INDIANAPOLIS — Mack Rhoades, the man who gave Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson his second chance, was on the other side of the black curtain that separated the two courts at Lucas Oil Stadium, unable to watch Sampson’s Elite Eight victory because he’s now Baylor’s athletic director and is a part of the Bears’ 34-member Tier 1 group.
Sampson’s chance at redemption in college was far from a layup when Rhoades first sat down with him in March of 2014. Everyone knew Sampson could coach, but he was run out of college in 2008 primarily for making impermissible phone calls at both Oklahoma and then again at Indiana. Now, after the rules have changed, it seems laughable. But back then it didn’t seem so humorous.
Rhoades needed to hear Sampson come clean about his transgressions.
“I wouldn’t have hired him if he didn’t,” said Rhoades, who was Houston’s AD from 2009 to 2015. “I knew his past history, but he was accountable for everything. He never tried to push it off on anyone else.”
Sampson was hit with a five-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA, which virtually made him unhirable in the college ranks. Given a life line by Gregg Popovich in the NBA, Sampson was basically brought on to sit behind the Spurs’ bench, and watch and learn. He spent the next six years with the Milwaukee Bucks and then the Houston Rockets as an assistant coach before being given a second chance by Rhoades with the Houston Cougars in 2014.
“He wanted another opportunity,” Rhoades said. “And he deserved another opportunity.”
But he wasn’t going to get it in the NBA, so when Houston’s Rhoades called, it was a no-brainer. This once storied program that had gone to consecutive national title games with Hakeem Olajuwon back in 1983 and 1984 had since become nationally irrelevant.
Sampson’s first year was ugly, ending with a 13-19 record. But then came a couple of 20-win seasons in 2016 and 2017, and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in 2018 and 2019. Even then, few ever thought that Sampson would get the Cougars back to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
But that’s exactly what Rhoades and Sampson discussed on that March day.
“Our vision was the same,” Rhoades said. “Get Houston back to the Final Four.”
And it was fitting that Sampson did it about an hour down the road from Indiana, the school that most figured would be the final job Sampson would have in the college basketball ranks. But he told me earlier this season that working with guys like Popovich, Scott Skiles and Kevin McHale was an experience that wound up being extremely beneficial for his career.
“It really prepared me to be able to come back in college and be a much better coach,” he said.
And Sampson was a damn good coach before he got to the NBA. He led Washington State to an NCAA tourney appearance, took Oklahoma to 11 NCAA tourneys in 12 years, including a Final Four appearance in 2002, and had Indiana heading in the right direction before he was forced out after a 22-4 record in his second season in Bloomington.
“The guy has won every place he’s been,” Rhoades said. “Even Montana Tech.”
But Houston had been a graveyard of sorts. Alvin Brooks failed for five years, NBA star and alum Clyde Drexler won just 19 games in two seasons, Ray McCallum had three losing seasons in four years, Tom Penders went to the tourney once in six seasons and James Dickey couldn’t get the Cougars over the hump.
But Sampson is a Hall-of-Fame-caliber coach, and he has shown that in his time rebuilding the program.
Sure, the road to this Final Four wasn’t exactly littered with the “who’s who” of college hoops. They started with a blowout of Cleveland State, got past Rutgers, then took down a Syracuse team that barely made its way into the field, and punched their ticket with a victory over an Oregon State group that was picked to finish last in the Pac-12.
But none of that matters now.
On Monday, Houston did what Sampson’s teams have done throughout his entire career. They won with toughness. The Cougars absolutely manhandled Oregon State on the glass, and grabbed 19 offensive boards in the game — including a couple of huge ones from Fabian White and Quentin Grimes in the closing minutes after the Beavers had managed to come all the way back from a 17-point deficit and tie the game at 55-55 with 3:46 left.
And the guy who was responsible for Sampson’s return to the college game could only watch from about 1,000 feet away and smile.
“Kelvin Sampson is a good man who made a mistake a long, long time ago,” Rhoades said. “Not only has he owned up to it, but he’s learned from it.”