Perspective | Oakland’s coach nearly died in 2017, so Kentucky doesn’t scare him

Perspective | Oakland’s coach nearly died in 2017, so Kentucky doesn’t scare him

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 2

PITTSBURGH — It has been nearly seven years since Greg Kampe almost died. Thursday night, he will coach in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament against Kentucky, the third-seeded team in the South Region.

For the past 40 years, Kampe, 68, has coached at Oakland University, located in Rochester, Mich., north of Detroit. After taking over in 1984, Kampe took the Golden Grizzlies to four NCAA Division II tournaments before the school jumped to Division I in 1996. Since then, Oakland has been to four D-I tournaments, most recently in 2011.

During that 12-season drought, Kampe was convinced he wasn’t doing enough.

“We had good records during that time, he said. “We had three players who went to the NBA. At our level, if you have an NBA player, you should be good enough to win championships. We didn’t. We lost games at the buzzer; once we lost a 1-8 game in the conference tournament [as the top seed]. It was frustrating. I felt like I was letting our kids down. That’s why this is special. No matter what happens [Thursday], our kids will have had the experience of being part of this.”

In an age when coaches in their 60s are getting out of the college game, Kampe says he’s nowhere close to quitting. Two of his closest friends in the business are Kentucky’s John Calipari and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, both well into their 60s and just as concerned with the changes in the sport.

“I talk to both of them all the time,” he said, relaxing after his team’s open practice Wednesday afternoon. “We all feel the same way about the changes. But we have a choice: We can become grumpy old men and not last very long. Or, we change and become agents of change. That feels to me like a responsibility we older coaches have. It won’t be easy, but we should try.”

Kampe admits he has changed in recent years, especially after a battle with sepsis, an often fatal illness, in summer 2017.

He was scouting in Augusta, Ga. in July and had surgery scheduled for Aug. 1 to remove a kidney stone. He began to feel very cold while watching games, but figured it was just because of the air conditioning in the gym.

But leaving the gym didn’t help, and after a miserable night, he decided he had to go to the hospital.

“If I hadn’t gone when I went, I’d have died,” he said. “I was very lucky.”

By the time he got to the hospital, he was running a near-death fever of 106. The doctors literally hosed him down with ice water and got his temperature down to 102. From there, he slowly improved.

“I tell people all the time now that if you feel sick and can’t kick whatever it is, don’t mess around, go to a hospital,” he said. “It can be the difference between life and death.”

Kampe was 61 at that time. Some coaches with his record of his success would have said, “enough.” Kampe said, “More.”

“It helped me understand how lucky I’d been and how much I loved coaching,” he said. “I was amazed at the number of ex-players who reached out to me. It reminded me that I’d meant something to them and how much they’d meant to me.

“It made me want to coach more than ever and to get more flexible dealing with players.”

Kampe has had chances to leave over the years, but he has never been offered a job he thought he would enjoy more than Oakland.

“I know everyone; everyone knows me,” he said. “It’s a very comfortable fit for me. Now, if someone came along and offered me a job where I could get to the Final Four, I’d take it in a minute. But short of that, this is where I want to be.”

Kampe’s two best players are stories in themselves. His leading scorer, Trey Townsend, is the son of Skip Townsend, one of Kampe’s first recruits — “He wasn’t a great player,” Kampe said. “But he always got the opening tip for us.”

Trey isn’t as tall as his 6-foot-9 dad, but at 6-6, he averages 16.9 points per game.

Kampe has known Trey since he was an infant.

“A lot of times I dread when a friend sends his son to my camp,” he said. “Because at some point I have to say, ‘Your boy isn’t good enough to play for us.’ I took one look at Trey and said, ‘I want to coach this kid.’

“Knowing him for as long as I have, knowing his whole family the way I have, one of the real thrills about all this is knowing he’ll end his career in the NCAA tournament.”

Second-leading scorer Blake Lampman was more like the kid coaches don’t think is good enough to play in college. Lampman averaged four points a game as a high school senior and came to Oakland as a walk-on. He has improved steadily since arriving during the covid season and averaged 13.2 points this season.

After Oakland beat Milwaukee in the Horizon League championship game, Kampe scrolled through his many texts. The first one had come in about a minute after the game ended. It was from Calipari. After finishing all the congratulatory words, Calipari added one more sentence: “You watch,” he wrote. “We’ll end up having to play one another.”

Bingo. When the bracket was revealed, there it was: Oakland vs. Kentucky, 7:10 p.m. Thursday.

“I’m fine with it,” Kampe said. “Believe me, I know how talented they are. They certainly have Final Four potential. But we won’t be afraid of them. If they win, we had the opportunity to play them on the sport’s biggest stage. And if we win, we’ll go down in college basketball history.”

“Now that,” he smiled, “would be a lot of fun.”

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