OU’s Greg Kampe reflects on first game, and 1,000th

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It was Nov. 25, 1984. Greg Kampe was 28, and already a head college basketball coach.

His Golden Grizzlies, then Division II and a member of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, were opening the season on the road, against a Division I opponent, Western Michigan.

“I just remember that I was like, ‘OK, I’m the head coach now, 28 years old, I’m the guy that’s gonna be calling the timeouts, I’m the guy,’” Kampe said. “Right before the game, I remember telling myself, ‘Are you sure you’re ready for this?’

“There was a lot of trepidation. I had a huge belief at that age in myself, but coaching will knock that out of you over time.

“I thought, shoot, I knew everything. Then the first game started, and I realized I really don’t know that much.”

In that first game, Oakland hung tough, before losing to Western Michigan, 59-51.

On Friday night at the O’Rena in Rochester, Kampe coached his 1,000th game, which had a better result — an 82-71 victory over Valparaiso for the season-series sweep over the two-time, defending, regular-season Horizon League champion.

Only 12 active coaches have coached 1,000 games, including Michigan’s John Beilein. And only Kampe and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim have done it at one school.

Kampe, now 61, is in his 33rd season as Oakland’s head coach, taking the program from Division II to Division I, and from the GLIAC to the Horizon League, with stops as an independent and in the Summit League along the way.

When he coached his first home game at Oakland, Nov. 30, 1984, against Michigan-Dearborn — a 91-77 victory — he never could’ve imagined what he’d become and what the program would become, one of the most-recognizable mid-major programs in the country.

“The first game, the first home game, there were 33 people there,” Kampe said. “The difference is the 1,000th game was sold out, and it was on ESPN. It’s quite a difference from where we’ve come from, the same school, the same location, but the ESPN cameras were there. It was a big-time college atmosphere.”

It was a big-time win, too, as Oakland tries to win the Horizon for the first time, and a regular-season title of any kind for the first time since 2011, when it won the Summit League for a second consecutive year.

Valparaiso has won the Horizon League regular-season championship four of its five years.

Oakland (20-7, 10-4) is one game back of Valparaiso (21-6, 11-3) with four games to go.

Oakland beats Valpo, pulls within 1 of league lead

“It was a huge win, it puts us in a position where we still have a chance to win it,” Kampe said. “Last night, I compared it to the ‘Bad Boys’ having to get by Boston to take over. It was Valpo’s league. We came into the league and we went fifth, third, second, and now we’re trying to take it from them. You can’t take it from them if you don’t beat them. Beating them twice is a good statement for our team.”

Martez Walker (16.9 points), Jalen Hayes (15.7) and Sherron Dorsey-Walker (12.4) are leading the way, offensively, for the Golden Grizzlies, who’ve also gotten quite a spark from freshman Isaiah Brock, an Army veteran who’s averaging 6.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.

Oakland was won five in a row since a rough patch, in which it dropped four of five, highlighted — OK, lowlighted — by a 93-88 loss at home to rival Detroit Mercy, which isn’t having a very good year in Bacari Alexander’s first season as head coach.

Oakland went into a funk after that game, and only got out of it when Milwaukee missed three free throws with seconds to go in regulation Jan. 29. That sent the game to overtime, and Oakland won, 79-70. It hasn’t lost since — including a revenge 89-80 win over Detroit Mercy at Calihan Hall on Feb. 10 — heading into Sunday’s home game against Illinois-Chicago.

“We have that step back, that mojo, that confidence, whatever you want to call it,” Kampe said. “That’s what we lost during that two-week period when we went 1-4. The rest of the season, we’ve been very good.”

Valparaiso and Oakland are in position to earn the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the Horizon League tournament, which would earn each a bye into the second round of the tournament, which begins March 3 at Joe Louis Arena.