HOUSTON — A NCAA Tournament mainstay for more than a decade starting in the mid-1990s, coach Kelvin Sampson never doubted he would return to the tournament, even after NCAA violations left him effectively barred from college coaching for five years.
"I thought I'd be back in the NCAA Tournament if I came back to college," he said.
Sampson delivered on his confidence this year, guiding Houston to its first NCAA appearance since 2010. The 21st-ranked Cougars meet San Diego State on Thursday night.
Sampson began his head coaching career at Montana Tech and then coached Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana to the NCAA tournament in 13 of 14 seasons from 1994-2008, an impressive string of success highlighted by the Sooners' Final Four in 2002 and their run to the round of eight in 2003.
But Sampson committed numerous violations regarding impermissible calls to recruits at both Oklahoma and Indiana, resulting in a five-year show cause order from the NCAA in 2008 that kept him out of the college ranks until he was hired by Houston in 2014.
He worked as an assistant with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets during his exile from college basketball, and with the perspective of years he believes the detour from college coaching was a good thing.
"That was a blessing for me ... there's unintended consequences in everything that we do," he said. "Getting to the NBA really helped me personally on a lot of levels. I liked it so much that I wanted to stay there."
He interviewed for a couple of NBA head coaching jobs before the opportunity at Houston came up.
"A lot of stars got aligned the right way and I ended up here being a Cougar," he said.
But he didn't inherit a great situation at Houston. When Sampson arrived, the once-proud Cougars were far removed from the Phi Slama Jama teams starring Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes and Clyde Drexler in the 1980s that made five Final Four trips, including three in a row from 1982-84.
Houston had struggled to contend in conference play, and when Sampson was hired most of the talent on the roster transferred rather than go through a rebuilding effort.
The Cougars went 13-19 and just 4-14 in American Athletic Conference play in his first season. But the following year, they won 22 games for the school's most victories since 2008. They are 26-7 this season after losing to Cincinnati 56-55 in the final of the conference tourney.
The Cougars' 26 wins are their most since coach Guy Lewis and the Phi Slama Jama crew won 32 games and reached the national championship game in 1984.
"It feels amazing to get this great program back to where it used to be," guard Corey Davis said.
Houston's performance earned Sampson conference coach of the year honors for the fifth time in his career and the first time since 1995 at Oklahoma.
He wasn't too keen on reflecting on what his return to the tournament means. But he acknowledged that he takes great pride in helping the Cougars return to prominence.
"These are shared experiences," he said. "I share this credit with so many people. It's a big deal to get to the NCAA Tournament. That's why when I took this job and (even with) what we didn't have I saw this day ... I envisioned this."
And though Olajuwon, Hayes and Drexler were playing for the team years before his current players were born, Sampson credited those stars for giving him a boost in recruiting through the 2016 ESPN documentary about those teams.
"Houston has a name," Sampson said. "The 30-for-30 piece they did on Phi Slama Jama, every kid we recruited kind of got educated on the history of Houston. That was ... an unbelievable infomercial for our program now. Just let people see what this program was. It's a sleeping giant. It was just dormant."
Now that Sampson has made Houston basketball relevant again, he is focused on making the trip to the NCAA tournament a yearly occurrence. He pointed to banners that line the team's practice gym which are adorned with the words "NCAA Tournament" and the year of the trip.
"Every day I look at that spot right beside 2010 knowing that there's going to be a banner that says 2018," he said. "And then I'm going to look at that spot right by 2018 and I'm going to think 2019, 2020, 2021. That's your goal."