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For Kelvin Sampson, the road to the Sweet 16 began in Butte 40 years ago

Kelvin Sampson
Posted at 3:09 PM, Mar 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-26 17:37:23-04

BUTTE  — In Kelvin Sampson's own words, he was just "chasing a job, chasing a dream" when he crested Homestake Pass and arrived in Butte in 1980 to take an assistant coaching position with the Montana Tech men's basketball program, whose court today has his name emblazoned on it.

Today, he's still chasing his dreams, just on a much bigger stage.

On Saturday, the now head coach of the University of Houston men's basketball team will lead the second-seeded Cougars into a primetime Sweet 16 matchup against Jim Boeheim and No. 11 Syracuse.

It'll be the second straight time Sampson has guided the Cougars into the NCAA Tournament's third round after last season's tournament was canceled.

Sampson, whose latest chapter in a sprawling 40-plus year saga has been a story of redemption and making the absolute most of a second chance, has done for Houston's program what he did for Tech's long before any of his current players were born.

With both the Cougars and Orediggers, he assumed command of a team that had been defined by failure and transformed it into a contender.

With Tech, Sampson took a team that had won a combined 17 games the previous three seasons and turned it into a program that clinched 22 wins his last three seasons and won the Frontier Conference his last two.

Twenty years later -- after coaching at Washington State, Oklahoma, Indiana and then being effectively banned from the NCAA for five years due to recruiting violations -- Sampson's agent contacted him with three teams he could possibly coach.

"Two of them were already in good shape, but I didn't want that. I wanted to build a program," Sampson said at a recent press conference. "The lower the program was, the better for me. We started from the ground and built it up."

Whether at Tech or Houston, Sampson wasn't interested in inheriting success. He wanted to earn it himself.

With the Cougars, he's done just that.

Houston posted a 13-19 record during the 2014-15 season, Sampson's first year with the team and then went on to collect at least 21 wins or more the next six seasons, including this one. The Cougars earned a school-record 33 wins in the 2018-19 season.

Samson's road to this season's Sweet 16 has traveled a long way from his first coaching job in Butte, but he still holds a lot of appreciation for the Mining City.

He visited Tech in 2019 as three of his teams (1982-83, 1983-84 and 1984-85) were inducted into the Oredigger Hall of Fame.

"I've coached some great schools, made some great relationships but Montana Tech's always been near and dear to my heart," Sampson said during that trip. "Both my kids were born here. In a lot of ways this is home for us."

And he's still willing to offer guidance or advice to the program that kick-started his career.

"He's always asking for me to call him or email him about any questions that I may have," current Tech coach Adam Hiatt said. "He's been very gracious with those things.

"But I tell you, the best part about him is all the drills and the toughness elements that he incorporated with his Montana Tech teams in the '80s, he still does today."

Sampson may be on the eve of one of the biggest games of his career, but as he looks back, it's been more about the journey than the destination.

"I've enjoyed where we started and certainly pleased where we're at," Sampson said. "But I enjoyed the work and getting it here more than I'm enjoying this part of it."

Houston and Syracuse tip off at 7:55 p.m. on Saturday. The winner of that game faces the winner of Loyola Chicago/Oregon State in the Elite Eight.