HOUSTON — In his mind, Kelvin Sampson still drives the team van at Montana Tech. He will drive it forever. Thirty-eight years have passed since he began his basketball coaching career at the NAIA school, but he’s just a refined version of the 25-year-old who knew only to work hard and figure out the rest.
Back then, he taped his players’ ankles when the trainer was too busy with the football team. He swept the gym floor because he couldn’t find a manager among all those engineering students. Sometimes his team drove 10 hours through snowy Montana winters to play games. It was the small time. It was an idyllic time.
Sampson, now the coach at Houston, points to a framed collage in his fancy office. It’s a gift Montana Tech sent after he earned his 600th career victory Jan. 16. It reads “The Road to 600” and includes newspaper clippings of his hiring and first game in 1981. The way Sampson gazes at the display, it feels as if his eyes are processing his entire, intricate journey from Butte, Mont., to Pullman, Wash., to Norman, Okla., to Bloomington, Ind., to NCAA exile, to NBA apprenticeship, to Houston, to resurrection. All roads lead back to the resourcefulness and persistence he developed at Montana Tech.
“That was my lab,” Sampson, 63, said after a long pause. “I got to do experiments with no repercussions. That school became a safe haven for me.”
That school represents Sampson at his purest: a blue-collar, optimistic, resolute basketball savant. Strip away four decades of aspiration, strip away the misdeeds that almost ruined his career, and that’s the best of him. In good times and bad, he always returns to Montana Tech.
Sampson cannot remove the tarnish, however. Many will remember him as a serial NCAA violator who made hundreds of impermissible recruiting phone calls at Oklahoma and again at Indiana. For those sins, he lost a dream job with the Hoosiers in 2008 and received a show-cause NCAA penalty that effectively banned him from college basketball for five years.
But 11 years later, he’s not as easy to dismiss as an irredeemable cheating scoundrel. For one, most of the rules he blatantly violated are no longer NCAA violations, an amendment that makes it more complicated to condemn Sampson in perpetuity. In addition, Sampson revived his career in a manner true to his nature: He outworked his shame. He went to the NBA as an assistant coach and turned stops in San Antonio, Milwaukee and Houston into a hoops pilgrimage. Now, five years into his return to college basketball, he is doing what he does best and doing it better than ever.
The Houston Cougars, largely irrelevant since Phi Slama Jama stopped dunking 35 years ago, are a thing again. They’re 29-2 and ranked 11th in the nation. They set a program record for regular season victories and won their first conference title in 25 years. A year ago, the Cougars made the NCAA tournament and advanced a round. This season, they are a legitimate Sweet 16 contender with underrated Final Four potential. Sampson has reestablished his reputation as a program builder, and he is a prime candidate to win the national coach of the year.
“I wanted to invest in a program where I could fix something,” Sampson said.
He meant the Cougars. He didn’t realize he could have been talking about himself, too.
Evolution in exile
In November 2014, after Galen Robinson Jr. committed to play for his hometown school, he saw a 9-year-old wearing a UH shirt at a recreation center. He asked the boy whether he dreamed of playing basketball there.
“No,” the boy shot back. “It ain’t no real Division I school.”
Robinson was stunned. He didn’t tell the boy that he was about to sign with Houston, but he did correct him.
“You’re wrong, and I’m sure you heard that from someone else,” Robinson said. “You are too little to talk about real D-I and fake D-I.”
The boy ignored him.
“The perception was that nobody wanted me to come here,” said Robinson, now a senior point guard who has experienced the turnaround. “Nobody. Absolutely nobody. Now those are the same people that ask me for tickets.”
In Sampson’s first season, Houston finished 13-19. Since then, during Robinson’s time on campus, the Cougars have won at least 21 games each season. They are about to make their second straight NCAA tournament appearance, and when you look at their roster, you see balanced recruiting classes and the opportunity for sustained success. You see the hallmarks of a Sampson team — defense, rebounding and toughness — and then you see traits he adapted from the NBA.
The Cougars space the floor like the Houston Rockets. They play fast and shoot a lot of three-pointers. They prefer skill to height. They use analytics to guide some of their strategy. As a result of this college and pro mash-up, Sampson is no longer creating his classic rough and rigid team. He is no longer playing bully ball.
In fact, Houston is one of eight teams that rank among the nation’s top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to stats maven Ken Pomeroy. It’s a level of balance that carries great significance. Since Pomeroy started tracking those statistics in 2002, only one NCAA tournament champion has failed to fall in the top 20 in both categories.
“I think, as a coach, you’re always going to coach to your strengths as a teacher,” said Sampson’s son, Kellen, who is a well-regarded assistant on the Houston staff. “I think that, because of the NBA, he has evolved and grasped exactly how he wanted to teach and apply this pace-and-space movement.”
Consider the current style a basketball master’s thesis for Kelvin Sampson. After he was forced to resign at Indiana, he took an advisory role with the San Antonio Spurs. His friendship with Gregg Popovich, forged through USA Basketball, had provided an antidote to college vilification.
At the end of each day, Sampson would go to his hotel room and fill legal pads with the lessons he had learned. He continued the practice in Milwaukee as an assistant under Scott Skiles. Then he worked under Kevin McHale in Houston.
“I said, ‘God, look at what you didn’t know,’” Sampson said. “I was learning. I was like an intern. I had done it one way, and we were good at it, but all of a sudden, there were sections to libraries being opened that I didn’t realize were there. I could feel myself growing and growing and growing.”
Basketball acumen had never been an issue for Sampson. But now he’s flexible. He has learned 30 subtle ways to defend a pick and roll. When his team is struggling, he doesn’t merely demand that his players trust the system. He can bend the system.
“Every day, I just say thank you to Coach Sampson for letting me be a part of this,” said Corey Davis Jr., who leads Houston in scoring at 16.6 points per game. “Just to be a part of this is a blessing. I couldn’t be in a better position, and I know all my teammates and everybody else feel the same.”
‘You get up, and you fight’
John Willie “Ned” Sampson never needed to talk as much as his son. Kelvin is the gregarious one. Ned, a Hall of Fame high school coach in North Carolina, was direct, succinct and rarely misunderstood.
He called his son “Fella,” and for Kelvin, there was no greater compliment than hearing his old man — known for getting the best out of his squads — say, “Fella, your team played good tonight.”
The proud Native American was the same kind of leader at home. It wasn’t just what he said; it was that he said it. Ned built such credibility through integrity and because he possessed courage so stout that, in 1958, he and several fellow Lumbee Indians broke up a Ku Klux Klan rally near Maxton, N.C.
Do much, and you can say little.
“He was really good about putting a thought cloud out there and then letting you get there while supporting you every step of the way,” Kellen said of his grandfather.
Ned died on Feb. 18, 2014, five weeks after his wife, Eva, had succumbed to cancer. He left the world a few months before Kelvin started this comeback, but he planted the seed on his deathbed. Two days before he passed, Ned had a long and final phone conversation with his son, seemingly random and out of his concise character. The father praised Kelvin’s coaching ability as never before. He admired Kelvin’s impact on his players. He told Kelvin to forget the mistakes and mixed emotions and consider going back to college basketball.
“I think that’s your calling,” Ned said.
Six weeks later, Ned’s last thought cloud morphed into action. Kelvin was introduced at Houston. The sport that had banished and embittered Kelvin now welcomed him for a second chance. It was time to drive the van again. It was time to make his father proud.
“I was angry after Indiana,” Kelvin said. “I was angry at myself. I blamed myself. I was mad about how it all went down. I had a lot of emotions, but I also had a wife and a family. I had to take care of my family. That was my No. 1 goal. I’ve always said this to them and to a lot of people: You’re not a loser in anything until you quit. Don’t quit. All of a sudden, here I am having to live that philosophy. Get up. Regardless of how it happened or why it happened, you get up, and you fight.”
More than a redemption bid
Ned used to repeat the phrase often: The same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry. Joy and pain are hopelessly attracted to each other.
For the Sampsons, winning was fun and sometimes funny. Kelvin won 73 games at the previously forlorn at Montana Tech, 103 games at Washington State, 279 at Oklahoma and 43 in less than two years at Indiana. Then he became a joke. He was a punchline — or worse — for his audacity to break the same communication rules over and over.
His wife, Karen, felt the shame of scandal. So did Kellen and his sister, Lauren. For the first time, basketball was heavy.
“That may have been the first time I actually felt the dark side to college basketball,” Kellen said. “It might have been the first time that I actually saw that, hey, this isn’t a Disney fairy tale all the time. There’s a lot of scrutiny and a lot of people have a lot of negative opinions of your dad. That’s never easy to hear. I don’t care how old you are. I don’t care how mature you think you are. It stuns you. It takes the breath out of you.”
Then, being a Sampson, the experience “hardened my resolve as a coach,” Kellen said. He joined his father at Houston immediately, and a year later, Lauren came aboard. She is the men’s basketball director of external operations, overseeing the program’s marketing and coaxing Kelvin to try every creative approach to sell the program. When her dad decided to return to college hoops, Lauren had few doubts about this turnaround.
“There was a big part of me that felt like this was inevitable,” she said.
With his children on the staff, Houston has been more than a redemption bid. It’s more personal than reputation. This program is literally an extension of his family.
The staff also includes two former players from Sampson’s best teams at Oklahoma, Quannas White and Hollis Price, who helped the Sooners reach the Final Four in 2002 and the Elite Eight in 2003. The familiarity makes for a fun atmosphere. The halls of the men’s basketball offices are loud, full of teasing and blunt conversation.
Sampson needed it to be like this. After six years in the NBA, he aspired to be a pro head coach. He wasn’t going to come back to college basketball in any situation. It had to be special. It had to be different this time.
During initial contract negotiations with Houston, Kelvin wasn’t simply grateful for the opportunity. He made demands. He wanted a practice facility. He wanted the school to follow through on a plan to upgrade Hofheinz Pavilion. He leveraged putting a high buyout figure in his contract to receive a promise for the infrastructure improvements. The implied message: If you build it, I will stay.
Today, Houston practices in the stunning Guy V. Lewis Development Facility, and old Hofheinz Pavilion is now Fertitta Center. This time, Kelvin isn’t just building a program. He’s building buildings.
“I always coached mostly the have-not schools,” Kelvin said. “You coach at a have-not school, and you have to have a competitiveness and a resolve and resiliency about you that’s different, or you’ll never make it. You’ve got to find a way to do more with less.”
For a part of his past, there can be no absolution. For another, there should be no doubt that the Montana Tech in him lives. Sampson found trouble trying to do too much, and that same determination, channeled properly, also spurred his rehabilitation.
After the Cougars clinched the American Athletic Conference regular season title recently, they cut down the nets at Fertitta Center. As the on-court celebration continued, Lauren tugged her father’s arm and walked him over to take a family photo. Kelvin gripped the championship trophy and stood next to his wife, son and daughter. The Sampsons smiled. Then they chuckled, and this time, the same thing that made them laugh made them cry happy tears.