Rochester — They used to say he yelled too much. They used to make fun of his hair. They used to ignore his program.
For years, it used to bother Greg Kampe. He arrived at Oakland in 1984 when it was a Division II school, the youngest coach in the country at 28, a cocky firebrand who flippantly said he’d win a national championship and coach at UCLA. He was half Sparky Anderson, his hero growing up, and half Bobby Knight, trying to get noticed, trying to move up.
More than 33 years later, Kampe sits in the Oakland University food court, same place and same guy, even as everything has changed. There are survivors in college basketball, people who build programs and stay, but there’s no one quite like Kampe. Two have coached at only one school for at least 1,000 games — Kampe and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.
Kampe is 61 but looks younger, partly thanks to his dark mop of hair. His Golden Grizzlies just won the Horizon League championship in their fourth season in the conference, and are the No. 1 seed in the tournament that begins tonight at Joe Louis Arena. Oakland is 24-7 and has won nine straight, and needs three more victories to reach the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in school history.
Kampe used to fight all the battles, large and small, for attention and respect, for himself and his program. Once he got comfortable with who he was, he got comfortable with where he was, and he doesn’t plan to go anywhere anytime soon.
“Back in the day, if a player’s shirttail was out, I was like, whoa, people are gonna think I don’t have discipline,” Kampe said. “It was the idea of, I’m being judged. Now I don’t give a (beep) who judges me. I care more about the players.”
So, would 1984 Greg Kampe ever believe 2017 Greg Kampe was still here? The 2017 version laughs and says no. But he also makes it clear, this is not a career of convenience, but a passion of choice.
“I don’t see myself stopping -- I don’t know what else I’d do,” he said. “I’m gonna go well into my 70s. I love to play golf, but if I had to play everyday, I don’t think I would. This will probably (tick) some people off, but I personally think I’d die if I retired.”
Kampe is colorful and engaging, which should not overshadow a burning drive. This is one of his best teams at Oakland — “best defensive team I’ve ever had” — and you can only imagine how good it’d be if star Kay Felder had stuck around.
Same place, different job
But Felder’s jump to the NBA also fueled the Golden Grizzlies, whose lone senior, Sherron Dorsey-Walker, is playing his best basketball. On senior night, Dorsey-Walker took the microphone and thanked his teammates, family and coaches, and then shared a hug and tears with Kampe.
In that moment, with this team, you can see why Kampe has survived all these years. He has adapted to changing teams and churning circumstances, and while fans mainly see his scowling volatility on the sideline, players see much more.
“He’s one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever played for,” Dorsey-Walker said. “On the outside looking in, he might look crazy because he’s always yelling at us. Coach Kampe’s got a lot of personalities, and you never know what you’re gonna get out of him. But he always supports you. I love the guy.”
Kampe said he’s had other opportunities but nearly left only once, for an NBA assistant position. He admits his dream job would’ve been to coach Michigan, where his father, Kurt, played football on the 1947 national-championship team and his brother, Kurt III, played under Bo Schembechler.
“The jobs I wanted way back in the day, I didn’t get,” Kampe said. “The thing is, people say you’ve been at the same place, but it’s not the same place.”
In Kampe’s 33 years, Oakland has risen from Division II to Division I, from the Pioneers to the Golden Grizzlies, from the Summit League to the Horizon, a step higher each time. It certainly hasn’t been about money for Kampe, who has three years left on his contract at a modest $288,000 annually, a bargain for Oakland. The school’s enrollment has shot from 9,000 in 1984 to 20,000, and the Golden Grizzlies just set a single-season attendance record. The cozy, low-ceilinged 3,000-seat O’Rena with the shiny black court is one element that sets Oakland apart.
It’s not the same place and not the same guy, and Kampe even admits to mellowing. He said he had an epiphany about 15 years ago, when he was still trying to rule like his idols did.
“It was my way or the highway, just like Sparky,” said Kampe, who went to Bowling Green. “Then I realized what color shoe they wear doesn’t really matter. If their sock has an NBA logo and it makes them feel good, why battle them? The epiphany was, why am I causing problems for the team just so I can be right? Why is that player walking away upset because he wants to wear a fluorescent shoestring or wants to get a tattoo on his nipple? Kids today want to believe you’re there for them, that’s what their love and respect is about.”
Kampe said he often gets calls from young coaches asking for advice. One thing he tells them is to get a major in journalism and a minor in psychology, and he’s not really kidding. With social media, players get bombarded by criticism, and a coach has to manage it.
In that regard, Kampe is similar to Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, whom he admires, another guy who has railed against social-media intrusions. Also like Izzo, Kampe always has scrapped against bigger blue-blood programs.
As one of the longest-tenured coaches in a sport that spits people out, Kampe’s tale can be a lesson for others. In some ways he’s an Accidental Icon, without the benefits of those with comparable longevity. Besides Boeheim, other long-tenured coaches — Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Huggins, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino — have done it in basketball-rich environments.
Yes, it’s tougher to endure in the ACC, but it’s easier to get top players and visibility there. Kampe appreciates that Michigan State plays Oakland (the Spartans won, 77-65, in December), and wishes Michigan would renew their series, although he isn’t inclined to push it. In his more-volatile days, he’d pick a fight with anyone, and once enticed Detroit Mercy to start playing them. Now the Golden Grizzlies and Titans are in the same conference, and their battles are terrific.
When asked what still inspires him, Kampe’s answer is interesting.
“You know what my motivation has been? Gonzaga,” he said. “Nobody gets this, but in the state of Washington, it was always just Washington and Washington State. Now when you go there, Gonzaga’s in the same breath. That’s been my goal here, to get Oakland in the same breath with Michigan and Michigan State.”
He’s not there and might never get there, but he’s probably climbed higher than anyone imagined. Kampe beams when he talks about seeing Oakland’s “Wear the Bear” clothing around town, and laughs when he recounts the Kroger meat-counter lady complaining about his strategy.
There’s always been pressure, and Kampe admits it grinds on him. He told his three sons never to go into coaching, and they listened. In the Golden Grizzlies’ four seasons in the Horizon, they’ve steadily risen — 45-23 in conference play — to the point where an NCAA bid is now craved. Oakland beat nemesis Valparaiso twice in the regular season and may have to do it again at Joe Louis Arena.
If the Golden Grizzlies lose, they’d land in the NIT, a consolation that used to be enough.
“Ten years ago, nobody knew the Bear,” Kampe said. “The pressure then was self-imposed. Now it’s everywhere, and the dynamics today make my job really, really hard to do. These three games mean so much to the university, to our ticket sales, to our advertising, to our ESPN appearances. It’s a ton of pressure, and if we lose, it’s one person’s fault.”
He accepts it and has learned to handle it, after years of courting it. Kampe has spent a long time on the fringe of big-time college basketball, and if you wonder why he stays, this is why he stays.
Horizon League tournaments
At Joe Louis Arena, Friday-Tuesday
■ No. 7 Detroit Mercy (8-22, 6-12) vs. No. 10 Milwaukee (8-23, 4-14), 5:30 p.m.
■ No. 8 Youngstown State (11-20, 9-21) vs. No. 9 Cleveland State (9-21, 5-13), 8:30 p.m.
■ Youngstown State-Cleveland State winner vs. No. 1 Oakland (24-7, 14-4), 5:30 p.m.
■ Detroit Mercy-Milwaukee winner vs. No. 2 Valparaiso (24-7, 14-4), 8:30 p.m.
■ No. 4 Northern Kentucky (21-10, 12-6) vs. No. 5 Wright State (20-11, 11-7), 5 p.m.
■ No. 3 Green Bay (18-12, 12-6) vs. No. 6 Illinois-Chicago (14-17, 7-11), 7:30 p.m.
■ Semifinals at 7 and 9:30 p.m.
■ Final, 7 p.m., ESPN
■ No. 7 Northern Kentucky (9-21, 5-13) vs. No. 10 Illinois-Chicago (5-24, 2-16), noon
■ No. 8 Youngstown State (9-20, 5-13) vs. No. 9 Valparaiso (9-20, 4-14), 2:30 p.m.
■ No. 1 Green Bay (24-5, 15-3) vs. Youngstown State-Valparaiso winner, 11:30 a.m.
■ No. 2 Wright State (22-7, 14-3) vs. Northern Kentucky-Illinois-Chicago winner, 2 p.m.
■ No. 3 Detroit Mercy (16-13, 12-6) vs. No. 6 Cleveland State (14-15, 9-9), noon
■ No. 4 Oakland (18-11, 12-6) vs. No. 5 Milwaukee (19-9, 11-6), 2:30 p.m.
■ Semifinals, 1 and 3:30 p.m.
Final, Noon, ESPNU