Kelvin Sampson

Photo: Courier-Journal

Kelvin Sampson is an American basketball coach. He was the head coach of many major programs, including: Washington State, Oklahoma, Houston, and Indiana. Sampson is well known for his coaching prowess and his knack for turning around struggling programs. However, Sampson has also been accused of several recruiting violations.

  • Name: Kelvin Sampson
  • Nationality: USA
  • Age: 64 years old
  • Birthday: October 5, 1955
  • Birthplace: Laurinburg, North Carolina
  • High School: Pembroke High School (Pembroke, North Carolina)
  • Playing Career: Pembroke State University (now UNC Pembroke), 1973-1978
  • Coaching Career
    • Michigan State assistant (1979-1980)
    • Montana Tech assistant (1980-1981)
    • Montana Tech head coach (1981-1985)
    • Washington State assistant (1985-1987)
    • Washington State head coach (1987-1994)
    • Oklahoma head coach (1994-2006)
    • Indiana head coach (2006-2008)
    • Milwaukee Bucks assistant (2008-2011)
    • Houston Rockets assistant (2011-2014)
    • University of Houston head coach (2014-Present)
  • Twitter: @CoachSampsonUH

Kelvin Sampson’s Early Life and Playing Career

Sampson is part of the Deep Branch community of the Lumbee Indian tribe of North Carolina. His father was part of a group of Lumbee Native Americans that drove the Ku Klux Klan out of Maxton, North Carolina.

He attended Pembroke High School, excelling at many sports. In high school, he played under his father who was Pembroke’s basketball coach. Samson ended up being a two-year captain of the basketball team.

Sampson attended Pembroke State University (now known as UNC Pembroke), where he played both basketball and baseball. As a senior, Sampson was the team’s star point guard and team captain. Sampson also did well academically, routinely making the Dean’s List.

After his graduating from Pembroke State, Sampson attended Michigan State University while he was pursuing his Masters Degree in coaching and administration. At MSU, he would also start his coaching career.

Sampson’s Early Coaching Career

Sampson’s first job in coaching was at Michigan State under legendary coach Jud Heathcote during the 1979-1980 season. His career would escalate quickly after this experience.

After just one season with the Spartans, Sampson took an assistant coaching position at Montana Tech (NAIA). The very next season Sampson was named Montana Tech’s interim head coach but eventually was named the permanent head coach. Sampson was extremely successful at Montana Tech, especially considering the program’s struggles prior to his arrival. During his final four seasons, he won 73 games. Prior to his arrival, the Orediggers had only won 17 combined games in a three-year span. During his reign from 1981-1985, Montana Tech won three Frontier Conference championships and Sampson was named conference Coach Of The Year twice (1983, 1985).

Next, Sampson joined the staff at Washington State. After two seasons as an assistant, he was named head coach in 1987 and would stay with the Cougars until 1994. Once again, Sampson had great success in turning around the program. In 1991, Sampson secured the school’s first winning season in eight years and followed it up with an even better season next year. The very next year Sampson was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year as he took Washington State to the NIT. During his time at Washington State, he became one of only four to have won 20 or more games in a single season at the school (and Sampson did it twice).

On April 25, 1994, Sampson became the head coach of the University of Oklahoma. He immediately hit the ground running and won 23 games his first season (15-0 at home). The Sooners were the #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament but were upset by #13 Manhattan. Still, that year, he accumulated the second best record of any first-year coach in Big 8 (precursor to the Big 12) history and was named the National Coach Of The Year by the Associated Press.

Oklahoma head coach Kelvin Sampson jumps up from the bench in the second half as the Sooners tied the score against Texas during the championship game of the Big 12 Conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo., on Sunday, March 11, 2001. At left is guard Blake Johnston. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

During his tenure at Oklahoma, the team won 20 games or more in 10 of his 12 years and made the NCAA Tournament in all but one year. Overall, Sampson’s winning percentage at Oklahoma was 71.9%.

Under Sampson, the program was also investigated by the NCAA for violations. The NCAA found that the Oklahoma staff had made more than 550 impermissible phone calls to 17 different liquids. As a result, the NCAA punished Sampson by issuing him an order preventing him from recruiting off-campus and making phone calls for one year, ending May 24, 2007. Oklahoma was able to avoid a “lack of institutional control” reprimand, instead getting punished for “failure to monitor” the phone calls. Oklahoma self-imposed a probation..

Sampson’s Indiana Coaching Career

Near the end of the 2005-2006 season, Mike Davis announced he was going to resign at the end of the season. On March 29, 2006, Indiana named Kelvin Sampson as the head coach of the Hoosiers, replacing Davis.

IU was aware of Sampson’s violations at Oklahoma when bringing him on board and some of the NCAA’s punishments were in effect during his first season in Bloomington.

While many members of the Indiana Board of Trustees characterized the Oklahoma violations as “minor infractions,” Indiana did insert a provision in Sampson’s contract allowing the University to “take further action, up to and including termination” if the NCAA “imposes more significant penalties or sanctions than the University of Oklahoma’s self-imposed sanctions.”

Upon taking the job, Sampson stated, “I love my job at Oklahoma and I would not leave OU for any job unless it was a job like Indiana. My family and I have had 12 great years at Oklahoma, the best years of our life, but Indiana is one of the great programs in college basketball and if they call and offer, it is a job as a coach that you have to take.”

Photo: The Indianapolis Star

Sampson won 21 and 22 games respectively during his two seasons with the Hoosiers.

During his first year, the team was a #7 seed in the NCAA Tournament and took down #10 Gonzaga before eventually falling to #2 UCLA. The next season IU had an #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament but promptly fell to #9 Arkansas.

Controversies and NCAA Violations

Sampson came under much criticism for the recruitment of star Eric Gordon. Originally, Gordon verbally committed to Illinois. Many coaches criticized Sampson for continuing to contact and recruit Gordon despite his verbal commitment.

Then-Illinois coach Bruce Weber proclaimed that he, or anyone on his staff, would not have recruited someone who had verbally committed, unless the player had publicly reopened his recruitment. Many coaches agreed with Weber, creating yet another controversy for Sampson.

In 2008, questions once again arose about Sampson’s control of the program when Eric Gordon stated, after leaving for the NBA, that his freshman season was partially derailed by a rift between teammates over drug use.

According to Gordon, Sampson tried to end the drug use but “was just so focused on basketball and winning and everything.”

In October 2007, it was announced that the NCAA was once again investigating Sampson for improper phone calls. According to the NCAA, despite Sampson being prohibited from making recruiting calls, Sampson participated in around 10 conference calls with recruits that the NCAA deemed to have violated his probation stemming from his Oklahoma violations. Overall, the NCAA claimed Sampson and members of his staff had made over 100 impermissible calls.

To make matters worse, the NCAA claimed Sampson knowingly committed these violations and lied to NCAA investigators. As a result, in February 2008, the NCAA announced Sampson was guilty of five “major violations.” Similarly, Indiana assistant Rob Senderoff was also accused of making over 35 impermissible calls.

In the NCAA’s report, the infractions committee said: “A head coach does not promote compliance when he intentionally ignores committee penalties directed at him for intentional rules violations. A head coach also does not promote compliance when he himself commits intentional violations. This is particularly true when he commits his violations with the knowledge and assistance of a coach on his staff.”

It was originally reported Indiana was going to suspend Sampson without pay due to the violations and likely fire him after completing an internal investigation. Sampson, however, decided to resign. Dan Dakich took over as coach.

After Sampson’s departure was announced, six players including IU senior captain DJ White skipped the first practice under Dakich in protest. The players later rejoined the team.

Sampson commented on the allegations and his resignation in a statement saying, “I’m deeply disappointed in today’s findings by the NCAA, but the accusations at hand are things that happened on my watch and therefore I will take responsibility. I am truly sorry that there were so many people who were hurt in the situation. For the sake of everyone involved, including my family, it is time to move on.”

Sampson’s resignation came with a $750,000 buyout ($550,000 of which came from an anonymous donor gift). The buyout also included a clause preventing Sampson from suing the University. At the time of his resignation, he had five years remaining on his contract with a base salary of $500,000 per year.

In November 2008, the NCAA issued a three-year probation to the Hoosiers because of the violations done under Sampson’s watch. Sampson himself received a five-year show cause penalty, meaning he could not coach college basketball for five years unless the program hiring him was able to demonstrate that he had sufficiently served his punishment.

Attorney and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said in 2018, “Right now, college basketball is going through this FBI probe and we had people arrested and the term ‘corruption’ is being used. Kelvin Sampson was being criticized for phone calls. That’s how ridiculous the NCAA system has been all these years. He was out of the college game for a while because of phone calls. Tell me we don’t have our priorities out of whack.”

Sampson’s Post-Indiana Coaching Career

Because he received a show cause penalty due to his NCAA violations, Sampson was prohibited from coaching in college basketball for five years. As a result, he transitioned to becoming an assistant coach in the NBA.

In 2008, he was hired to be an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks. After three seasons in Milwaukee, he spent another three on the sidelines as an assistant for the Houston Rockets.

The Houston Rockets acting head coach Kelvin Sampson left, speaks with the Rockets James Harden as the Rockets play Toronto Raptors during the second quarter of NBA game action at the Toyota Center Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Chronicle )

Sampson believes his time in the NBA made him a better coach, saying “I learned a lot. Those coaches are incredibly smart.”

He noted that he learned the value of patience from then-Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who Sampson said “never has a bad day” and had a great “ability to command respect.” From his time in Milwaukee, Sampson recognized Scott Skiles’ preparation, noting “there was never a situation he wasn’t ready for.”

After several seasons in the NBA, Sampson returned to college to become the head coach of the University of Houston in April 2014. At the time, the Houston program was viewed as a monumental rebuild.

“I thought Houston was a job you could win at. Everybody looked at the facilities, the apathy, all the negatives. That’s what drove me. That’s what really reeled me in. It’s not what they had; it’s what they didn’t have,” proclaimed Sampson.

Photo: The Houston Chronicle

During his first season with the Cougars, the team only won 13 games. However, each of the four seasons afterwards Houston has won 21 games or more, posting impressive 27 victory and 33 victory campaigns in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

Sampson has also reversed the culture and public perception of the program. While at Houston, Sampson has snagged better recruits and spearheaded investment initiatives, including a $25 million practice facility and a $60 million arena.


Contributors: Mike Pudlow