Kelvin Sampson was genuinely pleased to be home in Pembroke and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
"I never thought I would be a distinguished speaker," Sampson told an audience of more than 500 on April 28 at the Givens Performing Arts Center. "I never thought I would be distinguished. I'm honored."
Sampson, a 1978 graduate and head basketball coach at Oklahoma University, was the final speaker in UNCP's Distinguished Speaker Series.
"I take representing Pembroke and UNCP very seriously," he said.
Appearing very comfortable on his home court, Sampson mixed stories of his family and growing up in Pembroke with the lessons he has learned in 26 years as a head coach. And, he offered inspiration.
"As you grow older, you go from having heroes to having people who inspire you," the 46-year-old coach said. "I challenge everyone in this room to find someone to inspire you and find a way to inspire someone else."
Sampson and his teams have been accused of being overachievers after building one of top programs in the nation without the benefit of waves of blue-chip players.
"I don't like the word over achieve. Don't ever tell me my teams overachieve," he said. "If you're successful, you've live up to your ability level."
"We don't want to have great teams," he said. "We want to have a great program."
Sampson's team has won three straight Big 12 Conference tournament championships and is invited to the NCAA tournament every year. But he said he has learned more lessons from losing than winning.
At his first head coaching stop at Montana Tech, his first two teams went 5-22 and 4-23.
"Jud Heathcote called me up to congratulate me for taking Montana Tech from obscurity to oblivion," Sampson laughed. Heathcote was the Michigan State coach who gave the young college graduate from Pembroke his first coaching job.
"The first step up the ladder of success is failure," he said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
Sampson persevered at Montana, and his next stop was in the PAC 10 at Washington State.
"The toughest job in the PAC 10 is Washington State," he said. "Any team that would hire a 24-year-old Native American as its coach has to be in bad shape."
Sampson's first team went 1-17 in PAC 10 play.
"We weren't really that bad. We just weren't good enough to win," he said. "Of all the things that have happened to me, that was the best."
"Mature people know how to handle adversity," Sampson said. "People who can't handle adversity, blame others."
Sampson said he admires commitment, unselfishness and teamwork in his players.
"Some kids have a hard time being teammates," he said. "A very good player will get you 15 points and 10 rebounds a night. A great player will get you 15 points, 10 rebounds and will be your most popular player, the kid of kid other players will go to when they're down."
"Coaching is getting your kids to understand teamwork, to be givers," Sampson said. "I don't like people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. If your best player is your hardest worker, it will be hard not to succeed."
"Soft people want things handed to them," the coach said. "Successful people compete, not just play hard."
To the young people of the audience, Sampson had this advice.
"Kids will tell you it's tough for them," he said. "You can be anything you want, but you can't be afraid to fail."
"Ordinary people do extraordinary things," he said.
Sampson answered questions following the speech. During the day, he taped an interview with WNCP, the university's broadcast program, and spoke with UNCP's men's basketball team.
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Three speakers have been signed on for next year's Distinguished Speaker Series, Today Show host Soledad O'Brien, Native American Olympic champion Billy Mills and filmmaker Spike Lee. A fourth speaker will be announced soon.