HOUSTON — There is no sign of Kelvin Sampson’s coach of the year trophies here in the basketball coach’s office at the University of Houston. Also no traces of his Final Four or Big 12 championship rings or any newspaper clippings commemorating any of his NBA playoff appearances.
The basketball coach’s office at Houston is empty on this day, like an apartment that comes with a couch and a table. The coaches come, supply carbon dioxide for the houseplants for a while, and then they go, off into whatever afterlife becomes of a coaching career after it has stroked out at Houston.
Mostly, they retire or become assistant coaches again.
Yet here he sits, Kelvin Sampson, in this barren office. What is he doing here?
Well he’s a lawless renegade, that’s what. A habitual line-crosser. He broke an NCAA rule, and now he’s doing his time in Houston, and he has to answer for it. So answer away, Sampson. Grovel for us.
It was a rule at the time, we violated the rule at Oklahoma. … I was wrong. I made a mistake.
"If it happened today, it wouldn’t be a violation," the 58-year-old said. "It’s not a rule anymore."
This is true. The thing that got Sampson run out of Indiana in 2008 was a violation of a sanction placed on him while he was at Oklahoma. Specifically, he broke the rule about how many times you’re allowed to call a prospect, and he broke it more than 500 times. Everybody got a big laugh out of it at the time — among other things, they started calling him "Cellvin."
Well, all except the NCAA, which penalized Sampson with a five-year show-cause penalty and rendered him practically unhireable. It wasn’t until later that the NCAA eventually decided the rule itself was a bit of a joke, and struck it from the books.
This will go down as a mildly vindicating footnote on Sampson’s career, but he doesn’t seem to have much use for it.
"Don’t think I’m sitting here making light of that," he said. "It was a rule at the time, we violated the rule at Oklahoma. … I was wrong. I made a mistake."
It is not unusual in sports to see a disgraced big-name coach slumming it for a while to get his feet underneath him, but that’s not what this is. Sampson didn’t need a job. When the University of Houston called, he was the lead assistant for the Houston Rockets … a playoff team. He was happy working with the best players and coaches in the world.
His bosses had been Scott Skiles, Gregg Popovich and Kevin McHale, and really, for the first time in Sampson’s career, he was watching a head coach work instead of being the head coach.
He considered his six seasons in the NBA a time of extraordinary professional growth.
When Sampson was with the Spurs, he’d get in the car with Popovich, and they would ride to and from games together. Pop’s cell phone was routed through an interface in his dash, and he had three numbers stored at his fingertips — Tim Duncan’s, Manu Ginobili’s and Tony Parker’s. During those 20-minute drives, Sampson and Pop would talk about the game. If Pop thought Sampson had a good idea, he’d poke the dash.
"Bam, he’d hit a number and he’d say, ‘Hey, Tim, Kelvin had a good thought about something, I want you to listen to this. Tell him, Kelvin,’" Sampson said. "Sometimes it wasn’t necessarily overly complimentary of Tim, but he wanted me to tell him. You realize how important it is for the head coach to have that relationship with his best player."
Sampson’s also learned discipline and organization from Milwaukee‘s Skiles, whom Sampson believes got a bad rap in his relationships with players.
"We met every day as a staff with Scott," he said. "It was incredible: He never had a bad meeting. He was on target every single meeting with his points of emphasis."
In Houston, Sampson worked McHale, a Hall of Fame player whose patience left Sampson astounded.
"Kevin’s got the patience of Job," Sampson said. "He has a great filter. Things that bother other people don’t bother him."
Sampson (right) with Houston Rocket James Harden.
But for all the world-class coaching talent he’d been exposed to, Sampson’s hero and go-to guy remained his father, John W. "Ned" Sampson, who coached Kelvin and hundreds of others over a 35-year career as basketball coach at Pembroke High School in Pembroke, N.C.
"Still the best coach I’ve ever been around," Sampson said.
For as long as Sampson has been a head coach — starting at Montana Tech in 1981 until his last game at Indiana in 2008 — he and his father have talked after every single game.
"You say, ‘Well, there had to be a few times.’ No. Not one game did I ever coach that after the game I didn’t call him just to talk about the game," Sampson said. "Coaches know what to say to coaches. Other people mean well, but really a coach knows what a coach is going through. I would always glean one bit of wisdom from him. He knew what to say."
I wanted to have a comfort level that he didn’t want to use the University of Houston to get back into college coaching. … But that he really believed in the institution.
Athletic director Mack Rhoades
Ned and Kelvin never talked about Kelvin going back into college coaching when the show-cause was lifted last fall. Even when schools started calling, Sampson responded with a firm no. An "I better not even see my name in the paper" kind of no. That was over.
The goal was to be a head coach in the NBA, and Sampson’s league work had gotten enough traction that he interviewed face-to-face for three NBA head coaching jobs over the last two years.
"Two of them, I was close enough to think I have a really good chance at these," he said. "No guarantees, but a really good chance. But I came back to Houston, and I had a great job. When you’re the lead assistant and every night you’re watching Dwight Howard and James Harden, every time you step on the court you have a chance to win. And you have a voice … it was a very healthy relationship."
But the colleges kept calling, and it made him think. So one night in February, Sampson called his 84-year-old dad and asked what he thought about going back to the college game.
That was a Sunday. Tuesday morning, Sampson was in Los Angeles preparing to play the Lakers, and he got a call. Ned had died.
Sampson’s hero was gone, but he could still hear those words. He says they are too personal and too emotional to share, but whatever his father said on that Sunday night stuck.
"It resonated with me," he said.
College basketball didn’t seem to be taking no for an answer. One athletic director bluntly offered him the job. He could feel himself leaning, and it bugged him.
"Part of me didn’t want to admit that I was interested," he said.
When University of Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades called, Sampson told him no. But then Roades tried again.
For Rhoades, Sampson’s NCAA woe was not a deal-breaker. Put it this way: Kelvin Sampson has been to the Final Four more recently than Houston has. He needed Sampson more than Sampson needed him.
"We were very fortunate to hire somebody with his proven track record," Rhoades said. "A two-time national coach of the year, been to the Final Four, Sweet 16s. … I would say we’re pretty fortunate."
Rhoades told Sampson what he wants is national relevance — to be in the NCAA tournament, to be in the Top 25, to be talked about. And he doesn’t want his school getting stepped on by a coach bound for brighter lights.
"I wanted to have a comfort level that he didn’t want to use the University of Houston to get back into college coaching," Rhoades said. "But that he really believed in the institution."
But there are good reasons the basketball program has been the way it has ever since Hakeem Olajuwon and Clydre Drexler left almost 30 years ago. The city of Houston barely knows there is a basketball team at UH.
The Cougars’ arena, Hofheinz Pavilion, feels like something out of the Cold War. The city’s great players — and there are plenty — end up at Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor, if they don’t go someplace like Duke or Kentucky.
At first, Sampson wasn’t into it.
"Then I started realizing that’s one of the things I like about Houston — what they didn’t have," he said. "They don’t have great fan support. They don’t have a product people are talking about. They have poor facilities. Those things are objective things. I think I can help them get ’em."
Earlier this month, Sampson signed the contract. His father wasn’t around to see it, but Sampson thinks he knows what he would have said.
"He’d say, ‘You picked one that’s gonna be a challenge,’" Sampson said. "He’d be happy."