How Kelvin Sampson revived his career and turned Houston into a Final Four contender

Kelvin Sampson’s <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/teams/houston/" data-ylk="slk:Houston Cougars">Houston Cougars</a> are 24-1 this season and projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. (AP)
Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars are 24-1 this season and projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. (AP)

HARTFORD, Conn. – When Kelvin Sampson returned to coaching at Houston in 2014, an array of gifts began showing up in his office. Fruit baskets, bottles of wine and ties began appearing at such a rate that their arrivals became standard. When Sampson got a call that a box had been delivered, it seemed normal until they told him it was too big to fit in his office door.

The moment Sampson unwrapped a 9-foot silver industrial ladder in the hallway, he knew exactly where it came from. He still treasures the present from his old boss, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, and it remains the dominant conversation piece in his office five years later. Sampson and Castiglione shared three seasons that culminated in ladder climbing – 2001, 2002, 2003 – all for Big 12 tournament titles and an additional one for the 2002 Final Four bid. Sampson taped Castiglione’s congratulatory note to explain the curious piece of office furniture.

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By the time the ladder arrived in Houston, Sampson had been busy climbing out of a scandal that derailed his Hall of Fame career trajectory and exiled him from college basketball for more than six seasons. A spree of NCAA violations left both Oklahoma and Indiana with significant NCAA issues, Sampson being forced out from IU in disgrace in 2008 and handcuffed by a five-year show-cause penalty. It wouldn’t have been surprising if Sampson never coached college basketball again.

More than a decade after his Indiana exit and five seasons after Houston gave Sampson a second chance, the ladder looms as both a physical and metaphoric presence. Sampson has guided Houston to four consecutive 20-win seasons, has locked up consecutive NCAA bids and the No. 9 Cougars improved to 24-1 with a breezy 71-63 victory over Connecticut on Thursday. Houston is in line for the program’s best NCAA tournament seed since the Phi Slama Jama days of the early 1980s. “They are a team with a chance to get to the Final Four,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said.

Sampson’s circuitous route back to the top included stops with three NBA franchises over six and a half years. That began with a “lifeline” from Gregg Popovich with the Spurs after Sampson left Indiana and continued with more formal three-year assistant coaching stints with both the Milwaukee Bucks (2008-2011) and Houston Rockets (2011-2014). The NBA opened Sampson’s eyes to new ideas, including more nuanced pick-and-roll coverages, floor spacing and applying advanced analytics.

“When something catastrophic happens in your life, that happened to me and my family, [my wife] Karen always talked about the silver lining,” Sampson said. “The silver lining was the NBA. And it took me a while to see it.”

Sampson has a Final Four contender, his name being mentioned for blue-blood jobs and enough NBA experience that he could again be a commodity at that level. (Orlando had strong interest last year.) That’s all led Sampson, 63, to inevitably emerge as one of this March’s dominant faces and storylines, a rise that Sampson refuses to call a redemption. In a way, Sampson is a perfectly imperfect figure for these complicated times in college basketball, a career interrupted, revived and improved.

“There’s nobody to blame,” Sampson said, sitting in a hotel lobby on Thursday morning. “It’s my fault. I paid for it, and I’ve moved on.”

What Sampson learned from time in NBA

Houston’s team lacks a singular superstar; their sum is greater than their parts. They have four players who average more than eight points per game, three bruising centers who all play and their most talented player – UMass transfer DeJon Jarreau – coming off the bench.

Much like his teams at Oklahoma, which were more heart than art, these Cougars are relentless and mostly anonymous, rugged and ornery, and they play each possession as if their postgame pizza depends on it.

If Sampson has a singular defining skill in coaching, it’s his ability to motivate and connect with players to drive them to play with an unflinching aggression. Houston has the nation’s No. 2 effective field goal percentage defense, according to KenPom.com, and is the country’s third-best team defending 3-pointers.

“How did this just happen?” Castiglione said in a phone interview. “His teams play every possession hard. You know you’re going to get that. That part doesn’t surprise me.”

But what’s defined Kelvin Sampson’s five seasons at Houston has been the evolution of his coaching repertory after his six-plus NBA seasons.

“With the success that he’s having, it takes a burden off of him,” said Hollis Price, the former star Sooner who is on Sampson’s Houston staff. “With him going to the NBA [though], it helped him as a coach. If he stayed in college, I don’t know if he’d have had the offensive mind that he has.”

Kelvin Sampson’s only loss of the season came on the road against Temple in a 73-69 contest. (AP)
Kelvin Sampson’s only loss of the season came on the road against Temple in a 73-69 contest. (AP)

Soon after he got fired at Indiana, Sampson ended up tagging along for the rest of the season with the Spurs. Some of what Sampson learned from Popovich was a “lesson in affirmation,” as he knew there were things he did right in 12 seasons at Oklahoma that resulted in 11 NCAA tournament appearances.

But there was a whole other dimension of detail that Sampson found himself exposed to, and it began with listening to assistant coaches Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer and Don Newman deliver scouting reports. A lifetime of simply hedging on pick-and-rolls gave way to a bevy of new options, as Sampson found himself returning to his hotel room at night, scribbling notes, marveling at the detail in the scouting reports. He’d pester Brown, now the 76ers coach, with a flurry of questions the next day.

“I remember going back to the hotel room standing up, and I was by myself,” Sampson said. “I’d stand and contort my body different ways and think of how they would teach that.”

Sampson went to Milwaukee for three seasons, where noted NBA tactician Scott Skiles gave Sampson a PHD in NBA tactics. Sampson thought he knew about floor spacing, but the reality was that he knew little about maintaining spacing through possessions. “God put me with him for a reason,” he said. “I learned so much from Scott.”

The joke about Sampson’s teams at Oklahoma was that they occasionally looked like they needed an offensive coordinator. Houston plays with great flow, as Sampson attempts to keep the five-man lineup from congesting the lane and spent part of the victory over UConn on Thursday pleading for his guards to stay in the corners to open up driving lanes for Jarreau.

And while the Cougars won’t be mistaken for the Warriors – they have the country’s No. 38 offense adjusted for efficiency – they have a pace and methodology that’s advanced from Sampson’s Oklahoma days. There’s space for guards Corey Davis Jr. (15.5 ppg), Armoni Brooks (13.8 ppg) and Galen Robinson Jr. (8.3 ppg) to both drive the lanes and find open shooters.

“That’s why we shoot so many threes now, because the floor is spaced,” Sampson said. “We’re an extra pass away from getting it to the corner.”

Sampson spent three years with the Rockets, where he immediately clicked with Kevin McHale after he picked him up at the airport caked in dirt from working on his brother’s roof. Sampson learned the value of analytics, which back at Oklahoma he didn’t think were worth a wooden nickel. Now he pays his video coordinator, K.C. Beard, more than $100,000 and demands advanced statistics be delivered to him at halftime so he can prepare his message to the team. “He’s a savant,” Sampson said.

At halftime on Thursday, Sampson learned Houston was on pace for less than 60 possessions, and he prefers the Cougars to play 70 to 73 per game. Houston, in turn, came out faster in the second half and turned a three-point lead to 17.

“One of the ways to use your depth is to play with speed,” he said. “I’m a lot more amenable to playing fast now than before. When I was at Oklahoma I always felt like I had to control the game because we didn’t have great scorers. So, I had to figure a way to win. Where everybody wanted to be cosmetic and aesthetically pleasing, we could’ve done that but I don’t think we could’ve won.”

Sampson often gets asked by college coaches during summer recruiting what he took from his NBA experiences.

“I wish they all could take a sabbatical,” he said. “Maybe not a six-year sabbatical. I wish they could take a year to realize what they don’t know. That helped me so much to become a better coach.”

How he turned around Houston (and what’s next)

With 607 career victories, including 107 since arriving at Houston, Sampson has straightened his career trajectory. He’s just outside the top 50 all-time in Division I wins. And Houston’s sun-kissed season comes with the promises of more as Sampson will return a core of players, transfers and recruits to continue competing on the high end.

Sampson and Houston nearly became one of March’s biggest stories last year, as a miraculous 3-point buzzer-beater by Michigan’s Jordan Poole left Houston stunned in a 64-63 loss. The Cougars should have iced the game, but Devin Davis missed three free throws in the final 44 seconds. That included a pair with less than four seconds left.

“I’ve had teams cry before, but that one was wailing,” Sampson said. “That was a funeral-type wailing, there-was-a-death-in-the-family type wailing.”

Michigan’s Jordan Poole (2) celebrates with teammates after his game-winning shot to oust Houston from the 2018 NCAA tournament. (Getty)
Michigan’s Jordan Poole (2) celebrates with teammates after his game-winning shot to oust Houston from the 2018 NCAA tournament. (Getty)

This March promises to offer another referendum on both Houston and Sampson. There’s a camp that points back to Sampson’s time at Indiana and sees his rule violations – primarily excess phone calls – as things the NCAA now allows. There’s still a vocal minority that sees Sampson as a serial NCAA violator, as the same types of violations got both Oklahoma and Indiana in trouble.

Sampson made 233 impermissible phone calls at Oklahoma, which led to that school being put on probation for two years and limited Sampson’s recruiting at Indiana.

“I never thought the NCAA violations for the phone call would ever rise to the level it did,” he said, specifically referencing Oklahoma.

During Sampson’s second season at Indiana in 2008, he and his staff again committed major recruiting violations. Again, most of the rules broken were legal, but it still resulted in Sampson’s five-year show-cause penalty, one of the most serious the NCAA can levy.

“For Indiana people, it wasn’t phone calls or contacting,” said Dan Dakich, a former IU assistant under Sampson who has a radio show in Indianapolis and is a persistent critic. “It was that you just got busted for the same stuff, and you’re doing it again.”

In many ways, Sampson’s revival is shaded in enough gray that it makes for the perfect talk-radio topic. There are extreme opinions, especially those of Indiana fans, and the moving variables of both the changed NCAA rules and the spree of egregious behavior that has emerged in the federal basketball trial. Sampson isn’t interested in reliving or re-litigating.

“I have [moved on],” he said. “My family has. For people who want to continually bring that up, that’s their problem, not mine. I was comfortable three years ago.”

The questions over Sampson’s past could end up being rehashed if he emerges as a candidate for a high-end job this spring. He’s been mentioned at UCLA, and there’s also a potential opening at Texas A&M that would make logical sense. Part of Sampson’s happiness and contentment are rooted in his family. His son, Kellen, is his top assistant and is beginning to get traction for head-coaching jobs. His daughter, Lauren, works with the program as the director of external operations. He’s a grandfather now, thrilled to have his family together.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Sampson said. “I really thought about Orlando [last year], but I had a hard time messing with happy. I haven’t sat down and talked with Houston yet about this deal. I want to see what their attitude is before I do anything.”

Sampson hasn’t used the ladder yet at Houston, but the upcoming weeks percolate with the promise that it could find its way onto a court with the Cougars. With a Final Four contender and his name buzzing in coaching circles, Sampson has inched from his past, learned from his detour and, improbably, has all of college basketball watching his every step over the next few weeks.

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