Kelvin Sampson talks lovingly about his influences as a basketball coach.
His father, John “Ned” Sampson, was at the front of the line, of course. His brief apprenticeship under Jud Heathcote at Michigan State left an indelible impression. And his six seasons at Washington State, where he matched wits for two seasons with Oregon State’s Ralph Miller, took Sampson’s coaching style to another level.
Then he got to Oklahoma, and in Bedlam rival Eddie Sutton, Sampson says he saw something of all of them.
Sutton, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last month and won more than 800 games during his Division I coaching career, died on Saturday at the age of 84. Sampson heard the news and immediately thought back to the heated matchups they had twice a year from 1994-2006.
Sampson said his dad taught him the “holy trinity” of basketball fundamentals: defense, rebounding and not turning the ball over. Heathcoat taught similar tenets, then got Magic Johnson and showed Sampson how to evolve as a coach to suit the players’ skills. And Sampson said as a 31-year-old D1 head coach, he studied not only the multiplicity of Miller’s 1-4 offensive set, but how he thrived in a small burg of the Pacific Northwest.
“Then I get to the Big Eight and I run up on this Sutton guy,” Sampson said, “and it’s like I came full circle.
“What makes great coaches great? What made coach Sutton great? Why was he a great coach? … I think what Eddie was, he was a great example of what all three of those guys were good at. Eddie had an evolving offensive philosophy, he adapted to the talents of his players as the years progressed, but the ‘Holy Trinity’ was still etched in stone in his heart: defend, rebound and take care of the ball.
“I learned more from those four gentlemen about the game of basketball, and they influenced me more than anybody I’ve been around in this game or coached against in college.”
Including four years at Montana Tech, seven at Washington State, 12 at Oklahoma, two at Indiana and now six at Houston, Sampson has 637 college wins of his own.
“I didn’t understand the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State rivalry when I took the job. But I quickly learned about it,” he said. “Eddie and I knew that we had a rivalry. You know, Cowboys didn’t like the Sooners and Sooners didn’t like the Cowboys. But I think between he and I, there was always respect because of our teams and the way we coached.”
Sampson said he was a 37-year-old “nobody” when he got to Norman, and Sutton was already a giant in the profession.
“He was somebody I looked up to,” Sampson said. “But he also motivated me. I knew there was an expectation with those Sooner fans that, you know, you play Oklahoma State, that’s a big rivalry, and down the road in Stillwater, Oklahoma, is sitting a legend and I’ve got to get my program pretty good.
“But that motivated me, having him there. I think it made me a better coach. I think it helped develop our program.”
In head-to-head games against Sutton, Sampson’s record was officially 12-14 (they met 25 times, but Sutton had resigned on Feb. 15 before the last Bedlam showdown with Sampson; OSU counts those games on Sutton’s record).
During that stretch from 1994-2006, neither OU or OSU won more than two Bedlam games in a row.
The rivalry has never been better than it was in those 12 seasons when Sutton and Sampson squared off.
“I enjoyed that rivalry. I really did,” Sampson said. “Playing Kansas was always unique, but playing Oklahoma State, those are the games you live for. You know, you kind of dreaded ‘em, but as soon as the game started, you loved ‘em. I mean, I loved playing against Oklahoma State.
“But I think because the stakes were raised so high knowing who was coaching ‘em. You know, when you beat Oklahoma State, it meant something more than beating someone else. And looking back, it was because you’re beating one of the best coaches ever.
“So that period of time from 1994 to 2006, you know, that was kind of a Camelot era for that rivalry because of how good both teams were.
“I’m sure Billy (Tubbs) had better years during his tenure than what I had, but I’m not sure Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were as good at the same time as we both were then. Seems like every year, both of us were ranked, and if we weren’t, that was kind of an outlier. So when you’re ranked, and you’re both on the national picture, it just brings the nation into those games. And seems like there were so many of ‘em that were on Big Monday.”
Sampson laughed as he recalled “flying out to halfcourt” to protest Victor Williams’ buzzer-beater in the 48-46 all-time classic in Stillwater in 2003.
Fourteen of their meetings were decided by a single-digit margin. The rivalry was especially good in 10 games from 1998 to 2003, when, except for two blowouts in 2001, the margin of victory was four points.
Sutton leaves an impossibly broad legacy. But a handful of factors stand out:
- OU fans don’t generally like anything with Stillwater connections, but a vast majority of them either liked or respected Sutton.
“I think people recognize greatness,” Sampson said. “When you’ve got a rivalry, and you’ve got somebody that transcends the rivalry like Eddie, because of his greatness, you have to acknowledge it.”
- Handling the 2001 plane crash that killed 10 members of the OSU basketball family nearly broke Sutton, but his grace and dignity during profound crisis showed everyone else what real strength could look like.
“I think about his run,” Sampson said, “and it’s kind of like leaves in the fall, you know, it’s somebody else’s turn. We all have a turn. But boy, what a turn he had.”
- He and wife Patsy’s three sons — Steve, Sean and Scott — are all highly successful. Steve is a Tulsa banker, Sean is regarded as one of the most insightful assistant coaches in the business (he helped take Texas Tech to the national championship game last year), and Scott (currently an OSU assistant under Mike Boynton) is the winningest coach in the history of the program at Oral Roberts University.
“I’ve gotten to be good friends with Sean and Scott over the years, and those two guys are just wonderful, wonderful men. Great husbands, and great fathers,” Sampson said. “I think a lot of that has to do with Patsy. She doesn’t get talked about enough. I have a hall of fame coach’s wife, too. I know how important Karen is to our program. … You could tell that she was almost regal sitting up in the stands in her support of Eddie.”
- Probably deepest of all, the impact Sutton had on his players over five decades as a high school, junior college and Division I coach will be felt for generations. Hearing how high regard they hold him, how much love and respect they have for him decades after playing for him obviously shaped them more as men than as players. Consider the raw prospects that Sutton took on like Bryant Reeves and Desmond Mason, or reclamation projects like Doug Gottlieb, Tony Allen and John Lucas. They were all better men because they played basketball for Eddie Sutton.
“I recruited Desmond and it wasn’t long before I figured out that we had no chance there,” Sampson said. “The reason why we weren’t gonna get him wasn’t Oklahoma or Oklahoma State — it was coach Sutton. Coach Sutton did a great job with Desmond.
“The impact he had, I read Doug Gottlieb’s letter that he wrote coach Sutton,” Sampson said. “I read that this morning. My wife showed it to me. What he and Desmond said about coach Sutton, you know, that’s why you coach. Those two letters are way bigger than wins or losses. The impact he had on those guys as men and now fathers and husbands, I think coach Sutton would have been happier about those two letters than anything anybody else said.”
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