear his name. For the majority, I venture to guess the first thing that comes to mind when hearing about or thinking of Kelvin Sampson are the NCAA violations that crippled Indiana for almost a half-decade, and the five-year show-cause that kept him out of college basketball before landing at Houston.

It’s the storyline most synonymous with his career, and one a young reporter is likely to sheepishly ask him ahead of Houston’s Round 1 matchup with San Diego State. I hope he spares that reporter the verbal pasting he spared me years ago.

Really, though, there are more interesting subplots emanating from Sampson’s return to the NCAA Tournament after an 11-year hiatus. Houston is the fourth program he’s taken to the Big Dance, joining Washington State; Oklahoma; and Indiana. Only Lon Kruger and Tubby Smith have coached more teams to the Tournament.

The Cougars’ appearance marks their first since 2010, and just the program’s second dating back to 1992.

Houston’s NCAA Tournament fortunes over the past quarter-decade are as barren as Washington State’s. The key difference is that Houston boasts an impressive basketball lineage, with the local recruiting pool necessary to regain national prominence.

Kelvin Sampson has made considerable strides toward restoring Houston to basketball greatness. This season’s at-large invitation to the Tournament marks a new milestone in a three-year run with 69 wins (and counting). This season’s 26 wins are the program’s most since the national runner-up 1983-84 team won 32, and the streak of three consecutive teams winning 20-plus games marks Houston’s best since those Guy Lewis teams of the early ’80s.

In the mid-2000s, Kelvin Sampson was a hot name for jobs at upper echelon programs like Arizona, and eventually landed with a blue blood at Indiana. Those days may be behind him — even with the show-cause and NCAA violations well in his past, he turned 62 before the season — but Sampson need not leave his current post to lead a national powerhouse.

Football primarily motivated Houston’s move to the American Athletic Conference, and it’s paid off for the Gridiron Cougars, but it may be an even bigger boon for Houston basketball. The Cougars share a conference with historic and contemporary power Cincinnati, recently added burgeoning program Wichita State, and a UConn program one good coaching hire away from returning to top-tier prominence.

And Sampson has Houston positioned to be at the forefront of solidifying the American’s place in the college basketball landscape. The success of this current team, built largely on JUCO transfers like Rob Gray and Corey Davis Jr., gives Houston a stage it’s lacked for the better part of 30 years.

As the hot recruiting scene in Houston and throughout Texas takes notice, local products give the program natural pipelines to sustained success.

Houston basketball can be special for the long run, presumably sparing Kelvin Sampson from dumb questions about his coaching future.