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Bad Reception the Least of Sampson’s Phone Problems at Indiana University

Kelvin Sampson has phone trouble. He puts it down due to lousy reception, but by the time NCAA investigators are finished poring over his bill, a weak signal could turn out to be the least of his problems.

When Sampson arrived in Bloomington, Ind., ahead of the 2006 season to take over one of college basketball’s most storied programs, the doubters were already lined up. He was an upgrade over Mike Davis, sure. But to hard-core Hoosier fans, Sampson, like Davis, was never going to be an “Indiana guy,” let alone Bob Knight.

Until last weekend, that didn’t always seem like a bad thing.

In 29 seasons at Indiana, Knight played fast and loose with the coaches’ code of conduct a dozen times, but never once with the NCAA rule book. On a campus that hadn’t felt the sting of major sanctions since 1960, that became a point of pride. It didn’t hurt, either, that Knight won three national championships in a state that didn’t invent basketball, but still believes that’s where it was perfected.

In just 17 months, first at the end of his tenure at Oklahoma and now at Indiana, Sampson has violated the same NCAA rule twice. He won enough last season to buy some breathing room, but squandered most of it talking on the phone. Seems Sampson can’t quit calling potential recruits, no matter how much it costs him.

“I’m not defending him,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said Tuesday. “What he did was dumb, by any stretch of the imagination. He broke the same rule, not once but twice, and he should suffer the consequences.

“But firing him? That’s nuts. If some of the people speaking anonymously about him feel that negatively, let ’em attach their names. In our business, there’s a difference between someone who breaks a rule and people who cheat who use means that make me ashamed to be a coach to get a recruit.

“I know Kelvin well enough,” Calhoun added, “to know he’s not one of those guys.”

The results of the university’s internal investigation, released Sunday, concluded the same thing. Beyond a brief summary, the details of the violations aren’t worth rehashing, since Sampson has already pleaded guilty. He and his assistants at Oklahoma made way more calls than the NCAA allows, bringing sanctions down on both the program and himself. Sampson came to Bloomington promising it wouldn’t happen again. It did.

“This was 10 calls out of 1,000, but we’re trying to get to 100 percent compliance, and if we had 10 out of 1,000, then that’s 10 too many,” he said.

Suffice it to say that’s a very charitable version of events. Sampson contends he was getting lousy reception at his home and that on some occasions when recruits couldn’t get through, they called his assistant coach, Rick Senderoff, who patched the calls through. (In the interest of full disclosure, my younger son is a senior at IU; coincidentally, he’s been complaining about the lousy reception from the beginning).

Still, the NCAA infractions committee already had Sampson on its watch list after what happened at Oklahoma, and if investigators decide his version of events is too charitable, the organization could pile more penalties on top of the ones Indiana already imposed.

The school will forfeit one scholarship for the 2008-09 season and Senderoff, who may also have violated NCAA rules with an additional three dozen calls from his home, can’t recruit off-campus or call recruits for a year. He also lost any bonus and possible salary increase for next year. Sampson, meanwhile, forfeited a $500,000 bonus for the upcoming season, marking the third time in as many years that talking on the phone has cost him a small fortune.

The dent in Sampson’s wallet, though, may wind up seeming small compared to the hit his credibility just took. He was a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and as an example, it’s hard to think of a poorer one. He’s brought in two sterling recruiting classes and has an even better one in the works. But Sampson has made some powerful enemies in the bargain. Indiana’s administration didn’t formally put him on the zero-tolerance track, but you can be certain his next violation will be his last.

And then there’s the matter of Sampson’s reputation. He was always a little too slick for some people’s tastes and rest assured he’ll be hearing even more of that now. Last season, when Indiana played at Duke as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge series, the crazies at Cameron Indoor Stadium whipped out cell phones and began chanting “Kelvin, it’s for you!”

It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with the favored taunt waiting for him at road games this season:

“Can you hear me now?”

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