Tuesday, October 26

Kelvin Sampson’s road back to the Final Four with Houston more daunting than most

Think of everything that happened in that celebratory hug in front of the Houston bench: 35 years as father and son, eight years as boss and employee, even three years as coach and player. And there was so much more to this moment shared by Kelvin and Kellen Sampson. There was knowledge of everything that had been surpassed. Conquering obstacles is a common aspect of reaching the NCAA Final Four, but few traveled that far, that long.

“So many long nights, so many early mornings. So many times they told us ‘No,'” Kellen tweeted after seeing a photo of this moment. “This hug was worth every second of the trip. I hope everyone who said ‘Yes’ feels the excitement and gratitude in my eyes.”

If you wish to declare that Kelvin Sampson’s impediments were of his own making, it is your right. Yet his journey back to this stage, after six years out of college training with the only program bold enough to give him a shot, remains a rare achievement.

“It’s not supposed to be easy,” Kelvin said, primarily discussing Oregon State’s return to make Monday night’s Elite Eight game a 67-61 nail bite in favor of the Cougars. However, that statement applies across the board.

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It works on the attrition that plagued Houston’s roster after last season’s 23-8 finale, with Nate Hinton turning pro, Fabian White lost with an injured knee after 11 games, and leading scorer Caleb Mills left the show afterward. of the fourth game.

It works on the struggles the Cougars had as a team, dropping a baffling game against East Carolina that could have damaged their NCAA seeded, struggling terribly but notching two wins in the seven days leading up to Selection Sunday against the challenger of the American Athletic Conference Memphis.

It works for Sampson, of course.

“I am proud of these children. Proud of the heart. Proud they fought so much this year, ”Sampson told reporters after the game. “That this team is 28-3 and goes to the Final Four. This is one of the greatest achievements I have ever had. And I have this group of players and this staff, everyone on the staff, all the players, to thank them, for allowing me to accompany them on the journey. “

Sampson spoke for so long about the challenges overcome en route to this Final Four that it consumed almost his entire post-game press conference. No one had a chance to ask him how he felt doing this in Indiana, 50 miles from Bloomington, the site of the only failure of his head coaching career. He was fired from coaching the Hoosiers job in February 2008, after not even two full seasons, due to an NCAA investigation into his recruiting practices.

Now it seems odd that the NCAA charges against him focused on fewer than two handfuls of recruiting calls, given all that has been revealed by the intersection of the Justice Department investigation with programs like Louisville, Kansas, Arizona and Auburn, and with unlimited communication now the rule of the day.

Today, all of this matters only to the extent that he brought Sampson to Houston, and Sampson has now brought Houston back to the Final Four. Which happens to be in Indiana. He wouldn’t have been the Cougars coach without what happened at IU. He could still be the Hoosiers coach. Impossible to say: we are not in that alternate universe.

However, with all he has accomplished in Houston, there must be more than a few programs that hired coaches after his exhibition cause expired and before the Cougars stepped in with his offer.

The Cougars won 22 games in their sophomore year, reached the NCAA Tournament in their fourth and reached the Sweet 16 in the fifth. This is year seven. There have been two American Athletic Association titles, one in the AAC tournament and an average of 24 wins per year.

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This isn’t Sampson’s or Houston’s first trip to the Final Four. Yet as they move forward together, it represents a simultaneous revival. Sampson did it in 2002 in Oklahoma, before the IU episode. The Cougars haven’t been back since they reached three in a row between 1982-84, the Phi Slama Jama teams, and those who grew up in modern college basketball shouldn’t forget that Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney brought them there in 1967-68. Star guard DeJon Jarreau mentioned his pride in helping Sampson return to the Final Four with a win in the 1,000th game of the coach’s career, 667 of which have been victories.

“I thought we could win. I did it, ”Sampson said. “Once we finished the first year, we started adding pieces. And we did it brick by brick. We were in no rush. We don’t try to cut corners. We did it brick by brick. “

He credited Kellen as “an absolute hoss,” assistant coach Alvin Brooks for his work recruiting the Houston area and Quannas White for working in other areas, including New Orleans, his hometown and Jarreau’s.

“We said no to a lot of kids because I thought they wouldn’t fit into our culture,” Kelvin Sampson said. “We told not many kids that people would think, ‘It’s a great achievement.’ Or: ‘Now you have excellent recruits.’ I don’t care about big recruits. It’s never been my deal. I wanted kids that I could train, kids that were trained, that could survive some tough days, some tough days, and that I could make them play for each other.

“To get to the Final Four, I think that with each passing year it got closer. I always thought we could, but we had to climb the ladder. “

Sampson mentioned that his good friend, Oklahoma Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, sent him a ladder when he got the job in Houston with a note that said, “I hope you can use this ladder a lot.” They used a different one to cut the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the point was clear.

Accepting the Houston job gave Kelvin the opportunity to work with his son. During the half-dozen years that he helped the Bucks and Rockets, Kelvin took an alternate route, progressing from a graduate assistantship in Oklahoma to coaching positions at Stephen F. Austin and Appalachian State. The two would see each other maybe 10 days a year. Now it’s practically every day, lately every minute of every day. Daughter Lauren is also on the basketball staff as the director of outside operations. and was able to join his father on the court after the Oregon state victory to greet Karen Sampson, the beloved matriarch of the family.

In October 2014, when Sampson first stepped onto the practice court to execute the Cougars after going through an NCAA penalty and spending that time as an assistant coach in the NBA, Kellen told Sporting News that he was “touching, no doubt,” to see her dad back in his element.

“Six years, I forgot how good it is,” Kellen said then. “It’s really nice. He is a great teacher and he is passionate about teaching ”.

Seven years later, the rest of the world was reminded. “Really good” probably doesn’t cover it.


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