Sampson hire won't quiet critics immediately

Updated: March 29, 2006, 12:49 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

For the next few years, the temperature is going to be 1,000 degrees Kelvin under the chair of Indiana athletic director Rick Greenspan.

Kelvin Sampson
APKelvin Sampson celebrated with Hollis Price on a Final Four trip in 2002.

With the hiring of Kelvin Sampson, Greenspan's seat is suddenly as hot as any athletic director's in America (Mike Alden excluded). A slow, secretive search for the next basketball coach at Indiana has not produced an instant unifier for a badly fractured fan base.

The six-year struggle for the soul of Indiana basketball will continue until Sampson proves to be the great healer or fails to get it done. We won't know the definitive answer for years, and that's important to keep in mind. Sampson certainly deserves the clean start Mike Davis never got.

But if the message boards and talk radio in the area are any indication of the immediate impact, there was no dancing in the Hoosier streets Wednesday.

"Kelvin Sampson is Mike Davis 2.0," read the subject line of a post on one message board. Many other angry posts reportedly were deleted.

Initial disappointment could easily change, of course. Sampson could be successful, perhaps tremendously successful. But until that happens, Greenspan has stuck his neck out from Bloomington to Norman. We'll see whether an outraged member of Hoosier Nation drives over it with his John Deere.

Greenspan turned his back on the Indiana "family," which is not necessarily a bad thing. If the "family" didn't produce a good enough candidate -- and, with apologies to Steve Alford and Randy Wittman, it didn't -- then going outside Bob Knight's sphere of influence was both brave and prudent.

The easy hire would have been a quick coronation of Alford, but his work at Iowa did not merit it. Greenspan could have turned to Wittman, but he'd never recruited a player or spent a minute as a college coach. He could have offered the job to Isiah Thomas, but only the Knicks are crazy enough to want him in charge.

So Greenspan accepted the pressure from an insular fan base and widened his search. The sobering news for Indiana is that, even with a mid-February start on the hiring process, high-caliber coaches did not come sprinting from coast to coast for the job.

The five NCAA Tournament championship banners in Assembly Hall outnumber the banners in Cameron Indoor Stadium and in the Dean Smith Center, but let's face it: Nobody today looks at Indiana the way they do Duke and North Carolina. Not recruits like Josh McRoberts and Sean May, native Hoosiers who left for Tobacco Road. Not coaches like Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan, John Calipari and Mark Few.

Indiana isn't as attractive as it wants, believes or expects itself to be. That's why you end up with Kelvin Sampson -- certainly not a choice that spurs rejoicing today from Gary to Vevay.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked to one coach who, in theory, should jump at the chance to go to Bloomington. To my surprise, he said he never even picked up the phone when the headhunter called on IU's behalf.

"That's not a great job right now," the coach said.

So it is that Indiana hires a coach with as many demerits as merits.

Merit: Sampson went to the NCAA Tournament 10 straight seasons, from 1994-2003, the first at Washington State and then nine at Oklahoma. And that's at two schools with middling basketball heritage.

Demerit: Sampson has a career 11-12 record in the NCAAs, marked by eight losses to lower-seeded teams. His best team went to the 2002 Final Four -- whereupon it was soundly beaten by fifth-seeded Indiana, coached by the intolerable Mike Davis. He's won as many NCAA Tournament games the past three years (one) as Davis, who by acclamation had driven IU into the ground during that time. And there was no more obvious first-round upset pick this year than No. 11 Wisconsin-Milwaukee over No. 6 Oklahoma.

Merit: Viewing him beyond the occasionally distorted prism of NCAA Tournament basketball, Sampson has been a resolutely consistent winner. He just completed his ninth straight 20-win season and his teams finished the season in 2002 and 2003 ranked in the AP top five. Indiana hasn't been there in a long time.

Demerit: Indiana hasn't been in trouble with the NCAA in an even longer time, and Sampson is leaving a little mess behind in Norman. Oklahoma has self-reported violations by the basketball staff for improper phone calls to 17 recruits and other infractions. The school placed itself on two years' probation, reduced scholarships, curtailed recruiting and froze coaches' salaries -- but still hasn't heard whether that will suffice with the NCAA. A meeting with the committee on infractions is expected in April. It's not out of the question that some sanctions could follow Sampson to IU.

On top of that, Oklahoma's performance in the Academic Performance Rate isn't much to celebrate either. And Indiana traditionally has been a stand-up academic school.

Merit: Sampson's standing in the coaching ranks is golden. He's been an active and respected member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, has worked tirelessly for USA Basketball with national teams and has a legion of supporters among his peers.

Demerit: That's great, but Sampson must be in charge of coaching defense with those international teams, not offense. His Sooners teams often have been painful to watch. They ranked 158th in scoring offense this year, 51 spots behind the Hoosiers. (Sampson's style of slogball should at least fit in with the stolid Big Ten.)

Merit: Sampson is a smart, mature guy who will handle the crucible that is the Indiana coaching position with significantly more aplomb than the emotional, easily wounded Davis.

Demerit: Like Davis, Sampson is a minority (he's a Native American; Davis is black). It should be irrelevant, but the sad truth is that Davis' tenure was complicated by race. And for a small but problematic minority of fans, that dynamic won't disappear with the naming of the new coach.

The firing of Bob Knight touched off Hoosier Wars I, which gave way to the six-year melodrama of Mike Davis and Hoosier Wars II. And now Greenspan might have touched off Hoosier Wars III with his hiring of Kelvin Sampson.

The two of them will rise or fall together.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.