Staying Power

For Oakland University basketball coach Greg Kampe, a ‘stepping stone’ job turned into a 30-year commitment
Photographs by Jose Juarez, Oakland Photographer

Greg Kampe sits in his office at Oakland University’s Athletics Center O’Rena, contemplating the men’s basketball program he has built in three decades as head coach.

With a 506-366 record prior to this season, Kampe ranked 21st among current NCAA Division I coaches in victories — and even higher in loyalty. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (39 years) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (34) are the only active coaches who have been with their teams longer.

Kampe’s current digs are a bit cluttered, yet comfortable and spacious — a far cry from the office the Defiance, Ohio, native was given the keys to upon his arrival in 1984.

“That was a 10-by-10 cinderblock space at the old Lepley Sports Center with one of those hard, plastic phones,” he recalls. “I had to be sure there was at least one line not lit or I could not make or take a call. Now, I have people screening calls for me.”

The basketball program has undergone even more dramatic changes.

After six seasons as a University of Toledo assistant, the then-28-year-old Kampe inherited an NCAA Division II program that had never finished with a winning league record in its 16 seasons.

But March soon became a time of anticipation.

After losing seasons his first two years, Oakland established itself as a Division II power — including five national tournament berths and two league titles. The “Pioneers” (their name before becoming the Golden Grizzlies in 1998) were ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams 10 times.

A funny thing happened along the way to Kampe, as well. He admits he did not view Oakland as a long-term gig at first. Eventually, his success could not be ignored and job offers starting coming to him.

“No, I didn’t think I would be staying long … but the jobs that I wanted did not want me because of a lack of head coaching experience,” Kampe says. “When some of those jobs I had wanted later came to me, this job at Oakland had out-grown those jobs and I was no longer interested. I liked what I had built too much to leave.”

Actually, March became even more mad with Oakland’s transition to Division I athletics in 1998.

“I have to thank [former Oakland President] Gary Russi for the vision he had to see that a move to Division I was the best thing we could do to get away from just being associated with Oakland County — and even being confused with Oakland Community College at times,” Kampe says.

Still, Kampe was not without concerns. “I have seen schools move to Division I that were not ready — financially or in other ways — and it did not turn out well,” he says. “I feared I might be collateral damage. “When I saw our first four Division I games were against Ohio State, Illinois State, Michigan State, and Northwestern, I started checking my 401(k) to be sure I was going to be OK if the worst happened.”

Instead, what happened was Oakland won the Mid-Continent Conference (later the Summit League) the first season it was eligible (1999-2000).

In 2005, Oakland became a March Madness Cinderella story. After finishing the regular season 9-19, the Golden Grizzlies won the Summit League Tournament and made its first NCAA Tournament, defeating Alabama A&M in the first round. Oakland made the Big Dance again in 2010 and 2011.

“I was a little nervous when I sat down with my staff to come up with a way we could win in Division I,” Kampe says. “Our first thought was to play very tough non-conference teams like North Carolina and Michigan State because losing to them would not be looked at the same as losing to other schools. … The second thing was to offer a style of play that allowed guys to shoot 3-pointers, run the floor, and generate excitement. Recruits started coming here.”

Last season Oakland was the only school that had two players lead in the nation in different categories. Travis Bader topped the country in 3-pointers (4.2 per game) and Duke Mondy in steals (100). Oakland has also produced the top scorer (Reggie Hamilton) and assists leader (Johnathan Jones) in recent years.

“What I like most about coach Kampe is his honesty because he always tells it like it is and you know where you stand,” Bader says. “It’s great to play for a coach like that who also has a great basketball mind. … That’s why I came to Oakland.”

At 58, Kampe hopes to enjoy many more memorable Marches. He sums up his desire to remain at Oakland by paraphrasing lyrics from Sheryl Crow’s hit “Soak Up the Sun.”

“It’s not about having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.”

And what Kampe has is pretty good.