Sweet 16 coaches recall formative years at small NC colleges

Kelvin Sampson went to UNC Pembroke and John Calipari to Wilmington. Friday, their teams will face off in an NCAA Sweet 16 game

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson speaks during a news conference at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Thursday (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Two of the biggest names in college basketball coaching will go against one another on Friday when John Calipari leads second-seeded Kentucky against Kelvin Sampson and No. 3 Houston in the NCAA Midwest Region semifinals at Sprint Center.

It’s a matchup whose origins date back decades to small colleges in the Old North State.

“Our relationship goes back a long time,” said Sampson, whose Cougars (33-3) are making their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1984. “Good old NAIA District 26 back in North Carolina. Different times.

“Cal was at UNC Wilmington, I was from Pembroke (State). We all came from kind of the same foundation, small college kids that kind of grew up.”

In addition to Sampson and Calipari, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes — a native of Hickory — also cut his basketball teeth at a District 26 school as a player at Lenoir-Rhyne. Barnes’ current team, Tennessee, also played in the Sweet 16 on Thursday.

Adding to the roster of future elite college coaches around the state during the mid-to-late 1970s was Tubby Smith, who won a national championship at Kentucky before moving on to Minnesota, Texas Tech, Memphis and now his alma mater, High Point.

Smith was coaching at Hoke County High school in Raeford at the time and he became something of a mentor to Sampson and the other aspiring young coaches just starting their careers at the time.

“Tubby is kind of our mentor,” Sampson said. “He’s a little bit older.”

Despite all having risen to the highest level of their competitive profession, the group’s shared roots have helped its members remain friends through the years.

“Any time something of significance happens in my life, there’s two people to either call or text me right away,” Sampson said. “One is Tubby and the other is Rick Barnes. My father (who was also a basketball coach) used to say that if you have one friend in your life, you’re a rich man. Well, I’ve got a bunch, none that’s closer to me than Tubby or Rick.”

Calipari might not be as close as the other two, but that doesn’t mean Sampson respects him any less.

“John has always been really smart,” Sampson said. “He knows what he wants and knows how to get it. I’ve always admired John and have a lot of respect for everything he does.”   

According to Calipari, the feeling is mutual.

“Knowing Kelvin for as long as I have, what he’s done with the program, the culture that he’s created,” the Kentucky coach said. “Obviously he can coach. If you don’t respect them, you’re losing — whether it’s us or anybody else.”