During the University of Houston’s basketball media day last week, men’s head coach Kelvin Sampson spoke affectionately about a team he coached during his third season at Washington State in 1989-90.
Sampson praised the effort his players gave that season, how they never gave up. He grew so close to many of them that he still stays in regular contact with half the team 26 years later.
In parts of four decades in the basketball coaching profession at the college and pro levels, one of Sampson’s most memorable teams played for him during one of the most forgettable seasons in his otherwise decorated career.
Sampson’s 1989-90 Washington State Cougars went 7-22 and ended the year on an 18-game losing streak.
“Best thing that ever happened to me as a coach,” Sampson said.
It remains Sampson’s worst season in terms of winning percentage (. 241), and only a Montana Tech squad during his first year as a head coach won as few games (7-20).
The 1989-90 season started with some promise for Sampson and the Cougars, including a victory over Southern California in their Pac-10 Conference opener.
But Sampson’s plan going into the season went by the wayside when he lost his top two players — one to arm surgery and the other to a blood infection — and had to resort to playing freshmen.
It was the first of many lessons learned by a then-34-year-old Sampson in just his seventh season as a head coach.
“You don’t know it all,” Sampson said. “It’s easy to have a good team and nurse a good team along. You don’t have really any adversity that you face.
“It’s like fighting Mike Tyson. Everybody has got a plan when they walk in the ring, and he plasters them upside the head, then their plan goes out the window. I had a good plan going into that season, then we lost our two best players.”
Competing against more experienced and talented teams, including an Oregon State squad led by Gary Payton, Washington State was overmatched.
“You learn so much more about yourself in a losing situation than you do in a winning situation,” Sampson said.
Sampson learned to be creative and imaginative. He also learned to be patient and the importance of being a mentor and father figure to his players as much as a coach.
Just two seasons later with some of the same players, Sampson guided a more talented and experienced team to 22 wins and an NIT bid.
During Sampson’s final season in Pullman, Wash., in 1993-94, the Cougars won 20 games, including a 10-8 mark in conference play, and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The following year, Sampson went to Oklahoma and was named The Associated Press National Coach of the Year in his first season on the sidelines with the Sooners, guiding the team to a 23-9 record. He reached the Final Four with Oklahoma in 2002.
Yet, enduring and learning from a prolonged losing streak perhaps best prepared Sampson for the success he has enjoyed later in his career.
“You find out a lot about yourself as a coach and a person,” Sampson said.