INDIANAPOLIS – It’s still here, Indiana. Your boy, Kelvin Sampson. Keep winning in your backyard. Now we go back to the Final Four.
It’s quite an enjoyable story for Sampson’s tireless Houston Cougars, who haven’t come that far since Phi Slama Jama was an active fraternity some 37 years ago. It’s a pretty sad story for Indiana University fans who hold Sampson in the same regard as identity thieves and tax scammers. What is redemptive to one fan base may be disgusting to another.
Sampson left this state in 2008 in disgrace and has returned in 2021 in glory, this career coinciding with his old school wallowing in widespread mediocrity and changing coaches once again. Monday began when Mike Woodson received a tepid approval at IU, and 11 hours later, Sampson was waving a regional championship net over his head at Lucas Oil Stadium. The juxtaposition lands like a ton of Indiana limestone.
Houston’s easy-then-hard final regional victory 67-61 over Oregon State was Sampson’s 1,000th game as a college head coach, and before that he had won 666 of them. It is an impressive number and, perhaps, an appropriate number for the locals. To use March’s operative phrase, Kelvin has survived and advanced.
The guy was supposed to be cutting the net for the Hoosiers, not Houston. But it all fell apart when he was fired in the closing stages of the 2007-08 season, one that held immense promise before dissolving into a pile of NCAA infractions. The rules that Sampson and his staff broke were insignificant in hindsight and are no longer on the books: recruiting phone calls not allowed. But they were the rules of the day, and Sampson not only broke them, he had already gotten in trouble for violating the same statutes at his previous job in Oklahoma.
Sampson came to IU in the spring of 2006, and was barred from calling recruits and taking off-campus recruiting trips for a year shortly after the Oklahoma violations. “I have learned an invaluable lesson, and I hope this reinforces to other coaches the importance of every aspect of NCAA compliance,” Sampson said in a statement from IU at the time of the initial penalties.
The statement ranks among the most false in sports history, because Sampson blatantly doubled down on the same violations as the Hoosiers coach. That was an intolerable offense for a school that prided itself on following the rules during Bob Knight’s career. He was fired, players fled the program, and Indiana sank into a huge rebuilding hole.
Sampson paid a price by receiving a five-year NCAA ban on NCAA grounds in 2008. In fact, he was out of the college game for six years, exiled to an assistant coach job in the NBA before landing the job. in Houston in 2014. He was hired by athletic director Mack Rhoades, now at Baylor, and the Bears will be the Cougars’ Final Four opponent on Saturday.
It has turned out to be a sensationally successful second chance for Sampson. Or maybe a third chance. When you’re this good, you have more opportunities.
This is Sampson’s sixth straight season of 20 wins and his fourth straight season of single-digit losses. The record in these last four: 111–23. His Houston teams have played like their old Oklahoma teams did in the 1990s and 2000s, relentless on defense and on the board. The difficult thing is your experience.
If any season stands out as Sampson’s training masterpiece, this is it. Three 2020 starters were unexpectedly lost: Fabian White tore an ACL in the spring; Nate Hinton turned pro after his second season; and then 2020 top scorer Caleb Mills transferred eight games to this season.
Houston never blinked. The Cougars went 21-3 in the regular season, went through the American Athletic Conference tournament and were given second place in the NCAA tournament. It was then that fortune intervened in his favor.
After defeating No. 15 seed Cleveland State in the first round, the group from the Midwest Region fell at their feet. They played No. 10 seed Rutgers in the second round, not No. 7 Clemson. In the third round they faced No. 11 seed Syracuse, not No. 3 West Virginia or No. 6 San Diego State. And then they drew No. 12 for the state of Oregon, with No. 1 for Illinois, No. 4 for Tennessee and No. 5 for the state of Oklahoma. This is the first time a team has played anything but double-digit seeds en route to the Final Four.
Oregon State spent about 31 minutes playing much like a No. 12 seed reaching a regional final. The Beavers wallowed against the Houston defense, were attacked on the glass and staggered at halftime 17 points behind. It was time to start researching the biggest Elite Eight blowouts in tournament history.
But Wayne Tinkle dug into his bag of zone defense tricks and came up with a 1-3-1 mix that paralyzed the Cougars. From Syracuse to USC to the state of Oregon, zones have wreaked havoc in this tournament. While everyone faces zones for a season, few teams are used to attacking 1-3-1.
With Houston faltering, the Beavers began to gnaw on what was a 14-point deficit at the nine-minute mark. A 17-3 run capped off by a Gianni Hunt 3-pointer to tie the game at 55 with 3:48 to play, and it seemed like a very real possibility that Oregon State would continue to pass ahead of the Cougars and into the Final Four as the higher. seed ever to advance so far.
But in a television timeout that preceded Hunt’s three-point tie, Sampson reinforced the need for his team to keep attacking and resist passivity. “Don’t be afraid of failing,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of missing the shot.”
Top scorer Quentin Grimes was hiding in a corner, an open spot against 1-3-1, and delivered a three that gave Houston the lead for good. On the defensive end, the Cougars resumed strangling the Beavers, who abruptly lost the mojo that fueled their comeback. They couldn’t do anything right offensively down the stretch, and Houston held on.
When the horn finally sounded, Sampson got up from his chair and into the arms of his son and assistant coach, Kellen. They hugged for a long time, and then there was a long moment with the Region’s Most Outstanding Player, DeJon Jarreau. When her daughter Lauren, the program’s chief operating officer, hugged her 65-year-old father, her tears flowed.
Lauren was so nervous in the final minutes that she dropped out of her chair and fell to the ground on the opposite side of the court from the Houston bench. A few minutes later, she was standing in the middle of the court with her father, Kellen on the other side, when someone took a photo of them with the regional championship trophy.
It’s been 19 years since Sampson’s last appearance in the Final Four, which occurred while he was coaching Oklahoma. The first time Sampson led a team to the final weekend of the season, his career was still on the rise and filled with the promise that brought him to Indiana. Then it crashed. The man who climbed the ladder at Lucas Oil on Monday night had the scars of that accident and the wrinkles of a methodical rebuilding of his career.
He is a hero in Houston and an outcast in Indiana, where they have yet to figure out how to win big again. On the day they rebooted once more in Bloomington, Kelvin Sampson soared 50 miles north again.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.