Detroit Pistons Coach Dreams: Kelvin Sampson


Age: 55

Current Job: Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach (2008-present)

Previous experience:

  • Advisor, San Antonio Spurs (2008)
  • Head coach, Indiana University (2006-08)
  • Head coach, University of Oklahoma (1994-2006)
  • Head coach, Washington State University (1987-1994)
  • Assistant coach, Washington State University (1985-87)
  • Head coach, Montana Tech (1981-85)
  • Assistant coach, Montana Tech (1980-81)
  • Graduate assistant, Michigan State University (1979-80)


With a reputation for defense, toughness and player development – typically traits that teams which fire their coaches, including the Pistons, need – Kelvin Sampson has gone from a fallen college coach to a rising star in the pros.

In the NBA, Sampson’s college transgressions haven’t really mattered. It certainly helped that the NBA’s golden franchise, Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, implicitly vouched for Sampson by hiring him as an advisor after Indiana bought him out. Here’s what Henry Abbott of TrueHoop wrote at the time (hat tip: Matt Watson of Detroit Bad Boys):

I can hear you thinking something like: but wait, the Spurs are the choirboys of the NBA! They are pristine and pure! They always dominate those "good guy" lists. Why would they be hanging around with a coach who is shrouded in ethical questions?

And here’s where you realize that things the NCAA abhors, like lots of phone calls to players, are simply no big deal in the NBA. (Get this: in the NBA, I’ve heard they even pay players.)

I know, I know we agree to the rules in advance and we are supposed to follow them. But I just can’t see NBA people being really upset at having a guy around who was aggressively trying to get the best players. In the college game, that may be a crime. In the NBA, it’s a speeding ticket, and it surprises me none to see Sampson joining his friend in San Antonio.

Shortly after that, Sampson landed as a job as Bucks’ assistant. In Milwaukee, he often works with the team’s younger players, including Brandon Jennings, Tiny Gallon and Larry Sanders. Jeremy Schmidt of Bucksketball:

The development of young players is a crucial ingredient in the success of any NBA team and Milwaukee has one of the best in the business on their staff in Sampson. Within the last week, Gallon has Tweeted about the immediate positive influence Sampson has had on him. Gallon’s words should come as no surprise as repeatedly last season Brandon Jennings was quick to note how helpful Coach Sampson was in helping him develop. Keeping Jennings on an even keel during a roller coaster rookie season was a focus for Sampson.

“That was a big thing with Brandon,” he said. “The night he scored 55, I remember he was texting me later that night, and one of the things I said to him was don’t allow a 55-point night on a night in November define who you are. That’s part of being able to handle success.”

It should come as no surprise that Sampson has such a strong connection with younger players. A former big time college coach, Sampson had over 25 years of college coaching experience before joining the Bucks as an assistant two seasons ago. Even in the NBA, Sampson gets the most joy out of helping along the younger players.

“I have a great relationship with Andrew Bogut, Kurt Thomas and John Salmons,” Sampson said. “But those kids may need me more. When Kurt has a great game or bad game, I don’t worry about him. But Brandon, Tiny, Larry Sanders, those kind of guys, you take them under your wing a little bit.”

“I’m here for them,” Sampson said when asked what the key was to his working with younger players. “When you’re coaching a basketball team, you’re making sure that you’re available for anything. If they need to vent or need to go in at night and work or watch film, that’s the answer to our problem. If we go in at 11 at night, floor needs to be swept? I don’t mind sweeping the floor. I’ve swept floors before, that doesn’t bother me. It’s just helping them. As a coach, you get most of your satisfaction from just helping somebody along the way.”

The Pistons’ next coach will certainly be judged on how he develops Greg Monroe, Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko and Rodney Stuckey. If Sampson gets an interview with Detroit and uses the time to show a plan for those four, he could shoot to the top of the Pistons’ list.

In things that shouldn’t matter, but might – because, in the long term, winning is the only thing that draws fans – Sampson might be marketable locally. If Tom Gores wants someone with a local connection, Sampson, who served as a graduate assistant at Michigan State for a year, fits the bill. I’m not sure how much a single season 21 years ago means now, especially considering the Spartans went 12-15. But if the Pistons desperately want their new coach to connect immediately with fans, that might suffice.

Also, I’m not sure whether Joe Dumars deliberately hires coaches whose teams play slowly, but if he does, Sampson fits the bill. His Indiana and Oklahoma teams always lowered the pace. (I put this last, because although it might be a pro for his chances of getting hired, it might be seen as a negative by some. Personally, I’m ambivalent.)


Directly, as far as the NBA goes, I don’t care about Sampson’s NCAA violations. But indirectly, Sampson’s run-ins with the NCAA should cause concern.

Basically, while at Oklahoma, Sampson made a ton of impermissible phone calls. That led to sanctions on him and Oklahoma, but Indiana hired him away. All Sampson had to was not make phone calls. He made phone calls.

Indiana is one the prime coaching jobs at any level, and Sampson flushed it down the toilet. Before I’d hire him, I’d want a more thorough understanding of why. Is he that careless, which would indicate problems that would show up on an NBA job? Or was deliberately willing to take the risk and and move on if he got caught, which wouldn’t hurt his ability to run an NBA team?

There’s also Eric Gordon’s assertion that Indiana had a drug problem under Sampson. Here’s a pretty huge secret: plenty of NBA players do drugs. Sampson wouldn’t need to police pro players like should’ve controlled his college team. But, again, it comes down to judgment. What is a college coach doing where he lets a drug problem take over his team?

And once you get past that peripheral stuff, maybe Sampson’s reputation for developing young talent is a bit overrated. Brandon Jennings didn’t really take a step forward this year. Larry Sanders, in limited minutes, didn’t wow. Tiny Gallon never made the NBA. It’s difficult to assign credit or blame to Sampson for each of those players, but the coach hasn’t shown a slam dunk ability to help young players grow more than an average coach would help them.


As I wrote earlier, the Pistons should be willing to roll the dice on a first-time NBA head coach if they feel he’s the best man for the job. One, I’m not sure they agree with that philosophy. Two, even if they do, I’m not sure Sampson, who has just two years of NBA experience, has the credentials to outweigh never being an NBA head coach.

I’d applaud the boldness of hiring Sampson, because if it happens, that will likely have meant all the questions surrounding him check out. I just don’t think it will get that far.


Rick Adelman