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February 29, 2008

Indiana ready to put Sampson Era in past

Rivals Radio: Jason King of Yahoo! Sports joins Bill King to talk Indiana hoops

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. He's jobless because of his cell phone. But last Friday, shortly after Kelvin Sampson walked out of Assembly Hall for the final time, the former Indiana basketball coach made a call that even Hoosiers officials had to appreciate.

The recipient: Team captain D.J. White.

"(Sampson) just told me to keep the guys together and to continue what we started," White said. "We were doing pretty good with him. Now he wants us to do the same without him.

"We just have to move on."

Somehow, after one of the most tumultuous times in school history, the Hoosiers and their fanbase have managed to do just that.

Only seven days have passed since Sampson's forced resignation amid allegations of impermissible calls to recruits. Still, eavesdrop on conversations at Bloomington's popular nightspots or attend a game at Assembly Hall, and it seems that a sense of normalcy has already returned to Indiana's campus.

Thousands of fans traveled to the Chicago area last Saturday to cheer on the team against Northwestern, and the Hoosiers who were sluggish early responded with a spirited, come-from-behind victory that ended with players celebrating on the court with their supporters and embracing interim coach Dan Dakich.

Tuesday's victory against Ohio State was played before a rowdy home crowd that seemed anything but downtrodden by the negative publicity brought on by Sampson's alleged violations. The night after the game, at sports bars all across campus, folks were talking more about Indiana's Final Four hopes than the ugly events of the previous few weeks.

Local firefighter Coy Timbrook, a 1998 Indiana graduate, noted that the Hoosiers' 24-4 record is the school's best this late in the season since 1993. At 13-2, Indiana is tied for first place in the Big Ten with Wisconsin and Purdue.

"The damage has been done," Timbrook said. "This town is tired of being under that black cloud. It's time for something good to happen, something bright."

No joking matter

A few minutes after tipoff in Tuesday's game against Ohio State, a kid seated in Indiana's student section hoisted a sign above his head.

"If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin,'" it read.

Even if it was done in a light-hearted manner, such gestures and jokes have been few and far between in Bloomington, where Sampson's alleged wrongdoings have infuriated alumni and fans.

Kent Benson, who led Indiana to an undefeated season in 1975-76, used to be a regular at Hoosiers games. But he stopped coming once the school hired Sampson as Mike Davis' replacement in 2006.

"He shouldn't have been hired in the first place," Benson told reporters. "The integrity of the Indiana University basketball program has been compromised, and that's a terrible shame."

Scott May, who teamed with Benson on that undefeated team, was even more blunt.

"This whole thing," May said, "has been embarrassing."

What makes the situation so difficult to stomach is that Sampson had committed the same violations during his tenure at Oklahoma, where the NCAA deemed he made 577 impermissible phone calls to recruits.

Still, Hoosiers athletic director Rick Greenspan took a chance and hired Sampson, a decision that some think should cost Greenspan his job.

Over the years Indiana grew used to barbs from outsiders about the antics and temper problems of legendary coach Bob Knight. But say this about Knight: He was never associated with being a cheat. He preached discipline, he graduated his players and, as a result, he garnered respect.

"This flies in the face of everything Coach Knight was about," May said. "We've always had a great program. To me, Coach Knight showed them how to run a program, how to do things the right way, how to win with integrity, how to graduate players. What better example to follow? It's a shame that they didn't stay with the system that he had in place."

Even Indiana's students are bitter toward Sampson, whose son, Kellen, remains on the Hoosiers' staff. They may have chanted his name "KEL-vin-SAMP-son!" at the end of Indiana's victory against Michigan State two weeks ago. But once the emotions died down, the level-headed side of the school's student body realized the importance of maintaining the Hoosiers' image.

"People around here would rather have a (bad) season and still keep our good reputation instead it being the other way around," said Jared Bradshaw, who graduated from Indiana in December. "We don't want to win by being cheaters."

Divided loyalties?

The day after the school announced Sampson's resignation, Indiana's players took the court against Northwestern with initials "K.S." inscribed on their shoes.

Then, after eking out an 85-82 road victory, guard Armon Bassett returned to the locker room and discovered a congratulatory text message from Sampson. Dakich was asked later if the Hoosiers' continued communication with Sampson could become a problem.

"I know people have opinions on that," Dakich said. "I haven't read (those opinions) and I won't. I almost think it's natural. Coach Sampson is a pro, and the players have acted that way, (too). That's not an issue for me."

If it became one Dakich would seem more than capable of handling it or any other distraction. As much as they've been impressed with Indiana's players, fans and alumni continue to heap praise on Dakich for the way he's conducted himself during such a difficult time.

No one is expecting Dakich to win a national championship like Steve Fisher did as Michigan's interim head coach in 1989. But, with a team that boasts NBA talent such as White and Eric Gordon, a significant NCAA tournament run certainly seems like a possibility.

Dakich is from Merrillville, Ind. He played for Knight from 1981-85 and is best known for his defensive effort against Michael Jordan in the Hoosiers' victory over North Carolina in the 1984 East Regional semifinal.

Not that they had anything against Dakich, but most of Indiana's players were hoping the interim job would go to assistant Ray McCallum, who played a part in their recruitment.

Six Indiana players skipped the first practice under Dakich and threatened to boycott the Northwestern game, although that had less to do with Dakich and more to do with their anger following Sampson's forced resignation.

Later that night, though, each and every Indiana player showed up for the walkthrough before the next day's game against Northwestern. At that point, Dakich said he knew everything would be fine.

"Even before that, I started getting texts from Armon, Jordan (Crawford) and those kids," Dakich said. "I felt, ultimately, that we were going to be OK.

"There have been a lot of those (signs): The looks in the huddle, the happiness they had after the Northwestern game, the plane flight and bus ride home. Those kinds of things."

Still, as respectful as they are of Dakich, the loyalties of Indiana's players still lie with Sampson, who did not respond to an interview request for this article.

Just as they did against Northwestern, the Hoosiers had "K.S." scribbled on their shoes when they took the court against Ohio State on Tuesday.

"We love Coach Sampson and we wish he was out there with us," Bassett said. "But we have to get used to it. We're at the top of the Big Ten. We have to focus on the task at hand."

If the Hoosiers ever want to talk to their former coach, they know he's just a phone call away. White said he has spoken with Sampson several times since his resignation.

"I think he's struggling with it," White said. "But at the same time he's cheering us on. We understand the circumstances. We do wish Coach was here. But at the same time there's nothing we can do about him leaving. All we can do is play."

What now?

Wednesday afternoon, with the Hoosiers taking the day off, Dakich and McCallum hit the recruiting trail. Along with contacting new prospects, the coaches realize the importance of maintaining solid relationships with the four players who Indiana signed during the fall.

According to Rivals.com, there is a clause in the National Letter of Intent signed by Devin Ebanks and Terrell Holloway that allows them to back out of their commitment if Sampson was fired or if the school was put on a postseason ban.

Dakich's message to the players?

"We're (letting them) know that the program is on good footing right now," Dakich said. "The program has come through a hard time and it's on good footing."

Deep down, everyone knows that's not the case at least not yet.

The NCAA must still decide what penalties, if any, to impose on Indiana for the Sampson fiasco. White, a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, is a senior and freshman phenom Gordon is expected to enter the NBA Draft.

There have been rumblings that some players might opt to transfer and, of course, there is the situation regarding the next head coach.

The Bloomington Herald Times on Thursday listed 18 potential candidates to replace Sampson on a full-time basis.

Dakich obviously wants the job and could certainly enhance his chances with a Big Ten title and a berth in the Final Four. Washington State's Tony Bennett, Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, Ohio State's Thad Matta, Gonzaga's Mark Few and Xavier's Sean Miller are among the other names being mentioned.

May believes the job should go to Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Woodson, who was the leading scorer on the 1979 Indiana team that won the NIT championship.

"The last time around a member of the (Indiana) Board of Trustees had me talk to guys like Dean Smith, Coach K and Larry Brown," May said. "They all said the same thing: 'Hire one of your own. Hire within your own family. Don't go outside.'

"I relayed that message, but they hired someone else (Sampson). I'm hoping that, this time, they won't make that mistake."

Other former players such as Wayne Radford said he just wants Indiana to hire the "best available" coach, regardless of his school affiliation.

Radford also said he hopes the criticism of Greenspan will cease and that fans will get behind Indiana's athletic director as he prepares to make this important hire.

"There's nothing wrong with giving an individual a second chance in life," said Radford, a member of the 1976 national title team. "This time it just didn't work out. Indiana is going to have to take a step back and say, 'Let's reunite and make sure the same situation never occurs again.'

"Indiana just experiencing that little speed bump in the road. We're going through this little dysfunctional period as a family. We're resilient. We'll bounce back."

Rivals Radio: Jason King of Yahoo! Sports joins Bill King to talk Indiana hoops

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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