Kelvin Sampson, a North Carolina Lumbee, reaches new high: No. 1 in college hoops

By Sarah Nagem

Kelvin Sampson, an athletic inspiration in Robeson County since the 1970s, has accumulated a long list of accomplishments during his career as a college basketball coach. 

Seventeen NCAA tournament appearances. 

Ten conference championships. 

National coach of the year. 

More than 700 career wins. 

This week, Sampson reached a new high. The University of Houston Cougars, led by Sampson, landed the No. 1 spot in the college basketball AP poll. 

Sampson, 67, is a member of the Lumbee Native American tribe. He grew up in Robeson County, where the 55,000-member tribe has its headquarters, and played basketball at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke before launching a coaching career.

The tribe is celebrating Sampson’s latest achievement – and the continued impact he makes locally. 

The Pembroke native “shines a light not just on his team, but for thousands of Lumbee children who aspire to see Native faces like their own, realizing the dream,” Tasha Oxendine, a spokesperson for the tribe, said in a news release Wednesday. 

Sampson’s success has taken him far from home for decades. He has served as the men’s head basketball coach at Montana Tech, Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana. He spent six years as an assistant coach in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. 

He took the helm at the University of Houston in 2014 and led the team to a 32-6 record last season. 

This year, team was ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP poll but climbed to No. 1 on Monday. (Worth noting: The University of North Carolina Tar Heels had led the poll since the start of the season but fell to No. 18 this week.)  

Sampson seemed to take it all in stride. 

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” he told reporters, according to ESPN. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

No matter his achievements, Sampson doesn’t forget his roots. He gave the commencement speech at UNC Pembroke in 2020, and the university said he makes “frequent visits.” 

His wife, Karen L. Sampson, was appointed to the school’s board of trustees in 2018. 

Sampson has spoken out about the racism he experienced growing up in Robeson County, where more than 40% of residents are Native American. 

Last year, Sampson told reporters that his father, well-known high school basketball coach John “Ned” Sampson, used to take him to tobacco markets where there were separate water fountains for white, Black and Native American residents. 

His father, along with other minority coaches, had to sit in folding chairs at basketball clinics while the white coaches sat in theater seats, Sampson said, according to Andscape, a sports website operated by ESPN. 

Fast forward several decades, and Sampson and his team are reaching for a national championship title. Last year, the Cougars lost to Baylor in the Final Four. 

UNC Pembroke issued a statement after the loss. 

“Sampson and the Cougars may have fallen short of a national championship title,” the university said. “Still, he brought much pride, excitement and national attention to his alma mater and his hometown over the years.”  

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Kelvin Sampson is a Robeson County native.
Lumbee Tribe