Houston’s Smartest Move: Hiring Kelvin SampsonPosted by Mike Lemaire on April 4th, 2014
It has been rumored for some time but multiple reports have seemingly confirmed it – former Oklahoma and Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson is making his return to the college basketball ranks as the head coach for Houston. Sampson doesn’t even have to change area codes for his new job as he has spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach right across town with the Houston Rockets. Why was he coaching in the NBA when he has such a proven track record at the collegiate level? Well, if you are a college basketball fan, you should have at least some idea how to answer that question.
Sampson made headlines in 2008 when he was hit with a five-year show-cause penalty for basically calling and texting recruits even after the NCAA had repeatedly told him to stop doing so. He was also at the center of the Eric Gordon recruiting saga after bringing the star to Indiana despite Gordon’s verbal commitment to Illinois. There may be some hand-wringing over Houston’s decision to bring a repeated NCAA felon on board, but he has served his time away from the collegiate ranks and if other coaches like Bruce Pearl are being given second chances, there is no reason Sampson doesn’t deserve one as well. Frankly, the marriage looks like a savvy move from both parties.
Houston actually had the talent to compete in the watered-down AAC this season but instead the Cougars limped to a mediocre 17-16 finish. Former coach James Dickey proved he could recruit talent to the program and was never in the news for the wrong reasons, but he never came close to sniffing the NCAA Tournament in any of his four seasons as coach. Meanwhile Sampson’s recruiting chops (and ethics) are well-documented and his coaching resume is flashy as well. He built Washington State into an NCAA Tournament team (even if it did take seven seasons) and he made the NCAA Tournament in 11 of his 12 seasons as coach at Oklahoma, including a trip to the Final Four in 2001-02 and to the Elite Eight the very next season.
Houston doesn’t need an ace recruiter to help restore luster to the program; it needs a legitimate coach who can develop talent and build a formula and strategy for winning basketball games. The most immediate change should come on the defensive end. In the four seasons under Sampson since KenPom started tracking efficiency, the Sooners ranked outside of the top 20 just once in defensive efficiency while the Cougars never ranked above 200th in the category under Dickey. Is it a risky proposition hiring a coach with such a tarnished reputation? I guess if you are one of those who truly believe that Sampson is dumb enough to flout NCAA rules again. But taking a step back, the Cougars just picked up an experienced coach and accomplished recruiter for what I imagine is a fraction of what it likely would have cost to lure a big name to Houston instead.
The move makes sense for Sampson as well because it was unlikely he was going to find a coaching job at a college basketball powerhouse right away and Houston has the potential to be better than your ordinary mid-major. For starters, few mid-majors have the same type of historical prestige that Houston has and there are only a handful of areas in the country that produce more high-level basketball talent than its metropolitan area. Plus, Dickey left the cupboard nearly full as TaShawn Thomas, Danuel House, L.J. Rose, and Jherrod Stiggers are all legitimate all-conference level players and all should return next season. When you consider how much more watered down the AAC is about to become when the likes of Tulsa and East Carolina join, both Houston and Sampson have put themselves in a position to win immediately.
Just don’t let Sampson carry around a cell phone and this could be the beginning of a very happy partnership.