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 â€” he quit the team days before this latest scandal burst into public view â€” 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 â€” he has been at three schools in 25 years â€” 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 â€” 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” â€” the thing he had built at Oklahoma â€” 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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