Diehard IU fans give Sampson speech strong response

Updated: May 11, 2006, 1:34 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

STARLIGHT, Ind. -- The colors are correct, the letters are not. The crimson watch on Kelvin Sampson's left wrist still says OU, not IU -- a symbol of a coach's life in transition.

But if there were any lingering belief that Sampson was living on Tulsa time, it was expunged here Wednesday night. The new Indiana basketball coach knows now that he's switched states and swapped sporting psyches. He knows it for sure after getting a standing ovation from 630 fans (100 more were turned away) in a barn/banquet hall deep in the Hoosier hills.

The Louisville/Southern Indiana chapter of the Indiana Alumni Association enthusiastically welcomed Sampson to the Joe Huber Family Farm and Restaurant, just a dozen miles from the Kentucky border. And it welcomed him to bedrock basketball country.

"Bob Stoops probably walked into this type of thing all the time," said Pat Graham, a fabled former schoolboy from nearby Floyds Knobs who won the state's Mr. Basketball in 1989 and played for Bob Knight at Indiana. "I'd be very doubtful if Kelvin Sampson ever walked into 600 people on a Wednesday night [in May]. The people in this state have not forgotten what Indiana basketball used to be."

After eating fried chicken, green beans, corn and cobbler, Sampson played to those strong memories and program traditions. He said he had no plans to change the candy-striped warm-up pants or put names on the backs of the jerseys, and was met with enthusiastic applause. Then he made his pitch for the future, driving home the need for a major upgrade in facilities -- specifically, a practice facility and locker-room upgrades.

Kelvin Sampson
AP Photo/John HarrellAfter Wednesday's solid stump speech, Sampson's approval ratings should be up.

"I do not want to forget the past," he said. "I want to live in the future, though. At Indiana, we have to step up to the plate."

The collection plate, of course. Some folks looked ready to whip out their wallets on the spot.

Sampson touched all the necessary bases in an important opportunity to appeal to what political consultants call "the base." In the largely rural lower third of the state, there is no divided fan loyalty with Purdue. This is pure Hoosier country, where the rivalry with Kentucky is a holy war, where Knight pretty well walked on water and where football is a foreign object.

"The whole state cares about basketball," athletic director Rick Greenspan told the audience before he introduced Sampson. "But you people really care. I'll show you my e-mails."

The e-mails, many of which ran from tepid to caustic when Sampson surprisingly was announced as head coach five weeks ago, should be more favorable today.

When Indiana radio play-by-play man Don Fisher announced Greenspan, he made mention of his two high-profile hires: Terry Hoeppner in football and Sampson in basketball. The mention of Hoeppner drew a discernibly louder cheer.

But that was before Sampson took the microphone, and he undoubtedly helped his approval rating with his speech.

He mentioned Branch McCracken, who won national titles in 1940 and '55. He mentioned Knight, who won titles in 1976, '81 and '87. He made no mention of the man he succeeded, Mike Davis.

That's practicing selective history. That's also knowing your audience.

"We don't want any more eras of Mike Davis," one fan bluntly told Sampson.

Sampson reeled off the names of former Hoosiers who have called him and offered their support -- Damon Bailey, Scott May, Quinn Buckner, Tom Abernethy, Dan Dakich, Steve Risley, Calbert Cheaney, Ray Tolbert, Landon Turner, Jim Crews. He said he recently sat down with Steve Alford -- who badly wanted the IU job but was passed over -- and got his input.

In talking with these players, Sampson made his pitch for the one thing most glaringly lacking in Indiana basketball: unity. As Graham said, "It's been a soap opera."

Sampson knows that it's time for the remaining holdouts among the Knight-era players to get over the fact that Bobby isn't the coach anymore, and that the program now is moving forward without one of his former assistants or players in charge.

DJ White
White's return will help Sampson's first season at IU go more smoothly.

"Last time I checked, the name on the front of the jersey said Indiana," Sampson said outside, before taking the podium. "It didn't say what coach and it didn't say what year. It just said Indiana."

Of course, everyone knows that the one way to guarantee unity is through victory. Right now Sampson is new, eloquent and undefeated -- a great combination in May, but the expectations will enter a different realm come November.

The good news for Sampson is that he'll enter the season with D.J. White on his roster. The most talented Hoosier from last season's roster openly mulled joining Robert Vaden in transferring when Davis resigned. After missing almost all of 2005-06 with a broken foot, though, sitting out consecutive seasons was not an option for the sophomore forward.

But White isn't reluctantly back, Sampson said. He's enthusiastically back.

"I was confident [that White was staying] two days after I got there," Sampson said. "That was never an issue. D.J.'s just jumped in with two feet. He's been our hardest worker."

That's one key recruiting battle won. Now Sampson has to do what Davis failed to do: lock up the rich talent in the state.

With Greg Oden and Mike Conley soon to be wearing Ohio State jerseys, Dominic James playing for Marquette and Courtney Lee poised to average 20 points per game next year at Western Kentucky, Davis' slipshod in-state recruiting is obvious. That's not lost on the IU fans -- or on Greenspan, who talked about "border security" in recruiting.

"We want to keep the wrong people from coming into our state, and keep the right people in our state," Greenspan said, to loud applause.

Away from the podium, Greenspan also acknowledged the provision IU placed in Sampson's contract that would allow the school to fire the coach with no financial obligations if there are severe additional NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations at Oklahoma. Sampson and his staff made more than 500 impermissible calls from 2000-04, a mistake the coach readily has admitted making.

IU doesn't expect any additional sanctions to be placed on Sampson when the NCAA announces its final verdict on the Oklahoma case, probably sometime in June. But as Greenspan said, "I learned a long time ago not to speculate" about what the NCAA will do.

"It's what I call anticipatory administration," Greenspan said of the contract clause. "I don't think it's anything unusual. Because of his circumstances, because of the violations at Oklahoma, it's probably tweaked a little bit differently."

On the court, Indiana's approach should be tweaked a bit differently under Sampson as well. He promised the crowd what he's delivered at every stop in his coaching career: toughness, defense and competitive fire.

"His teams at Oklahoma were hard-nosed, which is the tradition at Indiana that I remember," Graham said. "I think his first game, people will go, 'That's Indiana.'

"If he wins and does well, he's going to have [a packed house at Huber's] every year."

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