KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Within 48 hours after Kelvin Sampson resigned at Indiana back in 2008, Gregg Popovich called, asking him to become a consultant with the San Antonio Spurs.
Essentially, it was an invitation to hang out. After a tumultuous exit ahead of what would effectively become a five-year ban from NCAA coaching, Sampson figured it was a chance to decompress.
It became instead an eye-opening glimpse, he says, into all the things he did not know about basketball – and the start of a six-year postgraduate education that has paid obvious dividends in his return to college coaching.
When Houston meets Kentucky on Friday at the Sprint Center, it will mark the Cougars’ first Sweet 16 appearance since 1984, back when Hakeem Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama ruled the hardwood. And it’s not a blip; in Sampson’s fifth season, the program appears poised to remain relevant. And it’s in part because Sampson has partially reinvented himself.
“I wish every college coach could take a sabbatical,” he says, “step back a year and go spend a year in the NBA, following a coaching staff to see how they do things.”
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Sampson had been a college head coach for 25 years. He’d been to the NCAA Tournament 13 times, had taken Oklahoma to the Final Four and had been named the national coach of the year. But Sampson got to San Antonio, started sitting in on staff meetings, watching how the assistant coaches broke down opponents and designed game plans, and quickly realized: “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
Watch Houston now and you’ll see plenty of the staples that made Sampson’s teams so good in his first act as a college coach – notably at Oklahoma, where in 12 seasons, the Sooners went to the NCAA Tournament 11 times and to the Final Four in 2002.
The Cougars defend relentlessly, very much like those teams did (though Sampson says he’s much more open to changing how his teams defend, game by game, based on matchups). And when senior guard Galen Robinson Jr. tells a reporter that the scoreboard keeps track of points, and “if you keep ‘em from scoring and you score, you’ve got a good chance to win,” he’s only parroting the kinds of things Sampson has preached (and his teams have embraced) for years.
On the other end of the floor, the NBA influence is obvious. Sampson’s college teams were known for a deliberate offensive style. But he was astounded, in those very first days in San Antonio, to see how much freedom the Spurs gave Tony Parker to create shots very early in each possession. He spent three years as an assistant in Milwaukee for Scott Skiles (an offensive “savant,” Sampson says), then three more with Kevin McHale and the Houston Rockets, learning “multiple ways” to do things he’d been used to doing only one way.
Houston’s offenses include sets designed to get shots in the first 10 seconds of the 30-second shot clock. The Cougars focus on spacing almost to the point of obsession (Sampson calls it a “dogged determination”). They move constantly. They play very fast.
“X’s and O’s, he’s so different,” says Kellen Sampson, Kelvin’s son, who played for his father at Oklahoma and is now his lead assistant, adding: “He’s more open to changing and evolving.”
Sometimes Kellen Sampson and staff members Hollis Price and Quannas White – who formed the backcourt on some of Sampson’s best Oklahoma teams, including the one that reached the Final Four – laugh about how many points Price would have scored in Sampson’s current schemes. Joking aside, the assistant coaches are far more invested in Houston’s game plans than any of Sampson’s former staffs. It’s another byproduct of Sampson’s initial experience in the NBA, where he first watched Spurs assistants Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown and Donnie Newman deliver intricate scouting reports and design game plans.
He calls it his “hello moment,” with the realization that he’d never delegated anything close to that kind of authority to assistants – and that at least in the beginning, he might not have been ready to design those kind of plans.
“I don’t think I was a good enough coach to help an NBA team win a game when I first got to that league,” he says.
But he learned. And for a time, Sampson believed his future lay in the NBA; he interviewed for several head-coaching positions. But as a five-year show cause order from the NCAA expired in 2013 (the rules he had broken – making hundreds of impermissible phone calls to recruits – had been changed; what Sampson did is no longer a violation), colleges began checking his interest.
And when Houston called, Sampson was intrigued at the building project, which seemed like a return to his coaching roots at Montana Tech and Washington State. Five years in, he has taken Houston to its highest point in decades.
“Knowing Kelvin for as long as I have,” Kentucky’s John Calipari says. “What he’s done with the program, the culture that he’s created … I’m amazed. Ten, 12, 13 years ago, we were going to Houston to play. To see where it is now, it’s incredible what they’ve done.”
Credit goes to a coach who took advantage of an opportunity to learn the intricacies of a sport he thought he knew well.
“By going to the NBA,” Kellen Sampson says, “his mind was blown. He actually got to see something different that worked, and it was fun. He was almost kicking himself for not seeing the game through that lens earlier. He got so much better as a coach by being in the NBA.”