- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
We call them comeback kids and laud their tenacity. We say they've learned from their mistakes or paid their dues. We admire their pluck, their resiliency, and sometimes, their very survival instincts.
And we, as fans, are nothing if not forgiving. Give us your suspended, your arrested, your shamed, your ridiculed and we will offer them a path to resurrection.
Michael Vick. Rick Pitino. Alex Rodriguez. There is a veritable Mount Rushmore of otherwise successful people who, in other worlds, might have self-inflicted themselves out of work but in ours return for more glory.
Yet even in sports, the land of second chances and do-overs, rebirth comes rarely for assistant coaches tagged with NCAA sanctions. Sometimes the fall guys, sometimes the bad guys, they typically are left flailing in the wind, their aborted careers the collateral damage of bad timing or bad decisions.
Abar Rouse, the man who brought down Dave Bliss, is still out of basketball. Bliss, though suspended in November amid allegations that he allowed two athletes to receive reduced tuition, is a dean of students, athletic director and coach at a private school in Texas. Former UConn assistant Patrick Sellers spent the past season in China while Jim Calhoun won a national championship.
Which is why, when Kent State presented Rob Senderoff with a contract to become the university's next head basketball coach, Senderoff employed the easiest of negotiating ploys.
"I said, 'Where's the pen?''' Senderoff said.
There once was a time when this man wondered if he'd so much as get an olive branch, let alone a head-coaching job. Four years ago, he was swept into the tornado that was Kelvin Sampson's tenure at Indiana. An assistant at IU for three years, Senderoff was implicated in the NCAA investigation and found to have made many of the 111 impermissible phone calls to recruits, as well as the three-way calls to Sampson himself.
He resigned in 2007, his name muddied and his reputation sullied.
The olive branch came first. Before joining Sampson at Indiana, Senderoff spent five years at Kent State and when the NCAA whammy hit, it was Kent State and then-athletic director Laing Kennedy who made the bold decision to rehire him as an assistant even before the NCAA announced its findings.
Kennedy went the next -- and unprecedented -- step months later when he appeared before the Committee on Infractions, speaking on Senderoff's behalf. When the COI nonetheless hit Senderoff with hefty penalties, including recruiting restrictions and a 30-month show cause, Kennedy stood by his hire.
So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that the administration had such faith and trust to elevate Senderoff to head coach when Geno Ford left for Bradley last month.
Except for this: Laing Kennedy retired on June 30.
Joel Nielsen, only on the job for nine months, made the hire.
Initially he tabbed Senderoff as the interim coach, but after a round of interviews, handed him over the keys permanently.
"When I first took the job, we went through all of our personnel and when we got to Rob, of course there were questions and red flags right away,'' Nielsen said. "But then I brought in our compliance people. I talked to Laing Kennedy. I talked to Geno and it got to the point where I got really comfortable with him. If I were hiring him from somewhere else, maybe it would have been difficult, but because I've gotten to know Rob and know who he is, this wasn't hard. I didn't feel like I was sticking my neck out at all.''
There is no doubt that it took guts for Nielsen, who in less than a year already has had to name a new football and basketball coach, to go out on a limb. Kent State is not some middling mid-major where an athletic director can afford a throwaway hire. Since 1998, the Golden Flashes have enjoyed 12 20-win seasons. Only Kansas, Duke, Syracuse and Florida have totaled more in that time frame.
Long before George Mason, Butler and VCU owned the spotlight, it was Kent State setting college basketball on its ear, winding its way to the 2002 Elite Eight.
"This was a very critical hire,'' Nielsen said. "This hasn't been a good program. It's been a great program, so it was extremely important to have the right person. This program is not broken.''
But it helped that even if Nielsen himself didn't know Senderoff well, others did. As an assistant under Jim Christian for five years and another three with Ford, Senderoff had built up equity on campus. People knew who he was, and more importantly, who he wasn't.
If I were hiring him from somewhere else, maybe it would have been difficult, but because I've gotten to know Rob and know who he is, this wasn't hard. I didn't feel like I was sticking my neck out at all.
”-- Kent State AD Joel Nielsen
As much as elevating Senderoff says about Nielsen's courage, that the decision was met with hardly a ripple of a reaction says even more about Senderoff's character.
An assistant for 15 years, he has plenty of friends and few enemies in a business that is often the other way around. And in all of those years prior to his tenure at Indiana, Senderoff had nary a blemish on his résumé.
He is the first now to admit that the blame is all his, that he paid the price and his family suffered the pain because of his decisions.
"For a while there, because of what I did, the choices I made, we all paid a big price,'' Senderoff said. "I can't change that. It's part of who I am, but I also know that's not the real fabric of who I am."
Senderoff is hoping now his narrative will start a new chapter. His NCAA sanctions are over on May 25, officially closing the book on his tumultuous tenure at IU. And there is plenty else to talk about at Kent State.
The Golden Flashes are, as Nielsen said, far from broken. KSU won 25 games this past season, going a league-best 12-4 in the MAC and winding its way to the NIT quarterfinals before losing to Colorado. And Senderoff welcomes back a team that will include five of his top six scorers.
"Nope, no mulligans,'' Senderoff said. "But I think wherever you coach, you want to have a chance to win. I do think, though, that looking at our league, it's the strongest it's been in a long time. Not by any stretch is it a given that we can win 20 games again, so that's a challenge. But shoot, it's a good challenge.''
And for a man who wondered if he'd ever get a second chance, any challenge is a good challenge.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
8dESPN The Magazine