HOUSTON — Shortly before his death, John W. “Ned” Sampson had nearly become an NBA fan.
His son Kelvin, once an elite coach at the college level, was in his sixth year as an assistant in the league and in the middle of the season with the Houston Rockets.
“All of our conversations had been about the Houston Rockets, how the team was doing,” Kelvin said.
The weekend before Ned passed away in mid-February, Kelvin was in Los Angeles preparing for a game with the Lakers and the conversation changed. With his NCAA penalties freshly expired, Sampson was again a candidate to coach at the college level.
Ned Sampson, a longtime coach and athletic director at schools around Robeson County, was plenty familiar with the game. After being a multi-sport star athlete in high school and college, he had earned his way into the respective halls of fame of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Robeson County and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
“Normally his response to that would be ‘Do what’s best for you,’” Kelvin said. “He talked at length about why it would be good and it really resonated with me.”
Six weeks later, Sampson was back in school. The University of Houston announced April 3 that Sampson would be the school’s new mens basketball coach, replacing James Dickey, who resigned for family reasons.
It’s a second chance for the Pembroke High School graduate and alumnus of what is now The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a coach who has seen the best and worst of the NCAA spectrum.
After working his way up from a graduate assistant position at Michigan State, he found himself with his first head coaching job at Montana Tech in 1981.
He saw the highs, making it to 10 NCAA tournaments while at Oklahoma, which included three trips to the Sweet 16, two to the Elite Eight and one Final Four. He departed to Indiana in 2006 and led the Hoosiers to the second round of the NCAA tourney, where they lost to eventual regional champion UCLA.
But in 2008, allegations of impermissible phone calls to recruits while at both Oklahoma and Indiana piled up, and the NCAA launched an investigation that led to Sampson’s resignation. He was given a five-year show-cause penalty.
“You have to do a lot of soul searching, think about who you are, where you are,” Sampson said. “Mistakes were made, lessons were learned. You leave it at that, put it in the past and move on.”
The University of Houston knows of his past and addressed the issue during the hiring process.
“I know, we know, Kelvin Sampson is a great coach,” Mack Rhoades, the school’s athletic director, said during Sampson’s introductory press conference. “But more importantly, coach Kelvin Sampson is a great person who made some mistakes, violated some NCAA rules, and he admitted those mistakes. And he took full responsibility for those mistakes. And he was remorseful and paid his dues for those mistakes.”
Change of directions
When one door closed for Sampson, another quickly opened at the professional level.
Just weeks after his departure from Indiana, Sampson was hired in an advisory role by the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and eventually was hired as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks. In 2011 he moved back to Texas, where he joined the Rockets and filled in briefly as the acting head coach when Kevin McHale took a leave of absence in late 2012.
“I actually thought I would become a head coach in the NBA and thought I would retire in the NBA,” Sampson said.
Working with some of the NBA’s best, including McHale, the Bucks’ Scott Skiles and the Spurs’ Greg Popovich, Sampson got a lesson in coaching.
“Coaches in general tend to be control freaks but basketball is about freedom,” Sampson said.
His bond to the NBA remains. He still refers to the Rockets in the first person and got well-wishes from general manager Daryl Morey and players James Harden and Pat Beverley at his introductory press conference.
“Kelvin has been great. He has worked with me every day in the gym, helping me develop my game and get better,” Harden told the university. “We are going to miss him, but he is going to be great at the University of Houston. He is going to help them win and build that program.”
A family affair
As he finished dealing with media on the day of his press conference, Sampson looked towards his wife and daughter, who were talking to a man wearing a University of Houston baseball cap.
Sampson recognized a familar face underneath the cap — former Robeson County Athletics Director Ronnie Chavis, who had coached him in high school.
“With my mother and father passing away, it was almost like God put those people there on that day as my family,” Sampson said. “It was good to see family there, even if they aren’t blood family.”
It’s a theme that seems to echo with his new job.
When he signed on, part of the deal included a spot as an assistant for his son Kellen, who had been coaching at Appalachian State. It’s the first time that the younger Sampson will be a full-time assistant for his father.
“Being able to work with him is exciting. He’ll do a great job,” Sampson said.
The challenge they face is leading a former college powerhouse back to glory. Once known for the “Phi Slama Jama” teams that were headlined by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, the Cougars have only been to the NCAA tournament four times since playing in the 1984 NCAA championship game. Each of those trips ended in a first-round loss.
Houston plays in the American Athletic Conference, which includes national champion Connecticut, along with powerhouses such as Memphis, Cincinnati and Southern Methodist.
The Cougars graduated five seniors and the team’s two top scorers — junior guard Danuel House and senior forward TaShawn Thomas — are reportedly looking to transfer.
It’s meant that Sampson has had to start out running, with mornings filled with meetings, along with recruiting trips to bring in the new pieces.
“Right now it’s really hectic but I’m enjoying it,” he said.
But the road ahead will include a new practice facility, set to break ground in May, and renovations to Houston’s Hofheinz Pavilion following. It’s a dedication to basketball that made the job more enticing.
Ultimately though, Sampson said he’s looking forward to getting back in the business of helping young college players grow up.
“There’s nothing that makes you feel better than to get a call, a text or something to communicate how they’re doing,” he said. “I’ve never lost sight of why I coach.”