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How Jud Heathcote's belief in Kelvin Sampson launched storied career

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Posted at 1:32 PM, Apr 01, 2021

The more success some people garner, the more often great ones seem to remember their roots.

Kelvin Sampson is a glowing example. Moments after punching his NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four ticket, the Houston Cougars head coach wanted to talk about his roots here in Montana.

These were Sampson's opening remarks after Monday's Elite Eight win over fellow Montanan Wayne Tinkle and Oregon State:

"Kellen and Lauren, my two kids, were born in Montana and I coached in Montana. And Wayne (Tinkle) was a great player at University of Montana. When I talked to Wayne before the game, I said, 'You know who would love to watch this game tonight? Jud Heathcote.'"

Sampson and Tinkle were both part of Heathcote's coaching tree and they all spent time in Big Sky Country. Sampson's head coaching career launched in Butte at Montana Tech but only after getting his feet wet as a grad assistant at Michigan State.

"I was 22 years old, didn't know if I was on horseback or foot," Sampson recalled of his time in East Lansing. "And Jud made sure I didn't know if I was on foot or horseback. Being a grad assistant for Jud is kind of like being a glorified manager. I was scared to death of him, he intimidated me."

But Heathcote, who coached at Montana from 1971-76 before becoming a legendary fixture at Michigan State, also believed in Sampson.

"I don't know what it was, but I would never have gotten to Montana Tech (without him)," Sampson said. "Jud's freshman year in college was at Montana Tech. He helped me get there."

And then to Washington State before head coaching ventures at Oklahoma and Indiana.

But as cell phones became prominent in the 2000s, the NCAA hastily came up with some rules to keep up with technology. Sampson broke them, was bought out of his contract by Indiana, went to the NBA's Houston Rockets and was believed by many to be gone from college basketball for good.

Now, 19 years after leading OU to the Final Four, he's back with a 28-3 hard-nosed defensive team at Houston. And zero interest in cutting corners.

"We said no to a lot of kids who people said, 'That's a great get,' or, 'Now you've got great recruits.' I don't care about great recruits. Never been my deal," Sampson said.

Sampson said he wants kids he can coach and who are willing to be coached. To him, that starts and ends with character.

"High-character kids let you coach them, overcome adversity," he said. "And they're usually mature. I have a very mature bunch, I love them to death. I'm so happy for them. They are why you coach and it's been a thrill being with these kids this year."

Sampson's No. 2-seeded Cougars play No. 1-seeded Baylor Saturday at 3:14 p.m. MDT on MTN stations across Montana. No. 11 UCLA and No. 1 Gonzaga play afterward at approximately 6:34 p.m.

Sampson's son Kellen is on Houston's coaching staff and said to be in line to succeed whenever Dad has had enough.

And to think the journey for both started in Butte.