Tuesday, the NCAA announced its penalties stemming from the Kelvin Sampson debacle at Indiana University. You'll recall that Sampson resigned as head coach last February after he and his staff had been caught making impermissible phone calls to recruits--the exact same offense that had landed Sampson in hot water at Oklahoma and which, somehow, did not prevent his ascension to Bob Knight's (throwable) chair at IU.
In this case, it's nice to be able to say that the NCAA got the punishment exactly right. The pain here is inflicted on the ex-coach and not the current players. Sampson is subject to a show-cause order for the next five years, meaning any program wanting to hire him in that time will have to explain itself to the NCAA. It's fashionable right now to say that this effectively ends Sampson's career in college coaching. While it certainly suspends it for the next five years, you might want to hold off on any etched-in-stone epitaphs. After all, former California coach Todd Bozeman was slapped with an eight-year show-cause order in 1996 after he admitted paying $30,000 over two years to the parents of Jelani Gardner. After initially retreating to that coaching Elba known as the NBA (as has Sampson), Bozeman is now in his third season as head coach at Morgan State. Bottom line: show-cause orders are career prison sentences that have to be served, yes, but they need not be career death penalties.
Whenever something as dramatic and compelling as Sampson's rise and fall in Bloomington occurs, the instinct to draw larger lessons is well nigh irresistible. In this case, however, I'm not sure there really is a larger lesson. Almost three years after the fact, it's easy to forget the essential quality of the Sampson hire: just how mystifying it truly was.
You have to understand that everything was in place in early 2006 for Indiana to make an outstanding hire. The announcement that Mike Davis would not be retained was made even before the end of the Big Ten regular season. The opening at Indiana was the first one on the coaching profession's radar that season, and IU (should have) had the luxury of making back-channel contacts before any competing jobs came open. Then again, what job could compete with an opening in the heart of a hoops-crazed state at a storied Big Ten program with five national championships to its name? Great hires have been made under much more difficult circumstances. (Look at Thad Matta at Ohio State: hired in June 2004, long after that year's "coaching carousel" had shut down, at a football school whose basketball program was seemingly in free fall in the immediate aftermath of a recruiting scandal.) The stars were aligned for the Hoosiers to hit this one out of the park.
And yet somehow, even with all of these advantages, someone at Indiana chose Kelvin Sampson, a coach who in 2006 was already under an NCAA cloud and who had won exactly one NCAA tournament game over the past three seasons. Outgoing athletic director Rick Greenspan has done little to disabuse anyone of the notion that Sampson was virtually forced on him. Maybe so, but someone in Bloomington chose to point this particular gun at the program's heart. So the larger lesson is simply: don't make a mystifying hire. Don't hire a guy currently under investigation by the Committee on Infractions.
As for the Indiana program, it will be on probation for the next three years, meaning in the highly uncharacteristic event that first-year head coach Tom Crean starts getting Sampson-cute with his own cell phone, the Hoosiers will be subject to the most draconian measures imaginable. The probation was levied on top of Indiana's self-imposed sanctions, which took away one scholarship and placed limits on recruiting phone calls and visits. Otherwise, Crean is largely free to rebuild a program that in purely basketball terms is at its lowest point in decades, as seen in this week's losses at the Maui Classic to Notre Dame and St. Joseph's by an average of 32 points per contest.
Then again, purely basketball terms aren't the only metrics, are they? Perhaps the program was actually in much worse shape a year ago, when players were mysteriously serving a series of artfully staggered suspensions for off-court reasons never disclosed by their coach. Maybe the program was really at a lower point eight months ago, when players were threatening to stage a boycott rather than take the floor at Northwestern under newly installed interim coach Dan Dakich. And just how low was the program seven months ago, when campus police were called after former Hoosier Eli Holman threw a flower pot at Crean in his office?
That was then. The current Indiana team spent last week in Maui, playing in a tournament whose tip times are dictated by the convenience of viewers several time zones away. At the press conference after his team lost by 26 to St. Joseph's, Crean actually choked up when he talked about how hordes of red-clad IU fans had filled the stands at the Lahaina Civic Center before eight in the morning local time to support a team of freshmen and walk-ons that just hours before had been blown out by 38 points.
I submit that if you have fans that will do that, and a coach who will not only notice and salute that fact but will actually get a little verklempt when he talks about it, your program is already operating at a very high level. It's going to take a while for the final scores to catch up to the truth, but this is already an elite program.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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