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Sampson didn't take 'no' for an answer

Kelvin Sampson says his own story of persistence could serve as an example to anyone in any walk of life.

The 51-year-old Indiana University men's basketball coach spoke to a small but enthusiastic audience Saturday night at the American Indian Resource Center in Bemidji. His presentation was part of Indian Week activities at Bemidji State University and was sponsored by the Blandin Foundation and the AIRC.

"When I started coaching I was looking for something I could do with my life," Sampson said. "My message to young people is that once I made up my mind I wanted to be a coach, I didn't take no for an answer."

Sampson's success story includes an NCAA Final Four appearance and a national coach of the year award. But he says the real satisfaction of a 24-year head coaching career has nothing to do with wins, losses and championships. He talked about two trips to visit troops in Iraq as "life-changing experiences" and showed his emotional side while relating rags-to-riches stories of former players Eduardo Najara and Hollis Price.

Sampson, a member of the Lumbee Indian Tribe of North Carolina, has had 10 consecutive 20-win seasons. He is considered the first American Indian coach to lead a team to the Final Four.

When his Oklahoma team accomplished that in 2002, Sampson was asked at a press conference how it felt to be a Native American coach in the national spotlight.

"I told them it felt great," he said. "I enjoy being a role model. You have a chance to give people hope. That's a powerful thing."

Sampson played basketball and baseball at what is now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He enrolled in graduate school at Michigan State in the late 1970s when Earvin "Magic" Johnson was leading the school to national basketball prominence. Sampson was there to teach courses in the mornings and take graduate classes in the evenings.

He asked Spartans head coach Jud Heathcote if he could help out with the basketball program, but kept getting an emphatic "no" for an answer. Then he asked if he could be Fred Paulsen's assistant with the junior varsity team, and finally he got the reply he wanted. At the age of 23, he became a coach for the first time.

A year later, Paulsen was hired as head coach at Montana Tech in Butte. Sampson had to make a choice: Stay in grad school or follow Paulsen to Montana. He took the plunge and headed west, with his new bride, for an annual stipend of $1,000. He married his high school sweetheart back in North Carolina.

"We put all of our belongings in the back of a U-Haul truck and drove to Montana," he said. "I had to leave my comfort zone. I had to see what I could do. Believe in yourself and don't be afraid to fail."

By December of that year, Paulsen was gone and the 25-year-old Sampson was named interim head coach.

The team struggled that season and the next, when the "interim" was removed from Sampson's title. But then came three straight 22-win seasons and a chance to move up.

He went to Washington State for nine years, the last seven as head coach, before beginning his successful nine-year run at Oklahoma. He moved to Indiana a year ago.

"You can't plan life's terms," Sampson said. "Why would you go to Montana for $1,000 and take your wife with? We ate a lot of that Ramen stuff. But I wasn't afraid to try what came next."