Coaching Management, 13.6, August 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1306/qakampe.htm
In 2005, the Oakland University Golden Grizzlies reached the NCAA Division I Tournament for the first time in school history—despite losing the first seven games of the season, experiencing major personality conflicts between two of their star athletes, and playing the toughest schedule in college basketball. They came from behind to win the Mid-Continent Conference Championship, then topped Alabama A&M in the NCAA Tournament play-in game to notch the school’s first Tournament victory, bringing national media attention to the team, school, and coach.
After working for six years as an assistant coach at the University of Toledo, Greg Kampe came to Oakland with dreams of winning multiple NCAA Championships and one day coaching the Detroit Pistons. Instead, he found that “life is great right here at Oakland,” and after 21 seasons, only seven other Division I coaches have been at their school longer.
Kampe coached the program through its transition from Division II to Division I, guiding the team to a regular-season Mid-Continent Conference title in its first year at the Division I level. And his 348-254 record places him among the winningest active Division I coaches.
In addition to coaching, Kampe teaches a course in sports writing at Oakland, and takes pride in his student-athletes’ achievements both on the court and in the classroom. In this interview, Kampe talks about making the transition to Division I, overcoming team chemistry issues, and taking advantage of the media hype that surrounded Oakland’s first NCAA Tournament win.
CM: Looking back to 1997, what was the most difficult part about making the transition to Division I?
GK: Oakland University took a big, bold step in moving to Division I. We were a very, very good D-II program. We had four straight 20-win seasons, were nationally ranked, had four straight NCAA Tournament runs, and had made it to the Sweet 16. But when we moved, it was difficult gaining acceptance into the D-I world. There isn’t much respect for the new guy—not only locally, but nationally nobody has ever heard of you. We knew we were a good program, but found ourselves at the bottom and had to start all over again.
During those next four years when we weren’t yet eligible for the NCAA Tournament, it was challenging to convince recruits to come play at Oakland. Every athlete wants to play in the NCAA Tournament, but in that first recruiting year, we couldn’t give them that chance right away.
How did you recruit players during that transition?
I promised them a lot of playing time and the hardest schedule possible. I said, “We may not be able to get into the NCAA Tournament, but you’re going to play in all these great environments against all the biggest universities. You’re going to play the big boys.” That first year, we said, “We’ll red shirt you during your freshman year so you’ll have a chance as a fifth-year senior,” which we did. After the first year, we switched to saying, “We’ll be eligible by the time you’re a junior.”
Why do you schedule so many games against such tough opponents?
We do that for three reasons. One, we’re still the new guys on the block and we want exposure for Oakland University. We want people to know who we are. Now, having gone to the Tournament—and the fact that I’m talking to you—proves we’ve succeeded.
The second reason is that we needed to make some money. We made a quarter of a million dollars this year playing televised games against teams like Xavier and Illinois, and that benefits our entire athletic department.
Third, it really helps us in recruiting. I am able to tell young men, “Yes, you’ll be playing in a lesser-known conference, but you’ll be competing on television against some of the best teams in the country.” I tell parents that not only do we have a chance to go the NCAA Tournament, but they’re also going to watch their son play at Illinois, Michigan State, and Missouri.
After starting this past season 0-7, how did you keep your team motivated?
Going 0-7 is no fun, no matter who you’re playing. It wears on everyone, so we pushed really hard to stay together and understand that our only goal was to get to the NCAA Tournament. We weren’t getting blown away in any of those games, and we almost won a couple of them. Everyone could see we had a chance to be good, we were just too young at the time to finish those games. So I told our athletes, “Playing these teams is making us better, and at some point later this season, it will pay off.” And it did.
Do you motivate freshmen differently than upperclassmen?
Every year, we tell our freshmen, “This is the senior class’s last chance. You’ve got to learn the system, and work to achieve our seniors’ goals.” This year, we had a lot of freshmen playing major roles, and it was pretty hard for them to play the teams we played and succeed. We knew they could be good collectively, but they didn’t really mesh as a group until late in the season. It took time, practice, and a lot of different ways to motivate them: showing confidence in their abilities, patting them on the back, and telling them how much they were improving.
You had a few personality clashes between players this season. What advice do you have for dealing with team chemistry?
We had two athletes, Rawle Marshall and Cortney Scott, who come from very diverse backgrounds and value things differently. We did everything we could in order to help the situation: We hired a team psychologist, did team-building exercises, went bowling, and had meetings where we talked about ourselves and shared what was important in our lives.
We did all of those things as a team. We got to know one another and found out that yes, some people didn’t like each other. Rawle and Cortney were brought up very differently, and we put those issues on the table. One day they just looked at each other and said, “This is ridiculous. We’re here for the same thing.” So I guess it worked, because they understood that ultimately we’re a team and we’re here to care for each other.
How much importance do you place on academics?
Academics are the highest priority for us. We have a very high graduation rate and very high grade point averages—our team GPA this semester was 3.1. And the guys know we value academics, because we show up at their classes to make sure they’re attending. I’ve been here a long time and professors know that grades are important to me, so I’ll get a phone call if things aren’t going well.
The word on the street here at Oakland is that everybody has to graduate. The idea is that you are a student-athlete and there’s no player who can skate that commitment. For example, Rawle is flying around the country right now for all these draft combines since he declared for the draft, but he’s coming back for his finals before he flies out again. We’re making sure he finishes.
How did you prepare for your Tournament game against the University of North Carolina?
We went into that game believing we could win. We were playing really well, we had come up with a plan that we felt had an opportunity to work, and the team bought into it. We were on a run, and it was easy to convince the team they were David, ready to slay the giant. But we knew by halftime that it wasn’t going to happen, because North Carolina was just unbelievable—they sank 22 of their first 30 shots. We played really well and still lost by 28 points.
It seems like you’ve never turned down an interview. How important is it to meet media requests?
We want to handle every request that we get, and never say no. We’re trying to make a name for ourselves, so the day after we beat Alabama A&M, I started interviews at five o’clock in the morning and did a show every 15 minutes until 2:30 in the afternoon. It’s been hard, and I’ve only said no once. The night before the play-in game I was going to have dinner with my college coach, who I hadn’t seen in years. So I told ESPN that my coach took first priority.
How did you prepare your players for the media hype that surrounded your first NCAA tournament win?
From the start of the season, we’ve had them do every interview that was requested. They were a little shaky in the beginning, but they improved as the year went on. Next year we’re going to hire someone to come in during preseason and tutor the kids on how to handle the media.
The thing I’m proudest of is that I never heard any of my players use the word “I” in their interviews. After all we had gone through, that really showed our team building had been worth it. They gave credit to their teammates and the coaching staff, and never talked about themselves.
What is your next challenge?
We’ve got to get into the NCAA Tournament in a more conventional way and make it to the Sweet 16. Winning our conference championship as a seventh seed was a pretty unusual way to get into the Tournament. Next time, we want to get in as a 12 or 13 seed, then upset a four or five seed to move into the Sweet 16.
Entering your 22nd year at Oakland and having accomplished your goal of making it to the Tournament, do you have plans to move on?
I was 28 years old when I got my first head coaching job, and I came from a program that had been successful. I really believed that I was going to be the next Mike Krzyzewski, and what I found out was that I didn’t have to go anywhere else to succeed. I’ve been very fortunate to get great players and great assistant coaches. People ask, “Why have you stayed there so long?” But I feel very fortunate that they want to keep me. I’m lucky to be here.