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Cougars Go All In on Rocket's Kelvin Sampson Despite NCAA Issue

The University of Houston announced last night that Houston Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson has been named as the ninth head coach in the history of the men's basketball team. Sampson's the former head coach at Washington State, Oklahoma, and Indiana. He got all of those schools into the NCAA tournament. He also left the last two schools facing NCAA sanctions.

Sampson's well-regarded as a coach -- he's the actual Xs-and-Os guy on the Rockets staff. He was known as a good recruiter in college, and he won at a school, Washington State, where nobody but him has been able to win. But the hiring's not without controversy. The NCAA hit him with a five-year show cause letter in 2008, meaning that any school hiring him essentially had to go to the NCAA and get permission. And the reason he was hit with the sanction, and the reason that Oklahoma and Indiana were put on probation, was because of improper cell phone and text message contacts with recruits, an issue that the NCAA now allows.

But the folks doing the hiring at UH aren't too concerned about the shadier aspects of Sampson's past as a head coach.

They're looking at the positives, such as producing 18 consecutive winning seasons. At the 13 NCAA tournament appearances. At his having won conference titles, of having reached two Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight, and one Final Four appearance while at Oklahoma. Those are all things the Cougars haven't really done much of in year's past, and his hiring makes the school nationally relevant and part of the national conversation for the first time in years.

"As we concluded our search, we spoke with many people who employed, worked with and worked for Kelvin Sampson at his previous institutions as well as current and former NCAA officials," Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Mack Rhoades said in a statement last night. "Those reviews were extremely encouraging and, in multiple meetings with Kelvin, he was candid and completely transparent about his mistakes in the past. Coach Sampson is committed to leading a first-class program in all areas and is excited to return to the college game."

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Sampson's hiring fits with the criteria that was announced when former head coach James Dickey departed last week because of a family emergency. The school was looking to make a splash, to find a big name, that would boost the sagging spirits of the few remaining UH basketball faithful and spark attention in the city and state, leading to an increase in ticket sales and a return to the NCAA tournament. Sampson's teams are known for their tenacious defense, and the hope has to be that the Cougars will suddenly decide to play a legitimate out-of-conference schedule.

The hiring will no doubt bring down increased scrutiny from the NCAA, and that people outside of the athletic department signed off on the deal shows the desperation for a winning program is now much, much more important than the supposed quest for academic integrity -- Sampson left Indiana in a big hole because the school's APR was pathetic. It's also kind of a surprising hire in some ways in that rumors have abounded for years that UH chancellor Renu Khator vetoed the hiring of Billy Gillispie in 2010 because Gillispie wasn't known for running the cleanest of programs.

But if the school's happy with Sampson and not concerned about the increased attention that's bound to come from the NCAA, then that should be all that matters. It has been frustrating watching the program flounder since the departure of Pat Foster in 1993 (Foster who took over from Guy V. Lewis took the team to three NIT and three NCAA tourneys in his seven years at UH, the last time the school's truly been nationally relevant. Sampson will recruit, he will coach, and the team will win, and if school officials feel that any possible NCAA issues are worth that, then that's their call.

UH is reportedly giving Sampson a five year contract, and there are reports that his son Kellen, currently an assistant at Appalachian State, will be named to his staff. The introductory press conference will be at 3:00 this afternoon at Hofheinz Pavilion, and fans are invited to attend -- the school says cash parking will be available in the football stadium parking garage. Who knows, with the pathetic state of UH attendance over the past decade, this press conference might be the largest attendance inside of Hofheinz in years.

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