Monday February 18th, 2008

When Indiana went outside the Hoosier family to hire Kelvin Sampson as its basketball coach two years ago, the goal was to find a leader who could dissolve the two decades of polarization that surrounded his predecessors, Bob Knight and Mike Davis. But when the word came down last week that the NCAA was accusing Sampson and his staff of five major recruiting violations -- including charges that Sampson repeatedly lied to NCAA and Indiana investigators, the news divided fans anew and turned Assembly Hall into a theater of the surreal, a Petri dish for the latest episode of the bipolar Hoosier Psychosis.

How strange was it? Although No. 15 Indiana (21-4) is a genuine Final Four contender, it appeared inevitable at week's end that Sampson would be suspended or fired by this Friday, the deadline for athletic director Rick Greenspan and two other IU officials to conclude yet another investigation ordered by school president Michael McRobbie. If the allegations were true (Sampson denied he had lied to investigators), it would be the second time in three years that Sampson has been nabbed for major violations -- he and his staff made 577 improper recruiting phone calls at Oklahoma -- and the first time for the entire Indiana athletic program since 1960.

Yet that didn't prevent Indiana's 80-61 victory over Michigan State on Saturday from turning into riveting theater, not least because the ongoing drama coincided with a nationally televised broadcast on ESPN GameDay and the looming specter of Knight, the Indiana legend who abruptly resigned from Texas Tech on Feb. 4. By the time Sampson walked onto his home court to a smattering of boos before the game, the Indiana student section was ablaze with handmade signs that ranged from derisive (Fire Sampson ASAP; the students prefer Knight) to supportive (we still love you Sampson) to somewhere in-between (if OJ's innocent so is Sampson). But then a remarkable thing happened when a time-out was called with 1:48 left and Indiana holding a 19-point lead. A few students began a chant (KEL - VIN SAMP - SON!), and despite some notable arms-folded exceptions it was soon echoing throughout the arena.

For one moment, at least, there were three cheers for a dead man walking. "I felt good for my wife. That's what I felt," said an emotionally drained Sampson, who appeared to wipe tears from his eyes and embraced Hoosiers Jamarcus Ellis and Armon Bassett as if they had won the national title.

Meanwhile, seven shirtless students spelled out the other question on everyone's minds: K - N - I - G - H - T-? Granted, Knight's return to the site of his greatest achievements would be a spectacle just about anyone would pay to see, and Knight's camp has put out the disclaimer that his resignation from Texas Tech wasn't necessarily a retirement. But it seems highly unlikely that McRobbie, a friend of former Indiana (and current NCAA) president Myles Brand -- Knight's ­arch-nemesis -- would turn back the clock and bring the General back to power.

The more probable scenario appeared to be installing assistant coach Dan Dakich as an interim head coach, with speculation for a permanent replacement centering on New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank, Xavier's Sean Miller or New Mexico's Steve Alford.

No matter what happens to Sampson, it was hardly surprising that he had refused to resign by week's end. Not only would he forego a potential payoff, but doing so would go against the way he has coached his stubborn, hard-nosed teams during a 25-year head-coaching career that began in obscurity at Montana Tech.

Indeed, the shame of Sampson's downward spiral is that he didn't need to make improper phone calls to be successful. Nobody has ever questioned his ability to coach, least of all his players. "He's the leader of our program, and we all support him and respect him," Hoosiers forward Kyle Taber said on Saturday. "We're there for Coach, and we'll always be there for Coach."

Even if, starting Friday, he may not be there for them.

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