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Postcard from Indiana

Distractions aside, the Hoosiers could have it all

Posted: Friday October 19, 2007 2:29PM; Updated: Friday October 19, 2007 3:03PM
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Kelvin Sampson's overuse of the telephone on recruits could distract his team going into the season.
Kelvin Sampson's overuse of the telephone on recruits could distract his team going into the season.
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- I had asked Kelvin Sampson to pick out a good lunch spot, so he took me to a corner store across the street from Assembly Hall on Thursday afternoon and recommended the meatloaf sandwich. He ordered the same, but when we took our sandwiches to the cash register, Sampson told me to put my wallet away and insisted on paying. "Listen, I know you're out 500 large," I told him. "I'm only trying to help."

Sampson shot me a sideways glance and managed half a smile. It was a look that said: That line would be pretty funny if it were about someone else.

The second-year Indiana coach seemed in relatively good spirits, but it has been a distinctly un-funny week. My wisecrack referred to the scheduled $500,000 bonus Sampson had to forfeit after Indiana's compliance office had unearthed more than 100 phone calls to recruits that potentially violated the sanctions imposed on Sampson as a result of excessive phone calls he made at Oklahoma. Besides withholding the $500,000 from Sampson, Indiana also penalized itself one scholarship for next season and banned assistant Rob Senderoff, who made most of those 100 calls, from recruiting for a year.

The school has forwarded its findings to the NCAA, which will have the final say on whether those penalties are sufficient. My best guess is that their ruling should come sometime in the next month, but you can never be sure. If there are no more penalties, then Sampson should be in the clear. But if the NCAA metes out something worse -- say, a postseason ban for this season -- then it could very well result in Sampson's dismissal.

Assuming no more information comes out about this case, I find it extremely unlikely Sampson will lose his job. Even so, his good name will be stained forever -- not least because this latest episode was caused by the very same behavior that got Sampson into hot water in the first place.

After spending the day with Sampson on Thursday, I sensed he's doing his best to remain determined and upbeat, but he is also acutely aware of the long-term damage this has caused. "My reputation will take a hit," he conceded as we ate the meatloaf sandwiches in the kitchen at his spacious home. "But you know what? It should, because I'm the leader of this program and this is my responsibility."

The most disconcerting piece of evidence is the 10 three-way calls that were initiated by Senderoff, Sampson's second-year assistant who is a bulldog recruiter, particularly in the New York City area. (He was instrumental in convincing Queens native Devin Ebanks to commit to IU last summer.) The sanctions imposed on Sampson for his violations at Oklahoma prevented him from directly calling recruits. He was allowed to take calls from them and send text messages, but he was explicitly forbidden from using three-way calls to get around the penalty. Sampson's explanation for those 10 illicit calls was he did not know that Senderoff had patched the recruits from his office to Sampson's cell phone.

Even for people who know Sampson well and like him, this explanation does not pass the smell test. Still, even if you don't think it's plausible, you have to concede it's possible. Keep in mind Sampson knew very well that Indiana's administration was meticulously combing over all his phone records -- these calls, in fact, were discovered by an intern in the compliance office. If he's going to contravene the rules, it makes no sense Sampson would leave a trail by using his university-issued cell phone. At any rate, if his explanation for the three-way calls does hold up, then Senderoff's days on this staff are numbered.

Sampson's public relations problems intensified when IU alums Kent Benson, Ted Kitchel and Joe Hillman called in the local press for him to be let go. Those guys, however, are Bob Knight loyalists, and everyone knows relations between Knight and Sampson have been icy ever since a clock malfunction marred the end of an Oklahoma-Texas Tech game in 2003. Sampson has quietly received support from several other former players. When I was at his house, he took a call from Calbert Cheaney, and he told me he had also heard earlier in the day from Pat Graham and Todd Leary. He even got a supportive call that morning from Larry Bird.

When I asked Sampson about the published comments, he replied, "Whatever the former players say is fine with me, because this is their program. I'm just coaching it right now." I understand he has to say all the right things, but frankly I'd rather quote the words in the bubble that was forming over his head.

Which leads me to the obvious bottom line here: Whether you like it or not, the No. 1 thing that will cure Sampson's ills is if the team he's coaching right now has a great season. And based on what I saw during practice Thursday afternoon, that is all but certain.

I say that largely because, in 6-4 freshman guard Eric Gordon and 6-9 senior forward D.J. White, Indiana has two players who are capable of starting on an NBA team right now. How many teams can you say that about? White is moving better than he ever has, having trimmed 15 pounds from his wide frame. Gordon is a big, strong, quick-as-a-cat scoring guard who effortlessly flicks in deep three-pointers. Yes, like all freshmen, Gordon will have to adjust to the transition from high school to college. I'm guessing that will happen by about the first television timeout of the Hoosiers' first exhibition game.

On the other hand, don't be surprised if Indiana loses a couple of games it shouldn't, especially at the start of the season. That's because aside from Gordon, this team has five other newcomers (three freshmen and two juco transfers) and will need significant contributions from at least four of them. Unlike Gordon, the new guys don't have polished skills and man-child physiques, but they're good enough that by February, the Hoosiers should be ready to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. If that's the case, this latest phone-call contretemps will be a long-distance memory.

How will Indiana get from here to there? Allow me to dial up my breakdown.

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