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Original Issue

Not-so-smooth Operator

Illicit dialing has hurt the reputation of Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson

IN OCTOBER 2003, after college basketball had weathered a series of scandals, the National Association of Basketball Coaches convened an unprecedented summit at an airport hotel in Chicago. Before a banner that read RAISING THE STANDARD, then NABC president Kelvin Sampson presided over a three-hour meeting at which 300 Division I head coaches agreed to draft a code of ethics. "If a violation creates a competitive advantage, especially in recruiting, that coach needs to be turned in," Sampson told the press. He also said that wayward coaches needed to be held accountable "whether it's cheating or dodging rules in the gray area."

Funny thing: One of the most persistent violators of those rules since L'Affaire at O'Hare has been—wait for it—Kelvin Sampson, the second-year Indiana coach whose hot seat is now measuring, oh, about 500 Kelvin. Sampson arrived in Bloomington under storm clouds in March 2006 just before NCAA investigators ruled that he and his staff at Oklahoma had committed major violations, showing a "complete disregard" for NCAA rules by placing 577 improper phone calls to recruits from 2000 to 2004. Then last month Indiana revealed that Sampson and his staff had violated telephone rules again, announcing harsh self-imposed sanctions that included sacrificing a scholarship and Sampson's forfeiture of a $500,000 raise.

If Sampson were a first-time offender, this probably wouldn't have caused an uproar, since they appear to be secondary violations. (In the past year the NCAA has noted more than 100 cases of secondary violations in basketball involving phone contacts with recruits.) What's troubling, though, is that a recent finger-wagging leader of the nation's basketball coaches hasn't learned anything from his mistakes at Oklahoma—major violations, remember—which he promised wouldn't happen again in his first Indiana press conference just 20 months ago. His top recruiter, Rob Senderoff, was found to have made 34 calls that violated NCAA rules. He also placed 10 calls to prospects during a period in which Sampson was barred from calling recruits and then patched Sampson in on three-way. To make matters worse, Sampson claimed, laughably, that he was unaware that nine of the 10 three-way calls were being initiated by and sent through Senderoff because he never heard Senderoff on the line. But according to Indiana's own investigation, two recruits "were specific in their recollections that Senderoff was involved during the whole call."

When Hoosiers athletic director Rick Greenspan hired Sampson, he thought the coach would bring fractious IU fans together after the tumultuous reigns of Bob Knight and Mike Davis. Instead Sampson has managed to whiff in one of the few areas where supporters of Knight and Davis could find common ground: their contribution to Indiana's tradition of running a clean athletic program, one that has avoided major NCAA infractions since 1960.

These days hysterical Indiana fans always seem to be on the verge of holding a town meeting over the basketball coach like the one Hickory High hard cores had for Gene Hackman in Hoosiers. And sure enough, Knight loyalists have called for Sampson's head. "I'm absolutely, totally embarrassed for the Indiana basketball program," Kent Benson, a two-time All-America, told The Indianapolis Star. "If no tolerance means no tolerance, they should get rid of him. And Greenspan should be right behind." Sampson, for his part, says he has received calls of support from several ex-players, including Calbert Cheaney and former IU freshman Larry Bird.

At week's end the case was following an all-too-predictable path. Sampson and Greenspan had already found their fall guy: Senderoff resigned under pressure last week, even though he's a first-time offender (unlike Sampson) and the only coach in recent memory to lose his job over secondary violations. Now Indiana will wait for the NCAA to decide if its self-imposed sanctions are sufficient (a likely outcome). And more than anything, Sampson will hope his heavily hyped, top 10 team can pile up the wins and make people forget any of the program's recent untidiness.

Sampson has always born a striking physical resemblance to celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, and his twice-baked Infractions Étouffée raises plenty of questions about what that ethics summit banner was referring to four years ago. What exactly is Kelvin Sampson, former NABC president, raising the standard of these days? Of carelessness? Of hubris? Or of hypocrisy? Whatever is on the rise, it sure isn't his stature within the coaching community

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