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HCA: Looking back at Kelvin Sampson’s time at Washington State

He was one of the most successful coaches in program history... And this season, he’s back in the spotlight.

NCAA Basketball: American Athletic Conference Tournament-Memphis vs Houston Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Once again this season, Washington State is sitting at home watching the NCAA Tournament. It’s a pretty common occurrence for the program these days. Washington State has picked up just three NCAA Tournament berths over the last 35 years. In 2007 and 2008 Tony Bennett led the Cougs to the dance and, in 1994, it was Kelvin Sampson at the helm.

You’re probably all too familiar with the story of Bennett, who is hoping to lead his Virginia team to a little more success than he had last year in the Tournament. But I’ll leave those complicated feelings for a difference article on a different day.

Today, let’s take a closer look at Kelvin Sampson and his time on the Palouse.

Sampson was named the head coach of the Cougs before the 1987-88 season, after two seasons as an assistant under Len Stevens. Sampson had his share of struggles in his first three seasons at the helm, leading the team to a 20-57 record. But from there, Washington State basketball bounced back.

In the 1990-91 season, the Cougs finished the season at 16-12, their first winning record in nearly a decade. Between 1990 and 1994, Sampson led his team to a 73-45 mark including a pair of postseason runs, starting with an NIT bid in 1993.

The next year, however, the 1994 squad made history heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time ever. The team, led by Tony Harris and Eddie Hill, also had a pair of very familiar names on the roster. Future NBA player Isaac Fontaine and future NBA (and MLB) player Mark Hendrickson were also on the roster as key players on the young squad. In the end, the Cougs were an 8-seed in the dance, but fell in the first round to Boston College.

After his success in Pullman, Sampson accepted a job at Oklahoma to become the new head coach of the Sooners. He found immediate success in Norman, leading Oklahoma to the dance in 11 of his 12 seasons before moving to Indiana to helm the Hoosiers.

In 2007, the NCAA came down hard on Sampson for hundreds of impermissible phone calls to recruits and barred him from recruiting off campus. When he did that anyway, the veteran head coach was sanctioned again, given the dreaded NCAA “show-cause penalty,” and was eventually shown the door in Bloomington.

After serving his five-year penalty, Sampson resurfaced with Houston. In 2018, the Cougars returned to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in nearly three decades. After making it to the second round last season, the “Coogs” (that feels weird to type) are a 3-seed with dreams of going even further this season.

It’s been a wild ride for the 63-year-old Sampson... And it all started in Pullman. There are bound to rumors about his return to the Palouse now that there is a head coaching vacancy, but the veteran seems to have found a home in the Lone Star State. And over the next three weeks, Sampson is hoping to take that next step forward and lead those other Cougars back to prominence.

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