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November 03, 2008
Taking over a program that imploded under Kelvin Sampson, the sanguine new coach sends a message of hope and patience (heavy on the patience) to frustrated Hoosiers faithful
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November 03, 2008

Tom Crean's Big Red Challenge

Taking over a program that imploded under Kelvin Sampson, the sanguine new coach sends a message of hope and patience (heavy on the patience) to frustrated Hoosiers faithful

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They'd come from the cities, and they'd come from the smaller towns. Old-timers and recent alums. Forwards and guards. Former players and former coaches. More than 180 in all, they converged on a resort during the last week in August. The event was described on the invitation as an Indiana Hoosiers "basketball reunion," a social gathering of men who had worn the cream-and-crimson jersey and those trademark candy-cane warmups. But, really, it was something deeper. A summit, perhaps, or a council meeting to address the crisis facing the tribe. "Most of all," says Bobby (Slick) Leonard, an All-America guard at Indiana in the 1950s, "it was the first step in healing, making it one big, happy family again." ¶ There had been more than 10 years of dysfunction for the Indiana basketball clan. It began near the end of the 29-year reign of Bob Knight, the polarizing paterfamilias who was unceremoniously exiled in September 2000. Knight's successor, his former assistant Mike Davis, was by most accounts a nice and decent guy who took the Hoosiers to the NCAA championship game in his second season. But inadequately woven into the Indiana basketball tapestry--in part because he was neither a Midwesterner nor a former Hoosier--Davis never won over the faithful, his teams missed the tournament two years in a row, and he resigned in 2006 after six seasons. Then came Kelvin Sampson, from under a cloud of recruiting violations at Oklahoma. In two seasons in Bloomington he won plenty of basketball games, but by the time he resigned under pressure last February, the program was in tatters. The NCAA's hounds were at the door, and a mass exodus of players had left Hoosier Nation steeling for what might well be the least successful season in the program's rich history. Indiana had become college basketball's equivalent of Lehman Brothers, a proud institution rocked to its core by greed, outsized ambition and bad management.

So from Tom Motter (Indiana class of 1941) to D.J. White (class of 2008), the elders showed up at the West Baden Springs Hotel in French Lick, Ind., the week before Labor Day. They played golf and ate barbecue and talked, mostly about how the program would recover its good name. Eventually the latest tribal leader, the new coach, Tom Crean, stood before the audience and gave a variation of the speech he's delivered countless times during the past six months. "We're going to build this back up, and we're going to do it in a way that will make people proud," he intoned in a thick Midwestern accent. "This is Indiana."

The story of Indiana basketball has the ring of a classical epic--flush with hubris, power, dishonor, revenge, sin and hope--but it's also a contemporary morality tale, illustrating the landscape of big-time college athletics and the fate that can befall an entire university at the hands of the ethically challenged.

It was spring 2006 when Kelvin Sampson set foot on the IU campus. The school was in the market for a new basketball coach to replace Davis, and while Sampson was reportedly not on the short list of candidates, his agent helped insinuate him into the search process. He had been the coach at Oklahoma since 1994 and had had remarkable success at that football-crazed school, averaging 23 wins a season. But he'd also run into trouble. His teams' graduation rates were consistently abysmal--Oklahoma ranked 269th out of 317 Division I schools during the period from 1995-96 through '98-99, the years the NCAA's Graduation Success Rate (GSR) data were first collected. And over a period of four years, Sampson and his staff made a total of 500-plus impermissible phone calls to 17 recruits; NCAA penalties were forthcoming.

Sampson, however, received a warm welcome during his campus visit at Indiana. (Full disclosure: The university employed my parents for many years.) Sources familiar with the situation say that Sampson was able to line up an audience with Indiana's president at the time, Adam Herbert. A charismatic figure of Native American heritage--he was born into the Lumbee tribe--Sampson impressed Herbert. Sources say that Herbert also looked favorably on the prospect of hiring a minority to replace Davis, who'd been the first African-American head coach in the university's history. (Herbert declined to respond to a series of e-mailed questions.) Sampson was offered the job on March 29, 2006, under the sanctions that had been applied at Oklahoma. (For example, his salary remained frozen at $1.1 million per year.)

If Indiana was no longer the force that had won three NCAA titles under Knight, there was comfort in this: The school played by the rules. It wasn't just that Indiana had not been cited for a major NCAA violation since 1960. For all their differences, neither Knight nor Davis went in for those well-known shortcuts--e.g., offering a recruit's summer coach a salaried position; offering a scholarship to the marginally talented friend of a star player--so common elsewhere in college basketball. "There was pride in doing it the right way when few others were," says Angelo Pizzo, a Bloomington resident who wrote the screenplay for Hoosiers. "It was like, Indiana might lose a few games, but it won't lose its soul."

Within two months after Sampson signed on with Indiana, the NCAA barred him from recruiting off campus and from making phone calls to recruits for one year.

Given Sampson's history, his hiring was met with skepticism in some corners. Ted Kitchel, an All-America forward at Indiana in 1981-82 and '82-83, memorably commented to The Indianapolis Star that he thought Sampson's hiring was a "disgrace" and he "wouldn't hire that guy to coach my [daughter's] fifth-grade team." Kent Benson, the center on the Hoosiers' 1976 national championship team, turned in his IU season tickets in protest. Davis predicted to Star columnist Bob Kravitz that Sampson would have Indiana in hot water within three years.

The new coach, though, worked fast to ingratiate himself. After promising that he would follow NCAA rules, Sampson, a former president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, pressed the flesh and spoke of the program's "pride" and "tradition." Indiana went a respectable 21-11 in his first season. By all accounts, players attended class. All three seniors graduated. The basketball team received a community service award from the athletic department.

Sampson also landed Eric Gordon, a sensationally talented guard from Indianapolis. That entailed the dubious practice of recruiting Gordon after the player had made an oral commitment to Illinois. In the process Sampson hired Jeff Meyer, a friend of the player's family who had coached Gordon's father, Eric Sr., in college. (According to Sampson, Meyer was "on the radar" before he learned of the family connection.) Sampson also recruited some players who, unlike the clean-cut Gordon, were of questionable character and academic preparedness, the sort of high-risk kids unlikely to have been pursued during the Knight and Davis regimes. On the message board, a popular Indiana hoops website, and at barbershops and diners around the state, the prevailing sentiment was the same: Maybe this is what it takes nowadays to compete with the big boys. As one fan who had written to the Star's editorial page succinctly put it: "Graduation rates don't win basketball games."

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