OPINION: The overlooked reason Oakland can’t fire Greg Kampe
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The Oakland University community had high hopes for the men’s basketball team in its 50th season. After capturing its first Horizon League regular season championship, it looked like this would be the year the Golden Grizzlies would reach the ultimate goal of going dancing in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.
But when Youngstown State’s Jorden Kaufman hit a game-winning layup as time expired in the quarterfinal matchup of the Horizon League Tournament, hearts broke in the Joe Louis Arena.
Feeling the pain of that heartbreak, many fans took to social media and discussion boards such as GrizzTalk to share their feelings. In the mess of Twitter rants, lengthy Facebook posts and heated debates arose a trend: the call for the departure from the man at the heart of Oakland basketball for the past 33 years: head coach Greg Kampe.
In the debacle that was the final 30 seconds of Saturday’s game, Kampe was guilty of a coaching error. With less than four seconds to go in the game, he sat on a timeout that, in retrospect, he should’ve used. He addressed this decision in the postgame press conference without being prompted.
“You know what, I had a timeout left with 3.2,” Kampe said. “And I thought about taking it and just to remind everybody to stick true to their assignments, to check the shooter, and don’t get beat on a put-back, and all that. And I didn’t take it because I didn’t want [Youngstown State] to set something up . . . wish I had.”
Would a different coach have made the right decision? Would a different coach be able to take Oakland deeper into the postseason? No one knows for sure. But there are steep sacrifices in taking the risk to find out.
The long list of accomplishments and the progress the program has experienced during Kampe’s tenure at Oakland are important points in his defense, as well as the media attention he earns for the university, the recruits he’s brought in and the undeniable difficulties that would come with a coaching change.
But as a Division I athlete myself (full disclosure: I played volleyball at Oakland for four years), I see a more abstract reason Kampe needs to stay.
The men’s basketball team is in a unique position. It’s a growing, mid-major program that has become highly respected in its 17 years in Division I. This growth has created a connection between the program’s past and its future.
The players call themselves Team 50, not the 2016-2017 men’s basketball team. They talk of continuing traditions more than accomplishing personal goals. Players such as senior Sherron Dorsey-Walker cite “the traditions of Oakland basketball” as reasons for coming to Oakland.
Who has created this environment? Greg Kampe.
This culture creates a sense of pride and connection in every player that has come through Oakland men’s basketball during the Kampe era. It was made apparent by almost a hundred alumni attending the announcement of the Half-Century Team. It keeps alumni close and, more importantly, gives the players something bigger than themselves to play for.
This extra motivation is priceless at a program like Oakland’s. There is a special “feel” in the environment of a program that knows it’s on the cusp of greatness. This is the case for Oakland basketball.
I do not belittle in any way the investment many fans have in Oakland basketball. They feel the pain of every loss and the joy of every win alongside the players.
However, fans see only the performance displayed on the court at game time. They do not get to see the preparation, experience the internal culture or feel what it is that drives these players through the rigorous seasons and long off-seasons.
Don’t underestimate the power of culture in sports. It is the X-factor behind the scenes that motivates the players through the countless hours of work that go unseen.
A culture this special is invaluable and needs to be protected and maintained. Firing Kampe would put giant question marks over the future of the program, opening the opportunity for this culture to be erased and have to be built again from scratch.
The bottom line is that the players did not execute at the time it mattered most. Unfortunately, in sports, that is sometimes the way it goes. There are at least four members of the team carrying guilt from their final moments in Saturday’s game. But win or lose, it takes a team. And these Golden Grizzlies have more important things to feel than guilt as they prepare for the NIT and next season.
Though the team came up short in the postseason again this year, the future continues to be bright. The season is still highlighted with significant milestones and greatness is still within reach with Kampe leading the way.