By Bill Hasten
During Kelvin Sampson’s six-season run as an NBA assistant coach, it was presumed that he was aching for a return to college basketball — the game with which he had been synonymous for so long, and from which he was expelled for several years.
If he was aching for anything, as it turns out, it was for the opportunity to become an NBA head coach.
“It was never my intent to come back to college,” Sampson said Thursday at the BOK Center.
But he did come back to college and, this week, he did come back to Oklahoma, bringing with him a 31-3 Houston team that is seeded third in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region.
At 6:20 p.m. Friday, Sampson’s Houston Cougars are matched with 14th-seeded Georgia State in a first-round game.
From 2006 until 2014, when the University of Houston enticed him to leave his position on the Houston Rockets’ staff, Sampson considered himself permanently divorced from college basketball.
Now, he seems happier and more relaxed than I can ever remember him having been during his 12-season run as the OU Sooners coach. That run included three Big 12 Tournament titles, 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and a run to the 2002 Final Four.
Sampson is content because the University of Houston kept its promises to dramatically upgrade basketball facilities, because his team won the American Athletic Conference’s regular-season championship and has a real chance to make a really deep run in this NCAA Tournament, and because he’s surrounded by loved ones.
Kelvin’s son, Kellen Sampson, is an assistant coach. Two former Sampson-coached Sooner guards — Quannas White and Hollis Price, the backcourt starters on OU’s Final Four team — are Houston staff members.
Lauren Sampson, Kelvin’s daughter, is the Cougars’ director of external operations.
The 2018-19 Cougars are Houston’s best team since Hakeem Olajuwon was a senior center in 1984. Before Sampson became the Cougars’ coach in 2014, the Houston program was defined for three decades by inconsistency and occasional ineptitude.
Now? The Houston brand has been restored. The Sampson brand, tarnished in 2006 when there were allegations of NCAA violations at OU, and again in 2008 when he resigned at Indiana in the wake of more allegations, has been restored.
At 63, Sampson is a national coach of the year candidate. In consecutive seasons, he has taken the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament.
Not since the Phi Slama Jama era of the 1980s had Houston been March Madness participants in consecutive seasons.
“I’ve enjoyed every step of this adventure — this journey that we’ve been on, getting this program back going,” Sampson said before Houston’s practice session on Thursday.
Because of impermissible phone calls to recruits, Sampson was burned by NCAA hot water both at OU and Indiana. The NCAA responded with a five-year show cause order — in effect, a five-year ban from college basketball.
In hindsight, the penalty was excessively harsh. Most of the violations alleged to have been committed by Sampson no longer are considered by the NCAA to be violations at all.
After he left Indiana, Sampson almost immediately became an NBA consultant for San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. Sampson went on to become a Scott Skiles assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and a Kevin McHale assistant with the Rockets.
Sampson said he was stunned by the depth of scouting and preparation at the NBA level. He was at the front end of what would become a six-year period of higher education.
He remembered his first reaction to the daily routine of an NBA assistant: “Wow. Man, I’ve got a lot to learn. These guys are way smarter than I am.”
“I don’t know if I would compare it to a master’s degree (in basketball),” Sampson added, “but I know it made me better.”
Seemingly healthy and not looking much older than when he was a Norman resident, Sampson has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Power Five jobs. His current salary reportedly is $1.6 million.
A Houston program insider predicted Sampson “won’t be going anywhere” because the UH administration has been so supportive and because he soon will be rewarded with a significant pay increase.
There is the possibility, also, that Kelvin Sampson could get a university guarantee that 33-year-old Kellen Sampson eventually will be his head-coaching successor with the Cougars.
Before any of that, though, there is business in Tulsa. Two games in Tulsa.
If there are two victories in Tulsa, Kelvin Sampson adds two more coats of polish to his brand and the Houston program’s position in the national picture.