Archive for Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Commentary: Sampson hangs up on Indiana players

February 27, 2008

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How much would you pay to salvage the reputation of your school?

One hundred dollars?

One thousand?

More?

What if I told you that an anonymous donor gave Indiana University $550,000 last Friday to make Kelvin Sampson go away? That's what it took to remove college basketball's latest human boil of a coach - $550,000 from some rich and disenchanted alum, another $200,000 from the school that hooked into Sampson in March 2006 despite his already unsavory past.

That's a lot of salvage.

And a lot of hate.

Hired to a seven-year, $7.3 million contract that would have expired in 2013, Sampson took the buyout rather than fight charges that he violated NCAA recruiting rules and then lied to school and NCAA investigators about it. Those rules, pertaining to limits on recruiting phone calls, are the same ones he violated while coaching at Oklahoma. Then, he and his staff were found to have made 577 impermissible phone calls over a four-year period.

This time, he allegedly made around 100 over his two years at Indiana. That, uh, improvement was overshadowed though by the NCAA's findings: that he provided false and misleading information to investigators from Indiana and the NCAA, failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the program and failed to meet the "generally recognized high standard of honesty" expected in college sports.

The Hoosiers are a top-25 team this season, and vying for the Big Ten title. That has made Sampson a big story nationally, and put Indiana fans and alum in an uneasy quandary. The better the team does, the more the story gets told, and the more the school's reputation suffers. The better the team does, the more Sampson's name comes up, and the more this becomes an unappetizing story of misplaced loyalties and players trapped in the middle.

That the two are undeniably intertwined was made perfectly clear within hours of Sampson's dismissal Friday, when only half the team showed for a practice. It was reinforced on Saturday, when the Hoosiers - some playing with Sampson's initials on their sneakers - barely outlasted lowly Northwestern.

"He wasn't just like a coach," freshman guard Eric Gordon said afterward. "He was more like a father to us."

"It just wasn't the same, not having him around," Indiana star Armon Bassett said.

Ah, but he was around. His name was scribbled on Bassett's sneakers and those of his teammate. Sampson's son Kellen, a graduate assistant, was there on the bench. And when the game was over and Bassett got to his locker, there was a text message from his former coach on his cell phone.

"He told me he loved me, he's happy for me and good win," Bassett told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Besides promising not to sue the school, Sampson's 11-page resignation agreement with the university said he may not "interfere in any way" with his former players, including doing anything that might impede "cooperating in the transition to a new head coach."

Like, say, sending a text message after their first win without him?

That it involved a phone is just plain precious, no?

Before Sampson moves on to his next coaching gig, he needs to find some sort of rehab center for compulsive phone users. Maybe $750,000 seems a lot to you, but given his history, it might not even cover his phone bill.

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