INDIANAPOLIS – He’s still here, Indiana. Your guy, Kelvin Sampson. Always winning in your garden. Now returned to the Final Four.
It’s a rather enjoyable story for the Houston Cougars, who haven’t progressed this far since Phi Slama Jama was an active fraternity 37 years ago. It’s a pretty nasty story for fans at Indiana University who hold Sampson the same as identity thieves and tax evaders. What is redemptive to one fan base can be disgusting to another.
Sampson left that state in 2008 in disgrace and returned in 2021 to glory, that run coinciding with his old school wallowing in prolonged mediocrity and changing coaches again. Monday started with Mike Woodson being presented for lukewarm 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 tough 67-61 final victory over Oregon State was Sampson’s 1,000th game as a college head coach, and he had won 666. both a staggering number and, perhaps, an appropriate number for the locals. To use the operative expression of March, Kelvin survived and progressed.
The guy was supposed to cut the net for the Hoosiers, not Houston. But it all fell apart when he was fired in the later stages of that 2007-08 season – one that had immense promise before dissolving into a pile of NCAA violations. The rules that Sampson and his staff broke were picayune in hindsight and are no longer on the books: Ineligible recruiting phone calls. But those were the rules of the day, and not only had Sampson broken them, he had been in trouble before for breaking the same rules in his previous job in Oklahoma.
Sampson arrived at IU in the spring of 2006, and soon after was banned from calling recruits and taking recruiting trips off campus for a year for Oklahoma violations. “I learned an invaluable lesson, and I hope it reinforces to other coaches the importance of all aspects of NCAA compliance,” Sampson said in a statement from IU at the time of the initial sanctions.
The statement ranks among the most false in the history of the sport, as Sampson brazenly doubled down on the same violations as the Hoosiers coach. It was an intolerable offense for a school that prided itself on playing by the rules throughout Bob Knight’s race. He was fired, the players fled the program, and Indiana was plunged into a huge rebuilding hole.
Sampson paid a price, receiving a five-year display penalty from the NCAA in 2008. He was actually out of the college game for six years, exiled to an assistant coaching role in the NBA before landing the job. from Houston in 2014. He was hired by athletic director Mack Rhoades, now at Baylor, and the Bears will face the Cougars’ Final Four on Saturday.
It turned out to be a sensationally successful second chance for Sampson. Or maybe a third chance. When you are this good, you have more chances.
This is Sampson’s sixth straight season of 20 wins and his fourth straight single-digit loss season. The account of these last four: 111–23. His Houston teams played like his vintage Oklahoma teams did in the 1990s and 2000s, relentlessly defensively and on the backboard. What is difficult is their expertise.
If one season stands out as Sampson’s coaching 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; then 2020 top scorer Caleb Mills transferred eight games this season.
Houston never blinked. The Cougars have gone 21–3 in the regular season, passed the American Track and Field Conference tournament and received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. It was then that fortune intervened on their behalf.
After beating the No. 15 seed Cleveland State in the first round, support for the Midwestern region collapsed at their feet. They played No.10 Rutgers in the second round, not No.7 Clemson. They played No.11 seed Syracuse in the third round, not No.3 West Virginia or No.6 San Diego State. And then they drew the long-missing Oregon State No.12, Illinois No.1, Tennessee No.4, and Oklahoma State No.5. This is the first time a team has ever played only double-digit seeds on their way to the Final Four.
Oregon State spent about 31 minutes playing much like a No.12 seed heading for a regional final. The Beavers sprawled out against the Houston defense, got lost on the glass and flipped at halftime by 17 points. It was time to start researching the biggest Elite Eight blowouts in tournament history.
But Wayne Tinkle rummaged through his bag of zone defense stuff and came up with a 1-3-1 concoction that crippled the Cougars. From Syracuse to USC to the state of Oregon, the zones have taken their toll in this tournament. While everyone faces zones over the course of a season, few teams are used to attacking a 1-3-1.
As Houston hesitated, the Beavers began to eat away at what was a 14-point deficit at the nine-minute mark. A 17–3 inning capped by a three-point Gianni Hunt to tie the game at 55 with 3:48 remaining, and it looked very real that Oregon State would continue to roll just ahead of the Cougars and into the Final Four as the highest seed ever to advance this far.
But in a TV timeout leading up to Hunt’s tie-three, Sampson reinforced the need for his team to keep attacking and resist passivity. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to miss the photo.”
Leading scorer Quentin Grimes was hidden in an open niche against 1-3-1, and he delivered a three that gave Houston the lead for good. On the defensive side, the Cougars took over the strangulation of the Beavers, who very suddenly lost the mojo that fueled their comeback. There was nothing they could do offensively the entire length, and Houston held on.
When the horn finally sounded, Sampson rose from his chair and into the arms of his son and assistant coach, Kellen. They hugged for a long time, then there was a long time with regional MVP DeJon Jarreau. When her daughter Lauren, the program’s director of operations, kissed her 65-year-old father, her tears flowed.
Lauren was so nervous in the dying minutes that she collapsed from her chair and onto the floor on the other side of the field from the Houston bench. A few minutes later, she was standing in the middle of the field next to her father, Kellen on the other side, as someone took a picture of them with the regional championship trophy.
It’s been 19 years since Sampson’s last appearance in the Final Four, which came while he was coaching Oklahoma. The first time Sampson took a team on the last weekend of the season, his career was still ascending and filled with the promise that brought him to Indiana. Then it crashed. The man who rose through the ranks of Lucas Oil on Monday night bore the scars of the accident and the wrinkles of methodical career reconstruction.
He’s a hero in Houston and an outcast in Indiana, where they still haven’t figured out how to win big again. The day they restarted once again in Bloomington, Kelvin Sampson ascended 50 miles north.