Why Greg Kampe, the longest-tenured men's basketball coach, has hung around Oakland University all these years

Forty years ago Greg Kampe became the head coach at a mostly anonymous Division II Oakland University.

Kampe, 28 at the time, was in possession of too much confidence and too little perspective when he sat down for an interview with Larry Donald, the then-editor of Basketball Times magazine, to declare his career intentions.

“I told him, ‘My plan is to win the D-II national championship this year and then get the UCLA job,” Kampe said. “He burst out laughing and said, ‘I’m going to use this.’

“Oh, the things we say in our youth.”

Kampe, now 68, laughed while retelling the story last week from that same OU campus — albeit now a large and modern university, complete with a Division I athletic department.

Oakland never did win that D-II title and UCLA never did call Kampe — although a lot of other schools did. No matter. Everything turned out just right anyway.

That includes leading his now-Division I and 14th-seeded Golden Grizzlies to an 80-76 giant-slaying upset of No. 3 Kentucky and John Calipari on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament — the biggest victory in the program's history. OU's only previous NCAA tourney win came in the First Four in 2005.

What Kampe once saw as a “one-year” stop has turned into a lifetime. He slowly built up a program at what was once a mostly commuter school that was so little known that even recruits in nearby Detroit thought it was located in California (it’s named after the county it’s located in).

Everything at OU has his imprint. Four D-II NCAA appearances in the late 1990s led to the construction of the 4,000-seat O’rena, which is as good of a mid-major facility as there is. That spurred a jump to Division I and then a slow climb from independent to the old Midwest Collegiate Conference, later named the Summit, and finally into the Horizon.

Oakland head coach Greg Kampe celebrates with leading scorers Blake Lampman (left) and Trey Townsend (4) after winning the men's Horizon League title on March 12. (Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Oakland head coach Greg Kampe celebrates with leading scorers Blake Lampman (left) and Trey Townsend (4) after winning the men's Horizon League title on March 12. (Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kampe has coached five NBA players, led four teams to Division I March Madness and won 698 career games. Everyone knows him on campus, and a lot of people know him beyond it.

Although he now resides in midtown Detroit, he and his wife Sue raised three boys near OU's campus. He was like any other dad, just a basketball coach not an auto executive. His down-to-earth personality, relentless humor and passion for golf have made him a coaching everyman and a local mini-celeb.

Then there is his commitment to raising money for charities, especially Coaches vs. Cancer, by any means necessary. Earlier this month he volunteered to work at a McDonald's drive-thru to sell Shamrock Shakes because a portion of the proceeds went to the Ronald McDonald House.

That’s Kampe. And maybe that’s why never leaving turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to him — the man who doesn’t take himself too seriously never had a job where the fan base takes everything too seriously.

“The first thing I found out as a coach is that winning is not easy, it’s hard,” Kampe said. “Nothing worth anything is easy though. Then once we got the program going, I’m a firm believer in loyalty and Oakland always treated me with loyalty.”

Kampe could have coached at the high-major level. He is highly respected around the country. It’s not unusual for coaches to come and watch his practices or seek his advice. What he says he didn’t realize is that Oakland was too far down the coaching food chain for a Big Ten or ACC school to hire him.

He needed to move up through the ranks, but he repeatedly turned down opportunities in the Mid-American Conference and the Missouri Valley because he loved living and raising his family where he did. Plus he didn’t think any of those places were better than OU.

Next thing you know, “15 years, 25 years go by. I love it though. There is some pride in it. Although, when people say I’m the longest-tenured coach in the country, I say, ‘That’s great, but let’s talk about how good our team is.’”

There is a particular joy in staying. The program is his. Its past, its present and its future. His best player, Trey Townsend, is the son of two former Oakland basketball players from the 1980s — father Skip, who helped Kampe to his first 20-win season, and mother Nicole.

Trey started coming to Kampe’s summer camp as a child. He dropped 38 points and snagged 11 rebounds in the Horizon League title game to secure OU's berth in the NCAA tourney. On Thursday, he helped take down Kentucky with 17 points and 12 rebounds.

Oakland's Greg Kampe is the longest-tenured men's basketball coach in Division I. (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Oakland's Greg Kampe is the longest-tenured men's basketball coach in Division I. (Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There’s even more than that, however. Skip has built a highly successful career at Cadillac, but he got his foot in the door because Kampe called an OU season ticket holder, John Shock, to recommend Skip for a job after graduation. Shock noted that his Cadillac basketball team was playing a group from Ford the following week.

“I said, 'Then hire Skip right now,'” Kampe laughed.

Kampe has tried to keep his program focused on personal connections and individual development. He’s had more than his share of players go on to play professionally — NBA or Europe — but that’s not what OU hoops can solely be about.

The transfer portal initially depressed him as good players from his roster were poached by school’s in bigger leagues. He quickly realized however that his complaints and comments “made me sound like a bitter old man and I don’t want to be a bitter old man.”

Instead he embraced it. No hard feelings for anyone who left. In the meantime, he worked the portal himself. This team has contributors who transferred “down” from Michigan State and “up” from Division III Hillsdale College. Others are high school recruits or come from junior colleges.

It isn’t just a deep roster, but a close-knit one. Everyone is where they should be.

“What I’ve always tried to do for a young man, what I’ve always tried to teach them or instill in them over four years, I now try to do it in 365 days,” Kampe said. “If I get to keep them, great.”

A year ago, Trey Townsend could have left for a high-major program. Instead he chose to finish his degree and play another season for OU. With one year of eligibility remaining, Kampe wants him to explore his options after this season.

In the meantime, Townsend has been dubbed “Mr. Oakland” and like the rest of the team, is basking in the excitement of a March Madness ticket punched.

It’s one more example of what his coach long ago learned — the UCLAs of the world aren’t everything … because sometimes the grass is pretty green right where you are.