When Kelvin Sampson tries to convince a high school prospect to play basketball for Houston, he’s probably not going to spend too much time talking about the glory days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Three Final Fours, two Hall of Famers and one great team nickname (Phi Slama Jama) in a three-year period is a fine brag sheet — if Sampson could guarantee that these 18-year-old recruits would have any idea who he’s talking about.
“These kids think Michael Jordan is the guy on the Hanes commercial,” Sampson says.
He’s joking, maybe. But the sentiment still echoes what kind of an uphill battle Sampson might have at Houston with challenges he never had to face at Oklahoma and Indiana.
Like Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Sampson is re-starting his college head-coaching career after a detour spurred by NCAA sanctions. Sampson agreed to a buyout from Indiana in February 2008, weeks after the NCAA charged the coach with five major violations. Sampson was charged with making 100 impermissible phone calls to recruits and providing misleading information to investigators, all while he was under sanctions stemming from similar violations while at Oklahoma.
The NCAA penalized Sampson with a five-year show-cause that expired in 2013. The sanctions and the fallout that contributed to a 28–66 record in the ensuing three seasons at Indiana (under Tom Crean’s watch) would have made Sampson a tough sell for more high-profile programs, even if most of the phone call rules Sampson violated are no longer in place. Houston, instead, assumed the risk.
“He said the rules were the rules then, and he broke them and there’s no excuse,” Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades says. “He’s earned a second chance, no question. I think he’s going to make the most out of it.”
While Sampson’s history with the NCAA infractions committee was in question upon his return to the college game, his coaching credentials remain impressive. He reached the NCAA Tournament in 13 of his final full 14 seasons, dating back to his final year at Washington State.
He succeeded at two rebuilding projects early in his career, with Washington State (1987-94) and Division II Montana Tech (1981-85).
No doubt Sampson has rebuilding to do at Houston. The Cougars have had six head coaches, including Drexler himself, and no NCAA Tournament wins in four appearances since the Phi Slama Jama era ended in 1984. The challenge doesn’t seem to faze Sampson.
“I didn’t care about going back to the level I left,” he says.
But Sampson could have stayed at the level where he was. He spent six seasons as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets and interviewed for NBA head-coaching jobs. The allure of a return to college didn’t hit him until a conversation with his father in the final days before Ned Sampson’s death in February. Sampson’s return also gives him a chance to work with son Kellen, who joined Houston as an assistant after three seasons at Appalachian State.
“It’s been 30 years since (Houston) won an NCAA Tournament game,” Sampson says. “That’s what I needed. I needed a reclamation project. I needed something that required a lot of work and a lot of commitment.”
It will be hard work. Sampson is optimistic that Houston, with its recruiting base in the state of Texas, can make a move in the American Athletic Conference. The league contains defending national champion Connecticut, consistent programs in Memphis and Cincinnati and an in-state upstart in SMU. But after that, Houston is as good a bet to move up as any team in a league that includes UCF, South Florida, East Carolina and Tulane. Houston, at least, has a history those programs lack.
Sampson says he’s not interested in talking about the past — he’s referring to Olajuwon and Drexler, but he may as well be talking about himself.
The future to him is more pressing. Houston has hired a name coach, one that the Cougars wouldn’t have been able to lure if not for NCAA baggage, and the school has approved a $20 million practice facility.
“The school is a little bit of a have-not right now,” Sampson says. “Phi Slama Jama isn’t going to win any more games. A new practice facility will. A new arena will. Those are things we’re going to push for, and we’re going to push for them until they’re done.”