Sports

The Antihero College Basketball Deserves

Houston’s Kelvin Sampson is the perfect coach to stand at the center of the Final Four.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson stands on a ladder and holds a net as confetti flies around him.
Head coach Kelvin Sampson of the Houston Cougars cuts down the net after his team advances to the Final Four. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In old-timey college sports parlance, one of the strongest compliments a coach can receive is getting called a “program builder.” It’s a phrase that conjures the image of someone who takes time, digs in, and guides a team from irrelevance to relevance. In that same traditional parlance, the worst thing a coach can be—worse than an ass, an abuser, or an authoritarian—is a cheater. Whether the rules are ethical or important is immaterial. What matters, and what sticks, is that a coach broke them.

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Kelvin Sampson is all of the above. He’s been a program builder since he took his first head coaching gig at Washington State in 1987 and molded the Cougars from losers into a tournament team. He repeated the feat at Oklahoma, inheriting a once-great program and bringing it back to the Final Four. He’s now achieved it a third time at Houston. The .500 team Sampson took on in 2014 is back in the NCAA semifinals for the first time since the early 1980s.

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In between those happy chapters is a less sunny part of Sampson’s story. He spent most of the years between the Oklahoma and Houston gigs unable to participate in college athletics at all, owing to a five-year de-facto ban the NCAA gave him for breaking the rules. That was shortly after Sampson resigned as head coach at Indiana, which had hired him in 2006 to restore the greatness IU had been searching for since Bob Knight’s 1970s and ‘80s glory days.

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The 65-year-old Sampson is a contradiction, but not in the “people are complicated” sort of way. Sampson is an illustrative figure less because of who he is than what he represents: the arbitrariness of who in college sports gets labeled a success and who gets branded a cheater. Because if you study the facts of Sampson’s case, it’s impossible to conclude that he’s some kind of college sports villain.

It’s worth stating up front that coaches are not the real victims of the NCAA’s recruiting and player compensation scheme. Sampson has made millions over decades spent coaching unpaid athletes. He was financially fine even when his career was in a crater, and he found refuge in two NBA assistant jobs during his exile from the college game. It’s also important to note that the NCAA’s version of a crime is not the same as an actual crime. Sampson, in his earlier coaching days, knew college sports’ bylaws and repeatedly declined to follow them.

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After Indiana hired him away from Oklahoma, Sampson got the Hoosiers rolling quickly. In his second season, in 2007-2008, Indiana got off to a 22-4 start behind five-star freshman guard Eric Gordon and senior forward D.J. White. Getting Gordon was a coup: He was the No. 1 recruit in America and he’d been verbally committed to Big Ten foe Illinois. Sampson pursued Gordon doggedly, and when Gordon flipped to IU, the move pissed off Illini coach Bruce Weber and others in the industry. Recruiting other teams’ verbal commits wasn’t officially off limits, but it was more of a taboo in an era when the college sporting establishment cared even less about player agency than it does now.

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Lots of onlookers figured Sampson was dirty, not just because of the Gordon recruitment. An NCAA investigation had found that Sampson’s staff at Oklahoma had made 577 prohibited phone calls to recruits, and that Sampson himself—perish the thought—“intentionally made 233 of the prohibited calls.” If you are blessed not to be familiar with the concept of a “prohibited phone call” in college hoops terms, the NCAA places limits on both when and how often coaches can talk to players—rules that are supposed to maintain a level playing field and keep prospects from being overwhelmed. Sampson had been in breach, and though he escaped severe punishment, his record followed him.

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Sampson made written promises to Oklahoma, and then to Indiana, that he’d follow those phone call rules going forward. Spoiler alert: He did not follow those phone call rules going forward.

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Despite contractual assurances and the fact that, as chair of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, he’d presided over an “ethics summit” that specifically touched on the need to rein in prohibited phone calls, Sampson kept calling the players he wanted, as well as some of their family members. Indiana found out about those calls during an internal audit, and ultimately self-reported the violations to the NCAA.*

Sampson’s Indiana staff, according to the NCAA, had made “100 or more” impermissible calls. Sampson and one of his assistants had also been on what the NCAA called “11 prohibited three-way calls” with a combined six recruits. If there was anything worse than an impermissible two-way call, it was an impermissible three-way call.

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In February 2008, with five games to go in the regular season, Sampson resigned under pressure and in disgrace. The NCAA mandated later that year that any team that hired him in the next five years would have to “show cause” for why he should be allowed to work for them. That’s the NCAA’s blacklisting instrument of choice, effectively a ban from big-time college sports. Sampson decamped to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets, then—once that “show cause” order had expired—stayed in Houston and went to coach the Cougars, who he’s led to a Sweet 16 and now a Final Four in seven seasons on the job.

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Sampson’s time at the Final Four coincides with the retirement of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, a three-time national champ and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee whom media and fans tend to regard as one of the game’s great gentlemen. Williams’ 18 years in charge of the Tar Heels included the longest academic fraud investigation (about seven years) in NCAA history. The association found Williams’ players had enrolled in fake “paper” classes, but couldn’t pinpoint any NCAA rules violations and thus didn’t punish Williams or his team. Williams won his last title the same year that episode wrapped up.

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Sure, you could argue that there’s no proof that Williams had any personal involvement with that cheating scandal, whereas Sampson was intimately involved in the issues at Oklahoma and Indiana. But the NCAA regularly comes down hard on coaches (including Sampson) for not “monitoring” compliance issues or failing to “create an atmosphere of compliance”—areas where it sure seems Williams failed, too.

It’s not unfair to argue that Williams’ career swung a better way than Sampson’s based on an arbitrary enforcement structure. It’s also not unfair to note, again, that Sampson’s “crime” was calling teenagers on the phone too many times and lying about it. It’s not clear that anyone got hurt by the act of Sampson making the calls. The players may have even liked hearing from him. His transgression is, at worst, in a gray moral area. The reasons Sampson sank and Williams skated have nothing to do with one being a better man.

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College basketball isn’t a morality play, as the event Sampson’s Houston Cougars are now participating in makes clear. The Final Four is the culmination of a tournament that generates nearly a billion dollars in annual television revenue. None of it will be shared with Sampson’s players, and the NCAA just argued at the Supreme Court to keep it that way.

If the NCAA kicked out every coach whose most grievous crime was dishonesty, there probably wouldn’t be enough coaches left to stage a basketball season, much less a Final Four. And so, the NCAA creates individual scapegoats, coaches who take the fall for a broken, corrupt system. But Kelvin Sampson has never been what’s wrong with college basketball. In a sense, he’s the perfect man to stand at the center of the sport’s showcase event. It’s not because he deserves success more than anyone else. It’s because he doesn’t deserve it any less.

Correction, April 5, 2021: This piece originally implied that the NCAA initiated an investigation into Kelvin Sampson while he was the head coach at Indiana University. The school itself initiated the investigation by self-reporting Sampson’s rules violations to the NCAA.

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