Kelvin Sampson took the Houston job seven years ago because, as he said last week, “the lower the program was, the better for me.”
In that case, Sampson liked what he saw: “Severe apathy,” he said. “Terrible facilities. Nobody really cared.”
As reasoning goes, Sampson’s motivation might’ve glossed over the Cougars’ built-in advantages — historic success, if decades removed, and a strong recruiting base — but effectively sums up how Houston had drifted into irrelevancy.
With the program far behind from a facilities standpoint and new to the American Athletic Conference, a major upgrade in competitiveness compared to Conference USA, Sampson willingly signed on for a job that had chewed up and derailed a string of head coaches in the previous 30 years.
Houston coach Kelvin Sampson has the Cougars in the men's Final Four for the first time since 1984. (Photo: Thomas Shea, USA TODAY Sports)
Yet speaking early in his tenure with Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Houston Rockets and the chairman of the university system’s board of regents, Sampson pitched the mega-booster on the idea that Houston could win a national championship. Within two years, Fertitta had donated $20 million to refurbish, and then rename, Houston’s basketball arena, now called the Fertitta Center.
Houston went 13-19 in Sampson’s first season and 22-10 and 21-11 across the following two years, both times topping out in the NIT. His fourth team reached the second round of the men's NCAA Tournament, marking the Cougars' first tournament bid since 2010 and just the second since 1993. Houston went 33-4 the following year and reached the Sweet 16. Last year's team, which was 23-8 and tied for first in the American before the season was canceled, was expected to make a similar postseason run.
And by surviving a second-half collapse to beat Oregon State 67-61 Monday in the Elite Eight, Sampson has now led Houston to the Final Four for the first time since 1984. In doing so, he has pulled off a remarkable rehabilitation of a perennially underachieving program.
Now, is Monday night's win enough to do the same for Sampson's own reputation?
No coach still alive in the men's tournament — and maybe no coach in all of college basketball — carries as much complicated baggage as Sampson, who less than two seasons into his tenure at Indiana was forced to resign amid widespread NCAA recruiting violations related to prohibited phone contact that placed the Hoosiers on three years' probation.
These violations came as Sampson was already restricted from making any outgoing recruiting connections after an NCAA investigation ruled Sampson and his staff at Oklahoma, where he had spent the previous 12 seasons, had knowingly broke recruiting rules by making hundreds of impermissible calls to prospective student-athletes.
As part of the NCAA ruling in the Indiana case, Sampson was handed a five-year show-cause penalty that seemingly spelled the end of his college coaching career. He spent the next seven seasons as an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets before discussing his college options, eventually choosing the Cougars over two other job openings at programs on more solid footing.
“But I didn’t want that,” Sampson said. “I wanted to build a program."
And he's built a program good enough not only to reach the Final Four but to do so with none of the fanfare and attention often cast on mid-major programs who play deep into March. Despite not playing in one of the six major Division I conferences, Houston's trip to the national semifinals is unsurprising, almost predictable.
And that Sampson is the coach responsible for remaking Houston into a championship contender is, in a way, equally unsurprising. He's reached the tournament at four programs. He's now led two different schools to the Final Four, joining Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, John Calipari and Bob Huggins as the only active coaches to do so. Across multiple stops and multiple eras of college basketball, relying on multiple styles of play, Sampson has never failed to produce an on-court winner.
Getting the Cougars to the Final Four may be his crowning achievement. Will it be enough to define Sampson, or will there always be too much baggage to ignore?
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