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Former OU basketball coach Kelvin Sampson an NBA coach with a college spirit

Houston Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson says he most misses college basketball twice a year: Oct. 15, the start of practice, and Selection Sunday.
by Berry Tramel Published: March 18, 2012

Kelvin Sampson leapt to his feet and pumped his fist as his basketball team won a game Tuesday night.

Sure, it was the stoic NBA regular season, and there's always another game the next day, and emotion is passé in the pros. But forgive Sampson, Kevin McHale's chief assistant with the Houston Rockets.

After all, it is March. And March always mattered to Sampson. Always mattered to OU fans, when Sampson coached the Sooners to 11 NCAA Tournaments in his 12 seasons.

Sampson stood on the hardwood of Chesapeake Energy Arena last week and reminisced about his collegiate days, which ended in shame; Sampson was fired after two years at Indiana, for making impermissible phone calls to recruits, the same infraction he committed at OU.

Sampson says he most misses college basketball twice a year: Oct. 15, the start of practice, and Selection Sunday.

“It's like Christmas,” Sampson said of the day NCAA Tournament assignments are announced. “You know you're in, but you don't know who you're playing or where you're going.

“I miss Sunday night, when after all the media stuff is over, your video guy, if he's done his job, which our always did, has a catalog of every game that's been televised. You start watching and say, ‘Hey, I think we can beat this team.'”

Sampson didn't always win in the NCAA Tournament; his record at OU was 11-11. But Sampson's 2002 team made the Final Four; a year later, the Sooners reached the East Regional final before falling to Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony.

“I never got over the feeling of how final a loss was in the NCAA Tournament,” Sampson said. “You get on the bus, realize there's no game tomorrow, no practice tomorrow. You miss those things.”

‘Full responsibility'

Sampson's collegiate career ended for infractions that no longer are crimes.

The NCAA last autumn approved legislation that allows coaches to send “unlimited phone calls and text messages to men's basketball recruits,” according to the NCAA's own website. The deregulation extends to social media, starting June 15 after a recruit's sophomore year. Private messages on social networks also will be deregulated.

Public messages through social networks will continue to be prohibited because of the rule preventing institutions from publicizing their recruiting efforts.

A lot of good that does Sampson. He has on occasion lamented the irony that the NCAA now embraces what cost Sampson his job at Indiana.

“I made a mistake,” Sampson said. “There's a lot I'd like to say … I always felt that was a rule, most coaches did what they had to do. But I made a mistake. I have to take full responsibility.”

Lots of coaches probably did skirt the telephone contact rule. No doubt some did not.

But the rule was changed not to level the playing field. The rule was changed to help coaches counter the tendency of outside influences on recruiting.

According to the NCAA website, the board of directors “believed that allowing earlier and more frequent contact between coaches and recruits will help build stronger relationships and reduce some of the influence of third parties on the recruiting process.”

More irony. Sampson always talked about relationships.

“I miss the relationships.” Sampson said. “I don't miss recruiting. Recruiting's a little different than it was in 1994. I don't know if you're coaching a different kid, but you're recruiting a different kid. Once you get 'em, you can coach 'em.”

NBA dreams

Ten years ago, Sampson was nowhere on the NBA radar. The NBA was nowhere on Sampson's radar. He was a college coach through and through, from his Heart, Hustle, Hardwood mantra to his constrained offenses.

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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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