Someone had to fill the void. The entire sport of college basketball and the NCAA Tournament wasn’t going to live in a vacuum just because Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas weren’t great.
For a while, it looked like the little guy was going to define this tournament. Loyola and Sister Jean, or Oral Roberts or whoever. The little guys are all gone now. And who was cutting down the nets Monday to advance to the Final Four?
Kelvin Sampson of all people. Kelvin Sampson returns to Indiana and cuts down the nets at the same time woeful Indiana University is naming a new coach. That’s some sense of humor the basketball gods have.
Sampson has led Houston to the Final Four, where they’ll play Baylor. Sampson, of all people, from out of the shadows, or maybe out from under a bridge or something. When it was over, I wondered who he called on his cellphone.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s this: Sampson was once known as the ultimate example of a good-guy coach, until it turned out that he wasn’t. He was the president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, helping to form an ethics committee.
And next thing you know, he left his job at the University of Oklahoma in 2006 with the NCAA already after him to become the coach at Indiana. IU was one of the sport’s bluebloods at the time, faltering a little as Bobby Knight passed his prime and got a little too handsy with one of his player’s throats.
And then it turned out that the NCAA nailed Sampson for recruiting violations when he was at Oklahoma. He and his staff had made 550 impermissible phone calls to recruits. In the post-MeToo era, that may sound like child’s play, but back then, there were limits on such things because of the sense that high school kids don’t need to be hearing from coaches day and night when they should be learning algebra or the five-paragraph essay.
I remember it well because I was writing about it at the time. Sampson released a statement admitting that he’d made a mistake, which struck me as humorous at the time.
Since when is 550 phone calls “a mistake?” It was 550 mistakes, but who’s counting?
So Sampson issued another statement saying that he hoped other coaches would learn from his mistake. Meanwhile, he had already started making impermissible phone calls to recruits at Indiana, which the NCAA would figure out later.
No matter what IU fans had been willing to put up with all those years with Knight, they always felt that at least he wasn’t breaking rules. They were a clean program with a tough, tough coach who might cross the line at times.
Just imagine how Duke will feel if, after Mike Krzyzewski retires, his replacement comes in and starts running a dirty program. At Indiana, Sampson also started recruiting superstar high school player Eric Gordon, who had given his word to the University of Illinois.
His word, as if that would have meant something to Sampson.
It turns out that even without the blue-est of bluebloods, the NCAA Tournament is still too much for the underdog. Houston is a No. 2 seed and Baylor a No. 1. Gonzaga, also a No. 1, seems unstoppable at this point. And it’s true that No. 1 Michigan still has to beat an 11 seed, but it’s hard to see UCLA, the 11, as a Cinderella team. It is just a lapsed blueblood.
Maybe this is a tournament about redemption.
So Houston is back to the Final Four for the first time since Phi Slama Jama, the legendary team from the 1980s that once included Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. They reached the Final Four three straight times, losing once to Cinderella North Carolina State in the title game and never winning a championship.
And if Michigan wins tonight over UCLA, then this could be the redemption of the legendary Fab Five team — with Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose — that also never won a championship. And those five didn’t produce many NBA championships as individuals either. Howard is now the coach. Or maybe UCLA, the dominant program from half a century ago gets there again?
I’m not sure these are heartwarming stories, but I feel pretty confident the people of Indiana don’t see Sampson as one, especially if he wins the national championship in their state, which they consider hallowed grounds of high school and college basketball.
Sampson was gone from Indiana by 2008 and hung around for a while as an NBA assistant. In 2013, the NCAA punishments on Sampson were gone and he could get back into college coaching.
So here he is, back in the Final Four for the first time since Oklahoma.
How do you take this? It depends on how you feel about second chances. Or maybe this is a 551st chance.
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