Think of all that went into that celebratory embrace 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 all that had been overcome. Conquering obstacles is a customary aspect of reaching the NCAA Final Four, but few traveled this far, this long.
“So many long nights, so many early mornings. So many times we were told ‘No’,” Kellen tweeted after seeing a photo of this moment. “This hug was worth every second of the journey. I hope everyone who said ‘Yes’ feels the emotion and the gratitude in my eyes.”
If you wish to declare Kelvin Sampson’s impediments were of his own making, that is your right. His journey back to this stage, though, after six years away from college coaching with the one program bold enough to grant him an opportunity, still stands as an uncommon achievement.
“It’s not supposed to be easy,” Kelvin said, primarily discussing Oregon State’s comeback to make Monday night’s Elite Eight game a 67-61 nailbiter in favor of the Cougars. That statement applies across the board, though.
It works regarding the attrition that affected the Houston roster following last season’s 23-8 finish, with Nate Hinton turning professional, Fabian White lost with an injured knee after 11 games and leading scorer Caleb Mills leaving the program following the fourth game.
It works regarding the difficulties the Cougars had as a team, dropping a puzzling game against East Carolina that could have damaged their NCAA seed, struggling terribly but squeezing out two wins in the seven days prior to Selection Sunday against American Athletic Conference challenger Memphis.
It works for Sampson, of course.
“I’m proud of these kids. Proud of the heart. Proud of them battling through so many things this year,” Sampson told reporters following the game. “For this team to be 28-3 and going to the Final Four. This is one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve been around. And I have this group of players and this staff — everyone on the staff, all the players — to thank for it, for allowing me to go along on the ride with them.”
Sampson spoke so long about the challenges overcome on the way to this Final Four it consumed nearly his entire postgame news conference. No one got the chance to ask him how it felt to be doing this in Indiana, 50 miles from Bloomington, the site of the one failure of his head coaching career. He was dismissed from the job as Hoosiers coach in February 2008 — after not even two full seasons — because of an NCAA investigation into his recruiting practices.
It now seems quaint the NCAA charges against him were centered on fewer than two handfuls of recruiting calls, given all that has been revealed by the Justice Department investigation’s intersection with such programs as Louisville, Kansas, Arizona and Auburn — and with unlimited communication now the rule of the day.
Today, all this matters only to the extent it brought Sampson to Houston, and Sampson now has brought Houston back to the Final Four. Which happens to be in Indiana. He would not have been the Cougars’ coach without what happened at IU. He still might be the Hoosiers’ coach. Impossible to say: We are not in that alternative universe.
With all he has accomplished at Houston, though, there must be more than a few programs that hired coaches after his show-cause expired and before the Cougars jumped in with their offer.
The Cougars won 22 games in his second year, reached the NCAA Tournament in his fourth and made the Sweet 16 in his fifth. This is year seven. There have been two American Athletic Association titles, one in the AAC tournament and an average of 24 victories per year.
This is neither the first trip to the Final Four for Sampson, nor for Houston. As they advance together, though, it represents a simultaneous revival. Sampson made it in 2002 at Oklahoma, before the IU episode. The Cougars have not been back since reaching three in a row from 1982-84 — the Phi Slama Jama teams — and those raised on modern college basketball should not forget Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney got them there in 1967 and ’68. Star guard DeJon Jarreau mentioned his pride at helping Sampson return to the Final Four with a victory in the coach’s 1000th career game, 667 of which have been victories.
“I thought we could win. I did,” Sampson said. “Once we got through the first year, we started adding pieces. And we did it brick by brick. We weren’t in a hurry. We didn’t try to cut any 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 other areas, such as New Orleans, his hometown and that of Jarreau.
“We said no to a lot of kids because I just thought they wouldn’t fit our culture,” Kelvin Sampson said. “We said no to a lot of kids that people would think: ‘That’s a great get.’ Or: ‘Now you’ve got great recruits.’ I don’t care about great recruits. Never been my deal. I wanted kids that I could coach, kids that would be coached, that would be able to survive some tough days, some hard days, and I could get them to play for each other.
“To get to the Final Four, I think each year that went by 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 Houston job with a note that said, “I hope you get to use this ladder a lot.” They used a different one to cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the point was made.
Accepting the Houston job gave Kelvin the opportunity to work with his son. For the half-dozen years he assisted the Bucks and Rockets, Kellen was taking an alternative route, progressing from an Oklahoma grad assistantship to coaching staff positions at Stephen F. Austin and Appalachian State. The two would see each other maybe 10 days a year. Now it’s pretty much every day, lately every minute of every day. Daughter Lauren also is on the basketball staff as director of external operations. and was able to join her father on the court following the Oregon State win for a wave to Karen Sampson, the endearing matriarch of the family.
In October 2014, when Sampson first stepped onto the practice court to run the Cougars after traversing an NCAA show-cause penalty and spending that time as an assistant coach in NBA, Kellen told Sporting News it was “emotional, for sure,” to see his dad back in his element.
“Six years, I forgot how good he is,” Kellen said then. “He is really good. He is such a teacher, and he is so passionate about teaching.”
Seven years later, the rest of the world was reminded. “Really good” probably doesn’t cover it.