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Remembering Kelvin Sampson’s Scandal-Ridden Past

By: Adam Spolane - SportsRadio 610
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Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Adam Spolane
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There is a lot of excitement around the University of Houston Men’s Basketball program right now, and for good reason. In Kelvin Sampson they have gotten a brilliant basketball coach who turned Oklahoma into a national power at the start of the century, and as recent as last spring was expected to land an NBA head coach job. However, UH is also getting a guy that has also committed serious NCAA violations at the last two programs he’s led. Under Sampson the Cougars could soar, though they could also crumble. I’ve seen it happen.

 

On February 16, 2006, in the middle of his sixth season since replacing Bob Knight, Mike Davis announced he’d resign as Indiana’s basketball coach at the conclusion of the season. The program was floundering, and was looking at missing the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. Worse, Davis wasn’t recruiting the state. He lost out to Big 10 rivals Ohio State and Illinois in the pursuits of Indianapolis area stars Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and Eric Gordon. Sampson was hired in March, and what wasn’t a popular hire at the time looked worse very quickly.

 

Indiana hired Sampson even though he was being investigated by the NCAA, and a couple of months after being introduced as Davis’ replacement, the NCAA ruled that Sampson and his staff at Oklahoma made 577 impermissible phone calls and banned him from placing phone calls to recruits and recruiting off campus for a year. Indiana could’ve fired him right there, but they chose to stick with Sampson and believe that he would never break the rules at Indiana. For a time it looked like the right move.

 

He was able to get DJ White to stick around and not follow Davis to UAB, and then about a month before the opening game of his first season, Gordon switched his commitment from Illinois and headlined one of the best recruiting classes in the nation and was on his way to doing the same the next year. Then In Sampson’s first season, Indiana finished third in the Big 10, beating a Wisconsin team that at the time was ranked second in the nation, and won a game in the NCAA Tournament before losing to UCLA. After the season White announced he’d be sticking around for his senior season, setting up the most anticipated Indiana season since the dismissal of Knight, but before one game was played, Sampson made Indiana regret the faith they showed in him 17 months before.

 

October 12, 2007 was an exciting time to be a student, especially a senior, at Indiana. That night we’d get to see our preseason top 10 basketball team for the first time at Hoosier Hysteria, Indiana’s version of Midnight Madness, then the next night our 5-1 football team would be in East Lansing playing for a chance to become bowl eligible for the first time since the early 90’s. As expected, Hoosier Hysteria was great, but the football team was crushed by Michigan State, and then the next morning we got more bad news.

 

The Indiana athletic department announced that Sampson and his staff had committed a series of recruiting violations having to do with more illegal phone calls. It cost assistant coach Rob Senderhoff his job and there was speculation that Sampson could be let go as well. I had a radio show at the IU student station, WIUX, and I said he should’ve been fired right then. For 46 years, Indiana basketball hadn’t committed a single NCAA violation. We let the stuff at Oklahoma slide and it burned us, though it would be four months until we knew how bad.

 

Sampson kept his job and the team that began the year as the 8th ranked team in the nation started the season 20-3, 9-1 in Big 10 play. The October announcement contributed to Washington, Indiana star Tyler Zeller committing to North Carolina, but otherwise it seemed to be forgotten, then we got hit with something worse.

 

Late on the night of February 12, Andy Katz of ESPN reported Indiana had received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA. Among other things, the NCAA said Sampson did not comply restrictions imposed for the violations at Oklahoma, that he lied to the NCAA, and that he failed to promote an atmosphere of rules compliance within the IU basketball program. He embarrassed the school, tarnished reputation of the program, and it was only just beginning.

 

The next day, we lost to Wisconsin on a Brian Butch 3-pointer with a couple of seconds left. It was the beginning of a 3-game, seven-day stretch at Assembly Hall against the other three Big 10 title contenders. The Wisconsin game was confusing because nobody was really sure what to make of the allegations, but after that game we started hearing Sampson could be fired immediately, and that the school might impose a postseason ban so we knew things were going to get bad.

 

On Friday, February 15, IU president Michael McRobbie announced the school would conduct its own investigation and make a decision within a week on the future of Sampson and his staff. McRobbie was not at the school when Sampson was hired, so that’s when we assumed he’d be fired, we just weren’t sure when, and the process dragged.

 

That Saturday we hosted Michigan State in one of those ESPN Gameday games. We had a big crowd inside Assembly Hall for College Gameday that morning. It was embarrassing. In what was supposed to be a showcase for our school and our program, turned into a long conversation about the NCAA sanctions and what the future would be for Indiana. There was very little talk about a team with two of the best players in the country (White and Gordon). It was so bad that the students started a “Talk About The Game” chant. Sampson coached that game, and the game three nights later against Purdue. After that, the team didn’t have another game until Saturday, a day after McRobbie’s deadline, so the next three days were nothing but speculation.

 

Sampson pretty much stayed hidden for those three days. I remember seeing a picture of him at Assembly Hall online, but he didn’t say anything publicly and neither did anyone from the administration. Finally at around 8:00 pm on February 22nd, the school announced Sampson was done. They paid him $750 thousand to go away. The rumor was that Mark Cuban, an IU alum, paid the buyout, though we’ll never know that for sure, but Unfortunately, the saga wasn’t over.

 

The players on that team loved Sampson, and they weren’t happy that he was fired. Making matters worse, Dan Dakich was named interim head coach instead of Sampson’s top assistant Ray McCallum. Dakich played for, and was an assistant under Bob Knight. He had returned to IU as Director of Basketball Operations after being let go as Bowling Green’s head coach. When Senderhoff was fired in October, Sampson made Dakich an assistant coach. The school wanted Dakich in order to separate itself from Sampson, the players wanted McCallum since he had helped recruit many of them to Indiana. Rumors started circulating around Bloomington that many of them were going to boycott the game on the 23rd at Northwestern. It was a surreal situation.

 

Despite the rumors, everyone made the trip to Evanston. Indiana won that game, and then the next against Ohio State, but finished the season losing four of five, including a 14-point loss to Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That’s when we learned just how messed up things had gotten.

 

Dakich was still in charge of the program before Tom Crean was hired right before the Final Four, and it seemed like everyday a player was leaving on his own, or Dakich was throwing him off the team. That’s when it was revlealed a lot of players simply stopped going to class, and then Gordon made headlines months later when said many players were doing drugs. The program was in shambles, and it was because of Kelvin Sampson.

 

Indiana was left with one scholarship player, former walk-on Kyle Taber, for Crean’s first season in 2008-09. That team went 6-25, 1-17 in the Big 10, and lost at least 20 games the next two seasons, while winning a total of six conference games. Sampson was given a five-year show cause penalty from the NCAA in November of 2008, essentially banning him from college basketball. Very few coaches have received a harsher penalty. Now, less than five months following the expiration of the ban, Sampson is back

 

Kelvin Sampson will tell you that he’s learned from his mistakes and that he’s committed to running a first-rate program at the University of Houston, but he’s said that before.

 

“I have learned an invaluable lesson, and I hope that this reinforces to other coaches the importance of every aspect of NCAA compliance”

 

That quote is a from a statement made by Sampson on May 26, 2006 after receiving his penalty from the violations at Oklahoma. 17 months later, Indiana reported that he had broken the rules again, and 4 months after that he was gone after the NCAA alleged he lied about. Maybe this time he HAS learned his lesson. Maybe this time he WILL run a clean program, but would you want to take that chance?

 

We did, look what it got us.

 

 

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