DETROIT — Greg Kampe always liked seeing those graphics on TV, where his name would be sandwiched between Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski, and his good friend, Tom Izzo. Now, the two names ahead of him are out.
And Kampe, well, he’s not exactly sure how to feel about that.
“For me, in my career, it’s always been like chasing, you know? At Oakland, we’re always chasing,” Kampe said, after a long sigh, followed by a chuckle. “I think it was very comfortable to be behind those guys. It was always kind of cool for Oakland, our university, to be put in a graphic with those people.
“Now that they’re gone, I don’t think many people will pay attention to that graphic.”
If life is, indeed, lonely at the top, then Kampe might want to think about getting a dog — or, another dog. With the retirement of Syracuse’s Boeheim on Wednesday, Kampe vaulted into the top spot among the longest-tenured men’s college basketball coaches at a Division I school.
Boeheim is retiring after 47 seasons leading Syracuse, and last year, Krzyzewski, called it a career after 42 seasons as head coach at Duke. No. 3 just two years ago, Kampe now is No. 1. Next season will be his 40th as head coach at Oakland, where he was hired at the age of 28 in 1984.
There’s a big falloff from No. 1 to No. 2, where Houston Christian’s Ron Cottrell just finished his 32nd season.
At No. 3 is Michigan State’s Izzo, who just finished his 28th season. Izzo holds the distinction as the longest-tenured Division I head men’s basketball coach. Oakland was Division II when Kampe took over, and Houston Christian was NAIA when Cottrell took over.
“I’m kind of speechless, I guess,” said Kampe — and those who know him know that’s a rarity. “This is not something that I ever set my sights on, let’s put it like that.”
Boeheim’s retirement is the latest in what’s been several years of big-name basketball coaches heading to the exits, including Krzyzewski, Villanova’s Jay Wright and North Carolina’s Roy Williams. Those retirements have come amid a significant shift in the college sports landscape, with the introduction of NIL, as well as the transfer portal.
The job looks nothing like it did when Kampe, just six years out of college, took the head job at Oakland.
You used to simply have to sell your school, and hand out four-year scholarships. Now, you have to sell your school and dollars, and everybody’s pretty much on a year-to-year contract.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this group of great — and I mean, great — coaches have decided to call it quits,” said Kampe, who calls this the “Do-What’s-Best-For-You” Era of college athletics.
It’s frustrated him at times, to be sure, particularly the portal, where Oakland has lost some significant talent in the last several years — and some of that talent has departed so late that it left the Golden Grizzlies with few options to patch holes through recruiting — and it has added some intriguing pieces, as well.
But, Kampe has chosen to adapt, at least as best he could. He used to be a hard-liner on so many issues when it came to players, both big and small.
He’s learned to ease up a bit. For instance, this year, for the first time in his coaching tenure, he let his players wear whatever shoes they wanted for games. Jalen Moore was particularly happy. He got to wear his green Kobe “Grinches.” In previous years — although not necessarily in the early days, when players wore whatever they could afford, because Oakland had no shoe budget, and certainly no apparel control — he wanted his players to be uniform.
“Kampe finally let us,” said Moore, whose backup shoes are purple-and-gold Kobes.
“You do have to have some non-negotiables,” Kampe said. “I just don’t have as many as I used to have.”
What’s one that remains?
“Be on time,” he said. “Your time is not more important than the team’s time.”
For the most part, Kampe has given his players more and more ownership in recent years — because, well, given the NCAA’s rule changes in recent years, the power has shifted somewhat toward the players.
And in Kampe’s view, you either adapt or, well, bad things are going to happen.
Kampe has made the NCAA Tournament three times at the Division I level, but it’s been more than a decade since Oakland’s last trip to the Big Dance.
That still motivates him, especially fresh off a 13-19 season in which the expectations were lofty.
“One thing I was blessed with,” said Kampe, “is passion.”
“I think it’s as high as it’s ever been,” said Oakland associate head coach Jeff Smith, who’s been on Kampe’s staff since 2019, and also from 2002-07. “I was with him 20 years ago. I think now his determination and commitment to getting Oakland back to being at the top of the Horizon League and, more importantly, getting into the NCAA Tournament, it’s as high as it’s ever been.
“I don’t think Year 40 is any different than Year 5 or 6; other than, like all of us, he’s evolved.”
The obvious question: How much longer will Kampe’s passion exist?
Kampe, who has 677 career wins, likes to joke that he has to keep coaching as long as he can: “What else would I do?”
Kampe has four years remaining on a contract extension he signed in the spring of 2022, pushing his annual salary to a modest $400,000 (he made $29,000 when he started in 1984). He’s had opportunities to move on over the years, including to most of the state’s other mid-majors, but he stayed put for less money. During his tenure at Oakland, the state’s other six Division I men’s basketball programs have had a combined 35 head coaches.
He’s put Oakland University on the map, and, now, on top of the graphic, too. And he’s going to see it through to the end.
Whenever the end may be.