ARLINGTON, Texas – Ned Sampson was dying. His son Kelvin was on a 10-day West Coast trip with the Houston Rockets, so the phone was their connection in Ned's final days.
The discussions were deep, and too personal for Kelvin to share in detail. But two days before Ned Sampson passed away on Feb. 18, he made some points that convinced Kelvin it was time to take a shot at coaching college basketball again.
"He said some profound things to me that made me think about it," Kelvin told Yahoo Sports. "Call it whatever you want – God's will or karma. But it had an impact."
Six weeks later, Kelvin Sampson is the new coach of the Houston Cougars. His record is both accomplished and tarnished, and there will be many who hammer Houston for giving a third chance to a two-time violator of major NCAA rules. But he is a winner on a scale beyond anything the school has been able to hire since the Phi Slama Jama glory days of the early 1980s faded away.
If you are Houston, and you've been to one NCAA tournament in the past 22 years, and your last win was 30 years ago, the attraction is understandable. You take the shots that will come this week and look past them to a brighter basketball future. You take a guy with 496 career wins and 13 NCAA tourney appearances, you keep him on a tight compliance leash, and you trust that he's wiser and cleaner this time around.
The reward of returning to prominence with a Final Four coach should be more real than the risk of another Sampson run through the NCAA wringer after probation at Oklahoma and Indiana.
"Obviously, that is a subject that came up very early in the conversation [with Houston]," Sampson said. "Mack [Rhoades, the UH athletic director] talked with quite a few people at Oklahoma, Indiana and the NCAA. I was very candid. There's nothing to hide. It is what it is. Any athletic director that was going to talk to me was going to ask about it."
Sampson described himself as "reeling" after Indiana fired him Feb. 22, 2008. The Hoosiers were 22-4 at that point but it had become clear Sampson had violated NCAA rules pertaining to impermissible phone contact with recruits – the same rules he had violated at Oklahoma several years earlier. A school that takes its offcourt reputation seriously did not hesitate in terminating Sampson.
"The only word that comes to mind is surreal," Sampson said of the end of his IU tenure. "There's a lot of things you look back on, things that were said, you learned to not necessarily believe everything that was written. There were a lot of things that happened at Indiana that I was proud of.
"You learn to be better from it. It's made me a better person, a better coach."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was the first to extend a lifeline to Sampson after his firing. He spent some time in San Antonio observing the Spurs operation and offering some feedback, and by the following season he had a job as an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Sampson whiled away all five years of his show-cause penalty from the NCAA in the NBA, first with the Bucks and then with the Houston Rockets.
"I can't quantify how much I've learned being around Gregg Popovich, [Bucks coach] Scott Skiles and [Rockets coach] Kevin McHale," Sampson said. "And a lot of really good assistant coaches, too. I was a head coach at such a young age [31 at Washington State], I never really got a chance to learn from other coaches. I had to do it on my own, and I had fun with that, but I didn't know what else was out there."
From Popovich, Sampson learned how to manage people. From Skiles, he learned specific tactics and exploiting mismatches. From McHale, he learned patience.
"There's a lot of areas I need to get better in," Sampson said. "I learned to be more flexible offensively, to not talk as much in practice. I've learned so much in the NBA."
In fact, Sampson figured his next head-coaching gig would be in the NBA. He was preparing to make a run at potential vacancies in the league when a third party called to gauge his interest in Houston.
The initial reaction was no. But when the Cougars made a second overture, Sampson listened.
He talked to former Houston football coach Kevin Sumlin, now at Texas A&M, about the school. He checked in with UTEP coach Tim Floyd, a friend who knocked heads with the Cougars in Conference USA before Houston upgraded to the American Athletic Conference. He was impressed by the financial commitment to basketball – ground will be broken May 15 for a new practice facility, Sampson said, and there are plans to upgrade aging Hofheinz Pavilion.
"There's so much room for growth here," Sampson said. "Coaching is what I love to do, and I think I'm pretty good at it. I'm excited about being back in college basketball."
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