Division I's longest-tenured coach leads Oakland back to March Madness after 12-year absence

Tue, Mar 19, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

Division I's longest-tenured coach leads Oakland back to March Madness after 12-year absence

Greg Kampe accepted his first head coaching job years before Tom Izzo, Mark Few, Roy Williams or Jay Wright ran their own programs.

And while Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim were winning national championships, Kampe was putting his signature on Oakland University's program.

Forty years after first arriving on Oakland's campus near Detroit, the 68-year-old Kampe returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 seasons as Division I's coaching dean.

"I think there's a lot of people that wanted me to (step away)," Kampe said when asked if ever considered departing during the school's NCAA tourney drought. "I had some great teams. I've had five NBA players and three of them didn't make (the tourney). That's how special these guys are. I mean we lost four years in a row on a last-second shot."

Actually, they lost three times in the final minute from 2016-19, but the point remains the same. Earning a ticket to March Madness can be an elusive, frustrating exercise, especially for one-bid leagues.

Kampe believes some of those dozen teams that missed out on tourney time were deserving of bids in the 68-team field. Then again, such wisdom often comes time.

Just how long has Kampe coached?

Walt Hazzard of UCLA, Bob Huggins of Akron, Joey Meyer of DePaul and Bob Valvano at St. Francis (New York) were in the same rookie class as Kampe and he outlasted all of them.

He's been around so many years that he coached Skip Townsend in the 1980s and now Skip's son, Trey, is this year's star player and Horizon League Tournament MVP.

""I think Kampe's softened up over the years, but he still knows what it takes to win," Trey Townsend said. "He wants the best for every single player no matter who you are, so the players who can accept that coaching, understanding truly he does want the best for you, that's a lesson for success and every single player on this team knows it."

Success can be measured many ways in Kampe's world.

He presided over the Golden Grizzlies transition from Division II to Division I in the late 1990s. He needs two wins to join Coastal Carolina's Cliff Ellis, Few and Izzo as the only active Division I coaches with 700 or more. And he's managed to survive so many ups and downs that when Krzyzewski retired in 2022 season and Boeheim followed him out the door last winter, Kampe became Division I's longest active-tenured coach.

"Last night, I had 147 text messages, I just grabbed my phone and I have 403 - I guess that's 13 years of not going to the tournament, so everybody's coming out of the woodworks," Kampe said after an 83-76 win over Milwaukee 83-76 added the Horizon League tourney title to their regular-season title. "Actually, this is the 13th year, so it was only 12 years we weren't there."

A dozen years Trey Townsend remembers well. He grew up attending Oakland games, sitting behind the Golden Grizzlies bench, hearing his father ask whether he really wanted to play for a coach as loud as Kampe. The younger Townsend never wavered.

Now, the two embark on a new quest - their first NCAA tourney win. Fourteenth-seeded Oakland (23-11) opens play Thursday in Pittsburgh against third-seeded Kentucky (23-9).

"If our league is smart, and I believe it is, they are going to get pictures of Trey in our arena when he was six or seven years old, holding up signs that he wanted to play at Oakland - with my bobblehead or whatever," Kampe said. "The national media would run with it so we could be the story of the week."

It's a natural thought for someone who prefers his players get the spotlight rather than himself, a characteristic on full display following the Golden Grizzlies' title run.

As players and fans celebrated, Kampe disappeared to do a local radio show. When it was time for him to cut the final strand of the net, his players walked over to him, chanted his name and urged Kampe to climb the ladder.

At first, Kampe waved them off before finally obliging them and casually tossing the net to the players. It wasn't that Kampe didn't want to join the party; he just wanted his players to bask in the win.

"Oakland basketball has been ingrained in me my entire life," Trey Townsend said. "I've been at games before and ever since I can remember, I always wanted to wear the uniform and be part of the team. So to win with Kampe it's just such a crazy thing. I can't put into words what this means, but I'm happy we're still playing this late in March."

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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