Sunday, April 06, 2014

Can Kelvin Sampson resurrect UH's basketball program?

Last Thursday, the University of Houston introduced Kelvin Sampson as the new head coach of the Cougar mens basketball program. Sampson, who was previously an assistant head coach for the Houston Rockets, has extensive college experience, having served as head coach at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana. He takes the reins from James Dickey, who retired for personal reasons after four seasons and a lackluster 64-63 record.

Sampson's a known commodity in college coaching circles, having been successful at every school he's been, but he also carries some baggage, as John Royal explains:
Sampson's well-regarded as a coach -- he's the actual Xs-and-Os guy on the Rockets staff. He was known as a good recruiter in college, and he won at a school, Washington State, where nobody but him has been able to win. But the hiring's not without controversy. The NCAA hit him with a five-year show cause letter in 2008, meaning that any school hiring him essentially had to go to the NCAA and get permission. And the reason he was hit with the sanction, and the reason that Oklahoma and Indiana were put on probation, was because of improper cell phone and text message contacts with recruits, an issue that the NCAA now allows. 

But the folks doing the hiring at UH aren't too concerned about the shadier aspects of Sampson's past as a head coach. 

They're looking at the positives, such as producing 18 consecutive winning seasons. At the 13 NCAA tournament appearances. At his having won conference titles, of having reached two Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight, and one Final Four appearance while at Oklahoma. Those are all things the Cougars haven't really done much of in year's past, and his hiring makes the school nationally relevant and part of the national conversation for the first time in years.
In the grand scheme of things, improperly contacting recruits via cell and text messages doesn't seem like a big deal, especially since it's something that the NCAA now allows. But rules are rules: those were the rules that we in place at the time, and Sampson chose to violate them when he was at Oklahoma as well as Indiana. Sampson has paid his dues - a five-year show-cause order is the harshest penalty the NCAA can levy against an individual - and has hopefully learned to play by the rules from now on. Nevertheless, the Houston program can expect increased scrutiny in the coming years.
But if the school's happy with Sampson and not concerned about the increased attention that's bound to come from the NCAA, then that should be all that matters. It has been frustrating watching the program flounder since the departure of Pat Foster in 1993 (Foster who took over from Guy V. Lewis took the team to three NIT and three NCAA tourneys in his seven years at UH, the last time the school's truly been nationally relevant). Sampson will recruit, he will coach, and the team will win, and if school officials feel that any possible NCAA issues are worth that, then that's their call.
This is the real issue: the program is moribund, invisible locally, irrelevant nationally, and the fans are staying away in droves. Something drastic needs to be done to bring this once-proud program back to life - it's ironic, in that regard, that Sampson's hiring comes thirty years to the day after Houston's loss to Georgetown in the 1984 NCAA Championship Game - and the University of Houston needs to take a chance with a known winner, even if there's an element of risk involved. Obviously, I'm among those earnestly hoping that this works out.

Sampson has signed a five-year deal worth at least $4.5 million, not including performance incentives.