The Kelvin Sampson I Know Is A Great Hire

My first interaction with Kelvin Sampson was the 1994-95 academic year.  I was a junior in high school, and the biggest Oklahoma Sooners basketball fan around.  It was Coach Sampson’s first season at OU, where he replaced the incredible Billy Tubbs.

I loved Billy Tubbs.  During his tenure I went to the games, the camps and anything else they would open the doors of Lloyd Noble Center for.  I therefore had a high standard for his replacement, and Coach Sampson delivered.  He brought an intensity and passion for the game that I had not seen before.  My friend Bobby Soltani and I quickly began referring to him as Uncle Sampson (we each loved our dads so that position was unavailable, but figured you can have lots of uncles so why couldn’t he be one?!).

I mentioned 1994-95 was my first interaction with Coach Sampson, and that’s exactly what it was, an interaction.  See I began writing letters to him regularly; asking questions, congratulating him in good times, encouraging him in bad.  And you know what?  He wrote back every single time.  I’ve never forgotten that; and it meant the world to me.

I had the privilege of coaching his son Kellen (who was in 8th grade at the time) during my junior year in college; which gave me my first opportunity to meet Coach Sampson in person.  That led to working the OU basketball camps in the summer, and then getting hired as a volunteer student manager for my senior year.

Volunteer student manager; as a college senior.  I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and at the same time never had more fun.  Whether it was filming practice, keeping obscure statistics we would rarely use or even doing laundry, I was living my dream of working for OU Basketball and Coach Kelvin Sampson.

After graduation Coach allowed me to extend the dream another year, this time as a full-time employee.  Granted I was punching in at minimum wage, but it didn’t matter.  I was having an experience completely unique and totally surreal.

I would return to graduate school for two years.  When searching for athletic department positions around the country after graduation, Coach Sampson was there.  He made a critical call to my future boss at Baylor University Doug Smith, whom he had previously worked with at Oklahoma.  Renzi Stone, a friend and former player at OU for Coach Sampson, happened to be with him when that call took place.  I remember Ren calling me later and saying something to the effect of, “you’re getting that job.”  Later Doug would tell me that Coach Sampson simply said “Doug, you have to hire this guy.”  Look, I worked hard for him. But honestly it wasn’t like I was a long-time assistant coach or life-long acquaintance.  We weren’t “close” in the way friends or families are. But none of that mattered.  Coach Sampson went out of his way to help me because he thought it was the right thing to do.  And I got the job.

I can honestly say I would not be where I am today without Coach Sampson.  Since coming to Baylor in 2003 I met my wife, got a law degree, became an athletic director and got hired by Baylor again.  None of that would have happened without Coach Sampson.  In fact, none of that may have happened had he not returned those letters to an impressionable 16 year-old kid.

I know he made mistakes at OU.  I know he didn’t own up to them and then made more at Indiana. And I know he hurt a number of people along the way.  At first I was disappointed, bordering on devastated.

However, in the last six years he has paid his debt, become one of the best and most respected assistant coaches in the NBA and coached in the Olympics.  And it was only a matter of time before he had the chance to be an NBA head coach.  But his heart is in college.  And when the University of Houston called, he listened.  The Cougars hired Coach Sampson earlier this month as their new head men’s basketball coach, and they couldn’t have hired a better one.  I have no doubt they will win, and that a great coach getting another (and perhaps last) chance will take full advantage of it.

Just this past December, I was traveling to Houston for work when the Rockets happened to be playing at home.  Coach Sampson got me a ticket to the game, and then came out afterward and spent 15-20 minutes visiting and catching up.  He didn’t have to do any of that, but he did.  The University of Houston has a new coach, and if it’s the Kelvin Sampson I know, it is a great hire.

By Spc. Janine Coogler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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