Let us pause . . .

8 comments by   |   Friday, February 22, 2008 - 3:26 am EDT

Can we take a minute?

Just to breathe. Maybe even to think.

Forget what we believe we learned today from all the reports about what might happen to Kelvin Sampson. What we learned was that there are conflicting stories out there. To me, that means mostly that nothing has actually been decided. Either a press release or a press conference will finally bring some sort of resolution today.

That resolution may not go all that far. If the decision by Indiana University president Michael McRobbie — on athletic director Rick Greenspan’s recommendation — is to fire Sampson, it would trigger a clause in the coach’s contract that allows for 10 days of unpaid suspension during which Sampson can appeal the decision.

There is also a chance that Sampson will be allowed to stay and coach until after the season, or until the NCAA has completed the process of ruling on charges that Sampson broke recruiting rules and then lied to investigators about it. The NCAA won’t make its decision until at least June, and won’t release it until at least a few weeks after that.

Or, it could be announced that Sampson has agreed to resign (with a fairly substantial buyout that won’t come close to equaling the $2.5 he’s still owed as salary). That would be the quickest end to this saga (and most likely).

Those, as far as I can tell, are the three possibilities.

It was difficult to watch Kelvin Sampson leave Assembly Hall this afternoon. He wore an IU sweatshirt. You rarely see him wearing something other than IU clothing. He drove east, toward the house that he and his wife Karen turned into a home not only for them but for the entire basketball program. There are IU graphics inlaid in the bricks out front. You walk on an Assembly Hall replica floor when you go to sit down on one of his crimson couches in the basement. Above the mantel hangs a picture of each of Indiana’s seniors. I don’t know if A.J. Ratliff’s photo is still there — he quit the team days before this latest scandal burst into public view — but knowing Sampson even the little that I do, I expect that it is.

Sampson planned to retire from Indiana. Not that his coaching career has sent his family caroming across the country like some coaches — he has been at three schools in 25 years — but there had to be some comfort in knowing that this was the final goal for he and his family, and all that was left to do was to make Bloomington home and maybe, just maybe, win a national title.

Oh, right, that national title part. That is why Kelvin Sampson came here. Since most of you, I assume, are IU fans you all probably assume that IU is a dream job for just about any college head coach. But Sampson probably had to consider it a while before jumping. He had built a very competitive program at Oklahoma, one that was steadily getting better. His recruiting classes were constantly improving. And, after more than a decade, it was his. When people in Oklahoma talked about basketball, they talked about Kelvin Sampson basketball. He had changed the game for the entire region.

So, what brought him here? Tradition. The chance to coach at a “basketball school.” Recruiting ground that didn’t have as many equal or superior competitors.

Sampson would have thrived in this environment. Maybe he still will, but that seems unlikely.

It went awry from from the very beginning, of course. Sampson fully believed that the phone call issues he had at Oklahoma were minor and would not have any major ramification on either him, Oklahoma or Indiana. But the Committee on Infractions’ findings surprised most people. Here’s a line out of the story that ran in USA Today: “The committee . . . used some unusually harsh and pointed language in chastising Sampson.”

In a written statement, committee chairperson Tom Yeager said at the time: “The former head coach created and encouraged an atmosphere among his staff of deliberate non-compliance, rationalizing the violations as being a result of ‘prioritizing’ rules.”

The NCAA did not see the phone calls as “mistakes” in the way that Sampson did. They sensed something nefarious, and wanted it to end.

Sampson never adjusted his thinking to the NCAA’s thinking, though. Eager to get a fast start at Indiana — a recruit named Eric Gordon was out there, after all — Sampson saw the NCAA’s punishment as just another obstacle that he would have to get around. Now, the question of whether he did so legally or not could cost him his job.

On Dec. 10 of last year, Kelvin Sampson told the crowd at his radio show this: “I abhor softness.” He was talking about his players, but, all in all, that phrase could be Kelvin Sampson’s mantra. He certainly would not have tolerated softness from one of his assistants in the pursuit of a recruit. In the early days of his tenure at Indiana he repeatedly talked about the team’s directive to “touch every line” when it did suicides during practice. No doubt his assistants were required to reach every recruit. Maximum effort is the only way Sampson knows how to operate. He is fond of saying that there is no such thing as overachieving, only reaching your potential. Maybe he saw the potential to reach out to recruits despite the sanctions and crossed a line while doing so.

If you’ve taken a look at the recruits involved in many of the alleged impermissible calls made by Sampson and his staff, they are mostly older kids who are freshmen in college right now. That means that when Sampson and his staff contacted them, they were getting an extremely late start and needed to make up ground in the recruiting process. Other area schools had been recruiting the players for a few years and Sampson had to be very creative in trying to show them that he could bring Indiana back to the top of college basketball, since he had yet to actually coach. His program was an unknown to them, as was he. The obstacles he had to surmount or dodge or spin past were significant. Whether his attempts to do so were legal appears to be in question now.

While Sampson preached patience to the media and fans, he may have been unable to have enough of that virtue himself. He was in a rush to not only recreate “his program” — the thing he had built at Oklahoma — but also inject it with the improved talent he thought would come with being at a name school such as Indiana.

Sampson maintains his innocence. And while I know he feels like he is unable to share the evidence to support that, I wish he would. Part of the problem with reporting this story so far is that the NCAA’s letter of allegations is public, and therefore easy to write about. Sampson’s counter arguments remain unknown and impossible to write about.

Needless to say, I would feel much better about reporting this story if I could hear his side of it.

Let me address the question that so many of you have screamed recently: all this over some phone calls?

Well, yes. First off, the NCAA does view a few extra phone calls as a serious matter. Recruits of this era have cell phones, and they often judge a school’s interest in them by how many times the coaches call them. It’s a tangible thing. They can scroll down their call log and say, “Hey, IU called me three times this week but Illinois only called me once.” Coaches are as much to blame as anyone for desire becoming a major criteria in the recruiting game. Think about this: while old-school coaches such as Bob Knight and Joe Paterno continued only to seek kids who wanted to play for their teams — and there were plenty because of the prestige of those teams — rival coaches had to drum up a way to compete. So they said, “Well, look how many more pieces of mail we sent,” or, “We’ve visited you five times compared to their one.” They had to sway the way recruiting worked — who cares about whether a kid will fit in well or whether a school has his particular major, collecting talent is what mattered — to topple the regimes in college sports.

The other reason the NCAA has been relentless about this issue is that if it can catch a coach doing something wrong, it will not pass up the chance to make a model out of him. So many of you have pointed out that other schools do so much worse than dial a number a few too many times. True. College sports is a cesspool. But….so many of the things supposedly done at other schools cannot be tracked. With something like phone calls, there are records to check. And even when records are unclear, it’s easy to trace back who was called and gather testimony about what happened. That’s what the NCAA did.

And please…no conspiracy theories about the players interviewed by the NCAA ganging up to falsely implicate Sampson or IU. Maybe some of them do go to rival schools but they surely didn’t get together and hatch a plan to sink Sampson. They’re high-level athletes; yes they want to beat Indiana but they want to do it on the court, with the Hoosiers at full strength.

Too many big questions remain about this story. Later today, we will all start posing them again and trying to figure out what has happened here. Though I have been covering sports for almost a decade now, it always surprises me how much emotion can be stirred by the people who make our games go. All the media coverage and public outcry over this issues might make you think that protesters were trying to burn down Assembly Hall, not a U.S. Embassy.

But Indiana basketball means so much to so many people. And today will be one of the defining days in its history.

I hope you will share your thoughts on whatever happens right here.

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8 comments:
#1
Hoosier Fan
Friday, February 22, 2008 - 3:49 AM EDT

Those are some great thoughts. Your description of Sampson is basically spot on. He is, without a doubt, the hardest worker you will ever meet. He is probably the most driven individual you will ever meet.

This has all been hard for me to watch, because I know the Sampsons. They are a great family, and Kelvin Sampson is a good, good man. He treats the little guy extremely well. He would rather go out of his way to make friends with a loyal fan than he would a wealthy donor. It’s just his nature.

This whole process has been more than taxing on Sampson. He has done a marvelous job of coaching this Indiana team, but behind the scenes, this is absolutely killing him. Which isn’t surprising…I think it would devastate most individuals.

Many people probably don’t realize this, but Kelvin has severe asthma that is stress induced. He was routinely hospitalized when he coached at Oklahoma. Notice he’s probably lost about 10 pounds in the last couple of weeks — this process is wearing on him. Maybe the weight loss is just because Indiana has played so many games recently (he power walks 5 miles before each game). But I doubt it.

I know rules are rules, and he broke the rules at OU, and he violated the sanctions at Indiana. Yet, at the end of the day, we are only talking about phone calls. I don’t care what anyone tries to say–this is about phone calls. Just look at all the photoshops of Kelvin going around…making fun of a cell phone. This is hardly a major crime.

We have some major cheating going on in the BIG 12 — there isn’t a level playing field — and Sampson’s extra phone call per week was nothing. And his personal mistakes at Indiana did not give him a recruiting advantage. There’s no way they should have ever been labeled major violations.

Chris, bottom line is that was a great blog entry. So hard for me to read–brought back a ton of memories of Coach Sampson’s time in Norman, Oklahoma. I wish for Coach that it didn’t have to end this way. It makes me sick to my stomach. Lauren Sampson (his daughter) had just purchased a house in Bloomington, Kellen’s a graduate manager, Kelvin was coaching at one of the most storied basketball programs in the country…

And now it comes to an end…all over phone calls.

 
#2
Kenny_G
Friday, February 22, 2008 - 5:13 AM EDT

Great post, Hoosier Fan. Unfortunately, the IU fan base is a bit schizo and a large faction would look for any reason to get rid of Sampson. The thing that will always bother me is reading the ncaa’s investigation of Derek Elston and his t-shirt while at the same time reading all these news reports about Reggie Bush receiving $300,000 and a house.

I hope it is true the players will quit if Coach is removed. I wish we as fans were as loyal to the great Coach we have instead of all these wishlist Coaches we’ve been putting together since knight fired himself.

 
#3
ww
Friday, February 22, 2008 - 8:43 AM EDT

Interesting thoughts Chris. It covers most everything. Most interesting (and damning) is the NCAA comments towards the issue. They are very serious about this issue.

No doubt that KS is a fine man who unfortunately broke some rules in the quest to be successful. I operate in an industry with many rules and those rules can change with each client. It is very difficult to comply and unintentional mistakes often happen. This case is more high profile and the KS intent is very much under question. Whatever happens today is going to be tragic for KS and family, as well as the Hoosier Nation and IU.

These blogs and discussions are interesting, but I hope that people can check their extreme emotions and make intelligent comments. All except for Swampy. He makes me laugh during this terrible time.

KS has been blessed in his career and he will land on his feet. IU is a fine institution and they will hurt for a while however b-ball life will go on for them. Some deep scars need to heal and they will. Best wishes to the current players and families. Choose to make the best of these bad times. Out of control emotions tend to bite you in long run.

 
#4
Mark K
Friday, February 22, 2008 - 9:10 AM EDT

Chris,
Much respect to you for these thoughtful, insightful, balancing, and almost sentimental thoughts on Sampson. I hope this all works out ok for Coach Sampson today and he is allowed to coach through the end of the season, pending the NCAA hearing. IU can always put out feelers a new coach in the mean time.

Again, bravo Chris!

 
#5
RW
Friday, February 22, 2008 - 9:44 AM EDT

All of this is interesting, I also would like to hear Sampson’s side of the story. I was in Bloomington the weekend after this first report broke. I was visiting from out of town and walked
into the basketball offices and ask to meet the coach. He was super nice to my family and I. He even signed pictures for my kids. That Friday they opened practice to the public for the first time in a long while. And as I walked around campus and the shops I got a mixed feedback. The baketball calendars change in format and you know how everyone loves those calendars. That change rubbed a lot of people the wrong way even myself. I think tha it a way somes it up, It is hard to accept change especially in regards to Indiana Basketball. The tradition, pride, and toughness is a way of life. But there is defintely more to it, why don’t you see the old players in the stands like we used to see Kent Benson almost always attending games? I don’t know, but I would like to? Why would Sampson put himself in this position after saying upon accepting the job that he was going to do thing s the RIGHT wqay? I don’t know? Lots and Lots of questions and I want answers…. I want the truth! I am not saying that he should be fired but the truth needs to be brought to light if that takes suspending him until he can clear his name so be it. That puts the burden on him to save his job. If he does not move to do so he may never coach anywhere again. I as may await the news and the June hearings for the findings. But then Myles Brand will probalbly have a hand in that and I think he gets a kick out of knocking the basketball program as he wanted IU known for something other than the basketball program and ultimately Bob Knight. GO HOOSIERS!

 
#6
ww
Friday, February 22, 2008 - 9:57 AM EDT

Why would you want to see Kent Benson in the stands? A washed up hero. He has bruised so many heels in this state, he has become one himself. Myles Brand is not the only cowboy out there. The NCAA may be unique, but it is not a rogue outfit. That connection between Brand, Knight and future sanctions is ridiculous. Calendars did change….so what? RW………are you just venting? I only agree with your last comment. GO HOOSIERS!

 
#7
tberry
Friday, February 22, 2008 - 11:11 AM EDT

This is the way IU should approach this issue. The ends do not justify the means!

http://sports.yahoo.com/ncaab/news;_ylt=AgEyux6v9xyUhyLHIp0Vd685nYcB?slug=dw-sampson022108&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

 
#8
Eric P.
Friday, February 22, 2008 - 12:39 PM EDT

Chris,

What a fine article. A good stable voice at a time when many people are struggling a bit with passion for IU hoops and their own position in this matter.

A couple of my own comments. In this day and age phone calls are a very important issue. Abuse of the NCAA phone rules is not a minor issue.

Based on his past experiences, KS knew this better than most career college basketball coaches and even compliance staff members. He was very well informed of his past violations. He was embarrassed among his peers and even publicly taken to task by the national coaches organization that meant a great deal to him.

He is a proud man and he clearly understood the negative baggage he was carrying with him to Indiana.

There is so much to like and admire about KS. I think of his trips to visit and interact with US troops on difficult overseas assignments. There is plenty of evidence that he’s a good man, in many ways.

However, for him to continue to make any mistakes with specific rules that have stained his reputation and caused him, the organizations he has represented and those who care about him such embarrassment … well, it’s all very troubling.

You would think that most intelligent people would say to themselves, I may screw up something with these numerous and complex NCAA rules, but there is no way anyone will ever be able to question my conduct on the issue of rules governing phone calls.

Some people in the basketball community around the nation were shocked that IU would even consider interviewing KS, because of his past violations and the reputation he had for taking ethical shortcuts.

Those same people are now saying that IU got what it deserved. No way that the administration at Indiana didn’t know they were taking a gamble on a head basketball coach and on their own proud reputation.

These things are always sad. My family knows a medical doctor who has been a long time friend and neighbor. He lost his practice and his fine reputation over a personal issue that is hard for any of us to fathom. He’s a good man in so many ways. He brought one of my children into the world and has been there for our family in some difficult times.

However, his professional future was in his own hands and it was nothing he didn’t clearly understand was a problem that he had to bend over backwards to deal with.

For him and for KS, there are no real excuses. Only sad questions.

IMHO, there also are no real excuses for Indiana University. They played fast and loose with their own reputation and took a big gamble that they could deal themselves a winning hand. They lost.

That’s an all too common story in college sports. Many of us hoped that our proud Hoosiers were better than that.

 


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