The third-longest currently tenured college basketball coach in Division I runs his program off exit 79 on I-75, about 40 minutes north of Detroit. It’s not the tony campus of upstate New York, or the basketball beltway that is Durham, but only Jimmy Boeheim at Syracuse and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, respectively, have presided over their basketball teams longer than Greg Kampe has at Oakland University.
Kampe is in year 30 coaching his kids in Rochester Hills, and in a business where the coach is always looking, it seems, for his next ticket to be punched, to be at one institution of higher learning for as long as Kampe has been, is nothing short of remarkable.
Especially when the coach could have flown the coop years ago, and many times over since.
Kampe doesn’t project the typical image of a basketball coach. First, he is shaped more like a basketball itself—kind of like a Rick Majerus or Frank Layden type, when most of Kampe’s brethren are lean, mean and tall. Kampe is none of those—especially the mean part.
Last winter, Kampe scored his 500th career win at OU. It came, fittingly, at home. Kampe himself said so.
“The thing I’m most proud of,” Kampe said, fighting back tears during a post-game, on-court interview by Fox Sports Detroit, “is that all 500 came (at OU). That means a lot to me.”
Coaches who begin to achieve milestones in victories at the college level usually do so in piecemeal fashion—75 at this school here, 125 at that school over there, another 100 on yet another campus.
But Kampe chose to keep true to his roots at OU.
The administrators at Oakland have done well to keep Kampe as their coach, because all he seems to do there is win.
In 20 of the 29 seasons prior to this one, Kampe’s OU teams have finished with winning records. On 10 occasions, the win total was 20 or better. In 2005, Kampe led the Golden Grizzlies to their first and only—to date—win in the NCAA Tournament.
It all adds up to a career winning percentage of .580, and it’s not like Kampe has blue chip players pulling up to his campus in Rolls Royces.
Not that OU is a dog when it comes to the college experience. I ought to know; my daughter is a sophomore there.
The campus itself is sprawling enough to remind you that you’re in college, but homey enough to not be intimidating. The O-Rena, where the Golden Grizzlies play hoops, is a relatively new facility that can be used as a recruiting tool shamelessly, and with great pride.
Still, it wouldn’t be a knock on OU to say that Kampe isn’t exactly getting the pick of the litter when he recruits. Kampe has to work and scrap for every kid he gets, especially considering the competition he’s up against are all a day’s drive, or less, from his campus—and which carry names like U-M, MSU and all the “directional” state schools (EMU, CMU, WMU).
Then there’s the University of Detroit Mercy.
The Titans can’t duck Kampe’s teams anymore.
UDM is a short bus ride away from OU. The kids can’t even get through more than a few songs on their iPod before it’s time to get off and unload.
Yet the Titans have hardly made it a priority to schedule OU over the years.
“They won’t play us,” Kampe muttered several years ago about the Titans program.
Well, UDM can’t duck the Golden Grizzlies any longer, because this season, OU moved to the Horizon League after playing in the Summit League for 15 years.
The Horizon League is the same conference that UDM has played in for over three decades.
Finally, we will be treated to annual Golden Grizzlies-Titans match-ups—whether the good fathers at UDM want them or not.
Kampe wins, and has been winning, by coaching up kids that the so-called “bigger” schools didn’t want—to the tune of 506 career victories, and counting.
He calls Waterford Township home, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon. Kampe is 21st among active D-I coaches in victories, and the fact that he takes so much pride in that all 506—so far—have come at one place, shows you where his heart lies.
Part of the impetus for OU shifting to the Horizon League, where such basketball-rich schools as Butler, Marquette, and Loyola once played for many years, was that there was, frankly, nothing left to prove in the Summit League.
Kampe’s kids have owned the Summit. He was the conference’s Coach of the Year four times. From 2009-2011, the Golden Grizzlies went 34-2 in conference play—easily the best in the nation during that three-year period.
In Oakland’s last 88 games in the Summit League, the Golden Grizzlies won 70 of them, including a winning streak of 20 games.
Now it’s on to another challenge, playing in the Horizon.
While all that winning has garnered little in terms of national recognition, Kampe has tried to put OU on the map by being fearless in his scheduling.
Every year, Oakland shows up on the schedules of some of the best basketball schools in the country. Goliath always wins, but sometimes David gives them a scare. And no one thinks of a game against Oakland as a joke.
Just ask Tom Izzo, a good friend of Kampe’s. A couple weeks ago, Izzo’s MSU Spartans escaped Oakland by a few points at the Palace.
Coming up a tad shy to the Spartans (67-63), though, was little consolation to Coach Kampe.
“There are no moral victories here at Oakland,” Kampe told the Associated Press after the MSU loss. “We passed that point of being close long ago. We were close again and just couldn’t beat them.”
Still, the faring against MSU was impressive, considering that OU had gotten off to a rotten—and very un-Oakland-like—1-8 start this season.
Greg Kampe was won over 500 games at Oakland and, at 58 years old, there are possibly a couple hundred more wins in the tank—and likely all will be in Rochester Hills.
“We have a quality program that turns out talented student-athletes,” Kampe says on OU’s website for basketball. “We try to do things the right way with good people who receive a good education and then go out into the world and have success after basketball.
“That’s what our mission is.”
Mission accomplished, and will continue to be so, as long as Kampe sticks around. If he hasn’t left by now, he likely never will—until Father Time says otherwise.