EVEN THE most able-bodied athletes can only withstand so much. So Indiana senior forward D.J. White lay motionless on the floor of the Hoosiers' locker room last Saturday night while the saline contents of two IV bags revived him from an acute case of dehydration and exhaustion. White had played in tougher games than Indiana's 85--82 win at Northwestern, and he'd endured plenty in an often difficult college career—the resignation of embattled coach Mike Davis in 2006, foot injuries that cost him all but five games of his sophomore season—but no challenge was tougher than the stress of the two-week-long miniseries Kelvin Sampson: Dead Man Walking.
This is an article from the March 3, 2008 issue
Sampson finally fell on his cellphone antenna last Friday, resigning as Indiana's latest star-crossed coach and accepting a $750,000 buyout, but what remained in Bloomington had the strangeness of classic David Lynch, Indiana-style: polarized fans, a stillborn player mutiny, an unlikely interim head coach and even calls by some amnesiacs for the return of a ghost (Bob Knight) who hasn't been seen whole since, oh, about 1993. Strangest of all: With a 23--4 record at week's end and perhaps the nation's top inside-outside duo in White and freshman guard Eric Gordon, the Hoosiers were still a genuine Final Four contender.
Sampson's fortnightlong endgame was somehow Chinese water torture; slow and yet remarkably hasty for anyone with a soft spot for due process. On Feb. 8, Indiana received a letter from the NCAA detailing allegations of five major violations committed by Sampson and his staff involving improper phone calls to recruits. That was the same offense that got Sampson in trouble in his previous job, at Oklahoma, which was hit with major violations in May 2006, about two months after Sampson was hired in Bloomington. When Indiana self-reported the infractions last fall, athletic director Rick Greenspan hoped they would be considered secondary, but the NCAA labeled them major, not least because it contended that Sampson repeatedly lied to its gumshoes.
Although Sampson denied that charge, his days were numbered from the moment the allegations were made public on Feb. 13. Some had questioned his hiring, knowing he faced sanctions at the time, so Indiana had to act before Sampson could present his defense at an NCAA hearing in June. On Feb. 15, Indiana president Michael McRobbie announced the school would take no longer than one week to conduct another probe—which amounted to little more than finding a way to send Sampson packing without risking a wrongful-termination lawsuit.
The matter was complicated, though, by the last-minute threat of a player mutiny. A source close to the team told SI that when Greenspan met with the players last Thursday night to inform them of Sampson's likely departure, they had a unified message: "If Sampson isn't our coach, we'll quit." Led by White, the mutineers softened their stance, indicating a willingness to play if Ray McCallum, Sampson's top assistant, won the interim job instead of No. 3 assistant Dan Dakich. That didn't fly either, but after White and five other players skipped Dakich's first practice, everyone was onboard the flight to Chicago on Saturday morning.
A former Hoosiers player who guarded Michael Jordan during Indiana's upset of North Carolina in the 1984 NCAA tournament, Dakich, 45, assisted Knight at Indiana for 12 years and spent 10 seasons coaching Bowling Green before joining Sampson's staff in June. "This is not the way you want to get a job," Dakich admits, but now he has a golden opportunity. If the Hoosiers reach the Final Four, Dakich could lock down what's still one of the nation's top five coaching jobs.
But what happens then? Gordon, a likely NBA lottery pick, isn't expected back, and the NCAA may still level stiff sanctions against the Hoosiers. Whoever coaches in Bloomington next season will face an enormous rebuilding task, one that can't be complicated by self-inflicted wounds. That's another way of saying to Indiana officials: If Dakich isn't the man, you're better off hiring someone who doesn't have any issues with the NCAA. But you already knew that, right?