SPORTS: IU’s Sampson prepares for his toughest audience

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CHICAGO-Yes, Kelvin Sampson has the job. It’s been his since March.

Nonetheless, the audition begins next week in Conseco Fieldhouse, when his IU Hoosiers basketball team opens the preseason NIT against Lafayette.

Sampson will need to be into multi-tasking. Coach his team. Rise to stratospheric expectations. Restore reputations. Quiet the critics who can’t get over the fact that he arrived with baggage that included more than his clothes.

And, just win, baby. That will take care of virtually all of the above.

I’m not one prone to offering sympathy to anyone who is paid by the Brinks load to coach a game. All things considered, it’s a pretty darn good life.

But understanding is a different matter, and we should all understand this: There will be no more highly scrutinized coach in the NCAA’s uppermost echelon this season than Sampson.

Not only in Indiana, but nationwide, media and fans will be watching to see if he can bring order to the helter-skelter chaos that has been IU basketball (with the exception of the 2002 Final Four run) since the departure of You Know Who. They will be watching to see if he can make the Hoosiers a nationally elite program again. And over the longer haul, they will be watching to see if he can prove that both the NCAA rules book and graduation rates are not things to treat with a wink and a nod.

Then there’s that little matter of Eric Gordon, the final dash of pepper in the Sampson stew. For that, I believe he has nothing to explain, only that-after circumstances changed-a 17-year-old changed his mind about what he wanted to do.

At Sampson’s Big Ten coming out party Oct. 29 in Chicago for media day, NCAA rules precluded him from commenting specifically about Gordon or his decision.

That didn’t keep ink-stained wretches from prying.

“You don’t really blame anybody for that,” he said, diplomatically referring to the reaction on both sides of the Indiana-Illinois state line. “It is what it is and you move on. In coaching, we all have the opportunity to be on the other side of the fence. There are some things I’d like to say but I can’t. I feel badly sometimes for the kids and what they have to go through.”

And while he must be inwardly ecstatic about Gordon’s decision, that’s delayed gratification for next year. Sampson has a team to coach, now.

“Expectations … how do I temper them?” he said, repeating a question. “I have no idea. I just coach my team. The biggest disadvantage is that I’ve never coached them in a game. I’ve watched them on film. I’ve seen most people have got us picked from fourth to seventh [in the Big Ten]. That’s where people think we are. We’ll see if we can’t do a little bit better.”

He repeatedly emphasized that pressure is pressure and expectations are expectations, whether at the University of Oklahoma or at IU.

But let’s be honest. Oklahoma isn’t IU. Not in basketball. The whirlwind here spins faster, kicks up more debris. Still, Sampson said, “At the end of the day, coaches coach basketball. You still have to get your players to guard people, you still got to run an offense. The ball has to go through D.J. [White]. Regardless of what is happening on the periphery, of what [people] say or don’t say, that’s not going to help us.”

Still, there have been a few I’m-not-in-Norman-anymore moments.

One was the prolonged standing ovation 14,000 fans gave him during IU’s Midnight Madness practice. Another was his first speaking engagement, in a barn on a farm in Starlight. Six hundred people showed up.

“Even though we’re grown men, there’s still a little boy in all of us,” Sampson said. “I’ve had some emotional moments since I’ve taken the job because of the newness. We get motivated for different reasons. I’m motivated to coach this team because there’s a little bit of a fear factor, too. I think sometimes fear factor’s a positive thing because I don’t know what to expect from this group. I’ve never taken them to East Lansing, or to wherever on the road.”

Wherever he takes them, Sampson and his team will be analyzed, discussed, dissected.

“You’re teaching basketball but also trying to establish a toughness and an identity,” he said. “They’re trying. I’m not Merlin the Magician. The teams at Oklahoma, they did play a certain way. They were tough. But that didn’t happen the first month or the first year. It evolves. You also have to recruit tough kids.”

Unspoken but acknowledged: At IU, the coach better be the toughest of all.

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 Benner also has a blog,

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