Congratulations to Kelvin Sampson? Forget that. Congrats go to Indiana University’s athletic director, Rick Greenspan.
In this age of wallto-wall media, talk shows, blogs feeding rumors, and undisclosed sources, that Greenspan did an “abracadabra” to pull Sampson out of his hat as IU’s new men’s basketball coach was an astounding piece of magic.
Because of all the names mentioned in the six weeks following Mike Davis’ resignation-the Steve Alfords (my choice), the Randy Wittmans, the Tom Creans, the Mark Fews, the Rick Majeruses and many more from multiple lists that went on-how many times did Sampson’s name surface?
I dare say, not once.
In my case, not even when it began to evolve as fact.
Because this is how I learned of the hire. My cell phone rang March 28.
“IU’s going to name Kevin Simpson,” my friend said.
“Kevin Simpson?” I replied. “Who in the heck is Kevin Simpson?” But as soon as I hung up, it dawned on me. Not Kevin Simpson … Kelvin Sampson. Oklahoma.
Pardon me while I pick my jaw up off the floor.
Not that Sampson is an unknown, or an unknown commodity. He’s been rolling off 20-win seasons at Oklahoma University like they were pasted on a paper towel dispenser. Post-Billy Tubbs, he’s continued to make basketball matter at a football school. His Sooners teams are known for defense, rebounding and athleticism. And while not on the elite level of Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, Lute Olsen or Jim Boeheim, Sampson is certainly recognized as being in that next tier.
But then, this is Indiana. It’s like being given the keys to drive a Mercedes, instead of a really nice top-end Chrysler. Despite Indiana’s downgrade in national stature, Norman-to-Bloomington is not a lateral move, but a serious upgrade.
Again, my choice was Alford, for reasons outlined in a recent column. I believed-still do-that Alford’s fit at IU was as perfect as his coif, and a way to bridge the pro- and anti-Bob Knight factions. That there apparently never was at least informal dialogue between Greenspan and Alford to gauge mutual interest tells me IU’s AD made up his mind that the best way to bury Knight’s past was to ignore any and all of the disciples.
So be it. We move forward.
Yet for all he has accomplished, both at Oklahoma and Washington State University before that, Sampson arrives with Sampsonite baggage. Oklahoma is on self-imposed probation for rules violations under Sampson’s tenure, and while those violations might be deemed relatively minor, there’s no such thing as being a little pregnant.
His 2002 team not only lost to Indiana in the national semifinals, but you could make the argument that he was outcoached in that game by Davis, and there aren’t many who fall into that category. OU’s graduation rate among basketball players has been dismal, though recently improving. And Sampson has relied heavily on junior college transfers, a distasteful tactic to IU fans, especially those with a selective memory who don’t recall jucos Keith Smart and Dean Garrett.
One must also wonder if Sampson can reverse the talent drain that has seen so many Hoosier prep stars bail for out-of-state locations. In the long term, can Sampson recruit Indiana and rebuild the pipeline that once existed to Indiana high school coaches? But in the short term, you also have to ask, can he recruit Indiana, and convince current Hoosier stars D.J. White and Robert Vaden not to follow Davis?
What Sampson does have going for him is that he is a proven commodity … not an obscure assistant thrust into a limelight he was ill-prepared to handle.
And while there was instant hand-wringing over whether he can reunite the “IU Nation”-how I detest that trite term-the truth is most of that nation can be described as illegal immigrants with no ties whatsoever to the university.
Perhaps he’s not a “sexy” choice, but I’m not looking for Charlize Theron to coach the Hoosiers, either. I’m looking for a person who will represent the university with class and dignity, who will put a team on the floor that exudes discipline and coaching, who graduates players and competes within the rules-even those nitpicky ones-and who can bring IU back among the nation’s elite.
Let’s all hope Kevin Simpson, er, Kelvin Sampson, is that man.
Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.