PEMBROKE — Before winning 637 college games as a head basketball coach and coaching the likes of James Harden as an NBA assistant, taking four schools to the NCAA Tournament and winning five conference championships, Kelvin Sampson was a hometown kid playing two sports at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke in the mid-1970s.
Sampson, currently the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Houston, recalled his playing days at UNCP and discussed his coaching career in an interview Friday during UNCP’s virtual Cash Bash fundraiser.
“Pembroke is a unique place, from a cultural standpoint,” said Sampson, a Pembroke native. “Being Native American and living in Pembroke, you’re in a cocoon a little bit. The thing that drives the town of Pembroke is the university, and the best thing that ever happened to Pembroke is the university. But the university also thrives off the people there.”
Sampson played both basketball and baseball for the Braves, saying he was “pretty good” at both but not “really good” at either. But not necessarily being the star, he said, helped him once he became a coach.
“I could relate to everybody on the team; I could relate to the starters, and the kids who didn’t get to play as much as maybe they wanted to play, I knew how they felt,” Sampson said.
While Sampson’s father was a former UNCP athlete and coached at Pembroke High School, it was his mother who convinced him to consider coaching, he said. He began studying as a political science major, intending to go to law school, inspired by Thurgood Marshall, before changing to health and physical education at his mother’s suggestion. He began coaching at Upchurch Junior High School in Raeford while student-teaching there, leading a sixth-grade girls team.
He’s come a long way since, serving as head coach at Montana Tech, Washington State, Oklahoma, Indiana and Houston and as an assistant at Michigan State, Montana Tech, Washington State and with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. But even as he’s coached all over the country, he’s kept up with UNCP athletics.
“I’ll get text messages from him, when we lose a tough game or things aren’t going great, just saying ‘keep your chin up,’” UNCP athletic director Dick Christy said during Friday’s program. “There’s a lot of times that he knows as much about what’s going on athletically as any of our fans here locally. His passion has not waivered.”
In his current stop, Sampson has led Houston to regular-season conference titles the last two seasons, including a 33-4 record in 2018-19, after taking over a program with a rich tradition but recent struggles. What’s gotten Houston back into the national spotlight, he said, is the “culture” they’re building.
“That’s an often-used, maybe misunderstood term that gets thrown around a lot, but it’s critical to your success,” he said. “It’s what time you come to practice every day, how hard you work, treating people with respect, opening doors for ladies, making sure that you’re representing your mom and dad, your community that you come from, the university and the program the best way possible. When I look back at success we’ve had here, we just have high-character kids.”
The Cougars’ success on the floor, he says, comes in large part to how they’ve responded on the rare occasions when they haven’t succeeded.
“I think it’s been three years since we lost two games in a row,” he said. “It’s easy to coach when you’re winning, but when you lose a game, how you handle that adversity in practice the next day often tells you the strength and the fabric of your culture.”
The program also included messages from some UNCP coaches, complimenting the school’s fan support and emphasizing the importance of events like the Cash Bash.
“It’s been as taxing and arduous as any year that I can say I’ve been able to coach in college, and I know our players can say the same as far as their playing careers,” UNCP men’s basketball coach Drew Richards said. “When your resources are struggling … that takes a toll on the program, and restricts the things you’re able to do.
“Outside financial support of alumni and boosters at UNC Pembroke is another thing that sets us apart. Alumni support is second to none. There’s ‘big’ schools that struggle to get as many guys as we get back to alumni game.”
“I’ve been here for 15 years and the fan support here has been instrumental and what we do and what we’re able to accomplish,” UNCP head football coach Shane Richardson said. “Without our fan base, without people supporting us, both in person at our games and from a financial backing, and just from the chemistry and the camaraderie and the excitement that goes on around campus and in the community, there’s no way we could do what we do.”
The final event of the Cash Bash is Saturday at 5 p.m. with special guest Dereck Whittenburg, a basketball legend and national champion from North Carolina State. Christy will also speak during Saturday’s program.
Registration for the event, which is free, remains open at UNCPBraves.com/CashBash. A silent auction and raffle continues until Saturday at 7 p.m.
Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1989 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.