He had the job of a lifetime, nestled in one of the special places where college basketball is deeply ingrained into the fabric of local life.
Kelvin Sampson was the head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers. He was building excitement and enthusiasm in a state where winners aren’t merely loved; they’re revered. Scholastic basketball success — college or high school — ripples through the pages of time in Indiana. Winning in Hoosier Country confers instant immortality on the players and coaches who scale great heights.
Sampson expected to stand on that height before too long, but everyone else in college basketball knew that Indiana and athletic director Rick Greenspan had taken a huge chance by hiring him in the first place. Yes, Indiana basketball was flourishing on the court as the 2007-2008 season developed, but while the Hoosiers acquired a lofty place in the rankings, Sampson was being investigated by the NCAA for his actions at his previous place of employment, the University of Oklahoma.
This was not a secret. Basic vetting by Greenspan should have steered him away from Sampson. Yet, Sampson got the job anyway. He was allowed by Greenspan to be the custodian of one of college basketball’s signature programs. The wreckage created by that decision is still felt today, and only a Final Four appearance under Tom Crean will enable Hoosier fans to truly turn the page from the Sampson era.
In terms of basketball acumen alone, the point is convincing: Had Sampson continued to coach Indiana — in a context removed from NCAA violations and punishments — he probably would have climbed the mountain. He’s that good on gamedays.
Of course, that’s not how the story ended. The great heights, the greater hopes — they and the NCAA came crashing down upon Kelvin Sampson. When he and Indiana were whacked with multiple major NCAA violations, a college coaching career and the revival of a storied program were both instantly derailed. Neither has recovered…
… but both are trying to.
While Indiana owns a Big Ten regular season championship, Sampson owns a distinction which might not give him much personal satisfaction… but ought to be recognized: Sampson has been the best coach in the American Athletic Conference this season. He’s produced one of the bigger turnarounds in all of college basketball in 2016.
The problem: Sampson’s Houston Cougars still won’t make the NCAA tournament unless they capture the AAC Tournament.
If a terrific coaching job occurs in the forest removed from the NCAA tournament, it doesn’t make a sound in college basketball. Nevertheless, Sampson’s work eclipses what anyone else has done in The American this season, and it’s not a particularly close call.
The only other AAC head coach who deserves to be put on the same plane as Sampson this season is a man who is not technically a head coach. Tim Jankovich, the coach-in-waiting at SMU, is Larry Brown’s lead assistant. Jankovich had to take over the Mustangs through the first nine games of the regular season, while Brown served a suspension relating to the violations which made the Ponies ineligible for this year’s Big Dance. Brown could not talk to his team during that suspension, so Jankovich’s ability to retain the trust of his players represents a substantial feat. However, that lasted nine games, and Jankovich is now an assistant again.
Sampson has led Houston through a full season — 29 games entering the regular season finale against Cincinnati later this week — and it’s clear he’s been the best in the AAC.
Sampson’s first season as a college head coach after his exile — and various stints as an NBA assistant — shows why his second season at Houston has sparkled so much.
In 2015, Houston plummeted to a 1-14 AAC record before grabbing wins against the other bottom feeders in the league: South Florida, Tulane, and East Carolina. The Cougars went 5-15 in the AAC, including conference tournament games. They lost 19 games.
In 2016, they faced an AAC which has been better than the 2015 version. At Cincinnati, Mick Cronin returned to the bench this season after health problems hounded him in 2015. The Bearcats have improved over the past 12 months. Connecticut fielded a better team under Kevin Ollie relative to his 2015 group in Storrs. Memphis has declined in 2016, but Tulsa and Temple have remained at roughly the same level, and SMU has been slightly better. The American has not transformed itself by any stretch of the imagination — most of the teams in the league were hoping to make much bigger leaps this year — but the conference is better than before.
Within this context, Houston’s achievements are not to be sneezed at.
The Cougars have won 11 conference games and could very easily win 13 or 14 (tournament included) by season’s end, an improvement of almost 10 wins. Houston is 21-8 and a lock for the NIT if it can’t win the AAC Tournament. Even though cozy Hofheinz Pavilion (just under 8,500 seats) is sparsely attended for most games — it wasn’t for the team’s biggest win of the season, over SMU — the Cougars have lost only three times in that building this season. Only once — against South Florida — did Houston lose a home game it should have won.
No, the Cougars’ resume isn’t close to being worthy of the NCAA tournament. On that absolute scale, it’s still apparent that Houston has a lot of work to do to become worthy of a Dance invitation. However, relative to where this team stood 12 months ago, the Cougars have covered a lot of ground while other AAC teams have made merely minor improvements.
Can you believe that Houston — the program of Guy V. Lewis; the program of Elvin Hayes and the UCLA game in the Astrodome in 1968; the program of Clyde and Hakeem the Dream and Phi Slama Jama — has not won an NCAA tournament game since 1984?
Next year, Kelvin Sampson could change all that.
If he improves the 2017 Cougars the way he improved the 2016 team, he will.