TOM CREAN'S BIG RED CHALLENGE

Taking over a program that imploded under Kelvin Sampson, the sanguine new coach sends a message of hope and patience (heavy on the patience) to frustrated Hoosiers faithful
November 03, 2008

They'd come fromthe cities, and they'd come from the smaller towns. Old-timers and recentalums. Forwards and guards. Former players and former coaches. More than 180 inall, they converged on a resort during the last week in August. The event wasdescribed on the invitation as an Indiana Hoosiers "basketballreunion," a social gathering of men who had worn the cream-and-crimsonjersey and those trademark candy-cane warmups. But, really, it was somethingdeeper. A summit, perhaps, or a council meeting to address the crisis facingthe tribe. "Most of all," says Bobby (Slick) Leonard, an All-Americaguard at Indiana in the 1950s, "it was the first step in healing, making itone big, happy family again." ¶ There had been more than 10 yearsof dysfunction for the Indiana basketball clan. It began near the end of the29-year reign of Bob Knight, the polarizing paterfamilias who wasunceremoniously exiled in September 2000. Knight's successor, his formerassistant Mike Davis, was by most accounts a nice and decent guy who took theHoosiers to the NCAA championship game in his second season. But inadequatelywoven into the Indiana basketball tapestry--in part because he was neither aMidwesterner nor a former Hoosier--Davis never won over the faithful, his teamsmissed the tournament two years in a row, and he resigned in 2006 after sixseasons. Then came Kelvin Sampson, from under a cloud of recruiting violationsat Oklahoma. In two seasons in Bloomington he won plenty of basketball games,but by the time he resigned under pressure last February, the program was intatters. The NCAA's hounds were at the door, and a mass exodus of players hadleft Hoosier Nation steeling for what might well be the least successful seasonin the program's rich history. Indiana had become college basketball'sequivalent of Lehman Brothers, a proud institution rocked to its core by greed,outsized ambition and bad management.

So from Tom Motter(Indiana class of 1941) to D.J. White (class of 2008), the elders showed up atthe West Baden Springs Hotel in French Lick, Ind., the week before Labor Day.They played golf and ate barbecue and talked, mostly about how the programwould recover its good name. Eventually the latest tribal leader, the newcoach, Tom Crean, stood before the audience and gave a variation of the speechhe's delivered countless times during the past six months. "We're going tobuild this back up, and we're going to do it in a way that will make peopleproud," he intoned in a thick Midwestern accent. "This isIndiana."

The story ofIndiana basketball has the ring of a classical epic--flush with hubris, power,dishonor, revenge, sin and hope--but it's also a contemporary morality tale,illustrating the landscape of big-time college athletics and the fate that canbefall an entire university at the hands of the ethically challenged.

It was spring 2006when Kelvin Sampson set foot on the IU campus. The school was in the market fora new basketball coach to replace Davis, and while Sampson was reportedly noton the short list of candidates, his agent helped insinuate him into the searchprocess. He had been the coach at Oklahoma since 1994 and had had remarkablesuccess at that football-crazed school, averaging 23 wins a season. But he'dalso run into trouble. His teams' graduation rates were consistentlyabysmal--Oklahoma ranked 269th out of 317 Division I schools during the periodfrom 1995-96 through '98-99, the years the NCAA's Graduation Success Rate (GSR)data were first collected. And over a period of four years, Sampson and hisstaff made a total of 500-plus impermissible phone calls to 17 recruits; NCAApenalties were forthcoming.

Sampson, however,received a warm welcome during his campus visit at Indiana. (Full disclosure:The university employed my parents for many years.) Sources familiar with thesituation say that Sampson was able to line up an audience with Indiana'spresident at the time, Adam Herbert. A charismatic figure of Native Americanheritage--he was born into the Lumbee tribe--Sampson impressed Herbert. Sourcessay that Herbert also looked favorably on the prospect of hiring a minority toreplace Davis, who'd been the first African-American head coach in theuniversity's history. (Herbert declined to respond to a series of e-mailedquestions.) Sampson was offered the job on March 29, 2006, under thesanctions that had been applied at Oklahoma. (For example, his salary remainedfrozen at $1.1 million per year.)

If Indiana was nolonger the force that had won three NCAA titles under Knight, there was comfortin this: The school played by the rules. It wasn't just that Indiana had notbeen cited for a major NCAA violation since 1960. For all their differences,neither Knight nor Davis went in for those well-known shortcuts--e.g., offeringa recruit's summer coach a salaried position; offering a scholarship to themarginally talented friend of a star player--so common elsewhere in collegebasketball. "There was pride in doing it the right way when few otherswere," says Angelo Pizzo, a Bloomington resident who wrote the screenplayfor Hoosiers. "It was like, Indiana might lose a few games, but it won'tlose its soul."

Within two monthsafter Sampson signed on with Indiana, the NCAA barred him from recruiting offcampus and from making phone calls to recruits for one year.

Given Sampson'shistory, his hiring was met with skepticism in some corners. Ted Kitchel, anAll-America forward at Indiana in 1981-82 and '82-83, memorably commented toThe Indianapolis Star that he thought Sampson's hiring was a "disgrace"and he "wouldn't hire that guy to coach my [daughter's] fifth-gradeteam." Kent Benson, the center on the Hoosiers' 1976 national championshipteam, turned in his IU season tickets in protest. Davis predicted to Starcolumnist Bob Kravitz that Sampson would have Indiana in hot water within threeyears.

The new coach,though, worked fast to ingratiate himself. After promising that he would followNCAA rules, Sampson, a former president of the National Association ofBasketball Coaches, pressed the flesh and spoke of the program's"pride" and "tradition." Indiana went a respectable 21-11 inhis first season. By all accounts, players attended class. All three seniorsgraduated. The basketball team received a community service award from theathletic department.

Sampson alsolanded Eric Gordon, a sensationally talented guard from Indianapolis. Thatentailed the dubious practice of recruiting Gordon after the player had made anoral commitment to Illinois. In the process Sampson hired Jeff Meyer, a friendof the player's family who had coached Gordon's father, Eric Sr., in college.(According to Sampson, Meyer was "on the radar" before he learned ofthe family connection.) Sampson also recruited some players who, unlike theclean-cut Gordon, were of questionable character and academic preparedness, thesort of high-risk kids unlikely to have been pursued during the Knight andDavis regimes. On the Peegs.com message board, a popular Indiana hoops website,and at barbershops and diners around the state, the prevailing sentiment wasthe same: Maybe this is what it takes nowadays to compete with the big boys. Asone fan who had written to the Star's editorial page succinctly put it:"Graduation rates don't win basketball games."

The first gust oftrouble last season came in early October, right before Midnight Madness. Asthe fan base prepared for the first glimpse of a team many expected to win theBig Ten title, the IU athletic department was scrambling. A student intern inthe compliance office had been riffling through paperwork when he discoveredrecords of impermissible three-way phone calls involving basketball recruits,an assistant coach and a cellphone issued to Sampson. On the continuum of NCAArules violations this was hardly a felony. Except that it was virtually theidentical infraction for which Sampson had been punished while at Oklahoma.

Following thefamiliar dance steps in advance of an NCAA investigation, Indiana first made afall guy out of Rob Senderoff, the assistant coach who had participated in thecalls. Senderoff--who, ironically, had been recommended to Sampson by theirmutual friend Tom Crean--resigned last Oct. 30 at the university's request. Theschool hired an Indianapolis law firm to conduct an independent investigationof the phone records. In hopes of mitigating a likely NCAA sanction and havingthe violations characterized as secondary rather than major, IU then took thepreemptive step of forfeiting a basketball scholarship for the 2008-09 season.Sampson was deprived of a $500,000 raise but remained on the job.

There was someoutrage and embarrassment in Hoosier Nation, but it was outstripped byoptimism. For the first time in years, the team appeared capable of reachingthe Final Four, a destination that had eluded the Hoosiers all but once since1993. And if there was cultural pressure to win, there was intense financialurgency as well. A successful season in hoops would also have a pronouncedeffect on recruiting, alumni contributions and even undergraduateapplications.

As the seasonprogressed, Sampsongate deepened. After interviewing Sampson following thediscovery of his impermissible calls at Oklahoma, LuAnn Humphrey, the NCAA'sassociate director of enforcement, had been so impressed with his candor thatshe wrote him a personal note. "Your honesty has renewed my faith in thestate of college basketball," she said. "You truly are a rolemodel." Three years later there was no such commendation. The NCAA gumshoesaccused Sampson of providing false and misleading information. They deemed hisalibi--essentially that he didn't realize he was being patched into theimpermissible three-way calls, as he seldom checked his caller ID--to besomething less than credible. (Sampson stands by his defense and denies lyingto investigators.)

There were othersigns that the program was coming apart. Reserve forward DeAndre Thomas wasarrested for driving without a valid license and paid a fine. Guards JordanCrawford and Armon Bassett and forward Jamarcus Ellis were each suspended bythe program for undisclosed reasons. Multiple sources close to the team assertthat marijuana use was common among a group of players, some of whom were madeto take part in a drug counseling program set up by the athletic department.Despite a wealth of academic support, the team's collective grade-point averageplummeted from 2.89 in the fall semester to 2.13 in the spring, when playerswere cutting classes.

According to EricGordon Sr., his son "didn't get involved in the smoking andpartying" and, as a result, felt alienated from some of his teammates.Likewise senior co-captain D.J. White rarely spent time around his fellowplayers away from the court. "The kids weren't on the same page," saysGordon Sr. "They didn't have similar backgrounds or experiences orgoals, and basically all hell broke loose."

Sampson vigorouslydenies that the program had spun out of control. "Did we have some issuesand problems?" he says. "You're not going to deal with a group of kidsof a certain age and not have some issues."

Last FEB. 8,Indiana received a letter from the NCAA, which is headquartered 50 miles up theroad in Indianapolis and--as if this story needs another layer of irony--led byMyles Brand, the Indiana president who had ordered Knight's firing. The NCAAoutlined five major violations committed by Sampson and his staff. The NCAA didnot take kindly to Sampson's alleged fabrications to the investigators nor tohis status as a repeat offender.

When Indiana's newpresident, Michael McRobbie, replaced Herbert in July 2007, he articulated anambitious and wide-ranging agenda that included improving research funds,upgrading facilities and developing the school as a leader in the lifesciences. But now, McRobbie, an Australian with a background in artificialintelligence, was devoting untold hours to the fallout of a basketball coach'simproper phone calls to 17-year-old recruits. "I fully understand the roleathletics play--an enormous role--in the institution historically and as a wayto engage alumni and provide opportunities for highly talented and qualifiedstudent-athletes," says McRobbie. "But we must never forget the wordstudent is the key word there."

On Feb. 22 thedivorce became official. Sampson walked off with a $750,000 buyout afteragreeing that he would not sue the university for wrongful termination."Mistakes were made, and I accept responsibility," says Sampson, now anassistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks. "But a lot of things I've beenaccused of have been wrong and taken out of context."

The Hoosiers, 22-4at the time, needed an interim coach. Most of the players lobbied athleticdirector Rick Greenspan for assistant Ray McCallum because they were closest tohim. But Greenspan selected another Hoosiers assistant, Dan Dakich, a former IUplayer and Knight disciple best known for shutting down Michael Jordan inIndiana's upset of North Carolina in the 1984 NCAA East Regional, Jordan'sfinal college game. When McCallum didn't get the job, all but five playersboycotted Dakich's first practice. Though the mutiny was scotched, the team,overwhelmed by the turmoil and feeling betrayed by the administration, lostfour of its last five games. Dakich demanded that the players attend class, andif they arrived late for practice, he ran them until they nearly puked. WhenEllis and Bassett refused to run theirs, he booted them from the program. Theseason that had started with so much promise ended with a first-round loss toArkansas in the NCAA tournament.

Given therebellion, it was clear that Dakich could not become the permanent coach. Butin the postgame press conference after the NCAA loss, Dakich delivered amanifesto. Indiana basketball needed to be reconfigured, he said, "with afoundation of discipline and accountability. This needs to be built back towhere there is real pride among the people that know everything that's going onin the basketball program; where . . . former players come and have pride inwhat is happening here in the program."

Tom Crean took thecall on a Sunday night in March, right after the Elite Eight games in the 2008NCAA tournament had been played. He had been the Marquette basketball coach fornine years, during which he had gone to the NCAAs five times and advanced asfar as the Final Four. Crean reckoned he was "in an ideal situation."He had a long-term contract. He and his family liked Milwaukee. He was at asufficiently prominent school to lure NBA-caliber recruits such as Dwyane Wade,but one sufficiently small that he didn't have to deal with the pressures anddistractions besetting the program at Big State U.

But the caller wasthe former college coach Eddie Fogler, and his questions intrigued Crean.Fogler was representing Indiana and wanted to gauge Crean's interest in theHoosiers job. By his own account Crean had never been much of a player, even athis small-town Michigan high school. Crean, though, had fallen hard for thegame and worked his way up in coaching, starting as a high school assistantwhile he was still a student at Central Michigan in 1989. Six years later hewas an assistant for Tom Izzo at Michigan State, and four years after that, at33, he became the coach at Marquette. In 2004 he served as an assistant on theunder-21 USA national team, coached by Sampson. "I had Indiana at thehighest level of basketball program," says Crean. "Who didn't? This wasa program beyond reproach that won NCAA titles. Coaching Indiana . . . how doyou not take that challenge?"

Two days afterFogler's call, Crean was on campus in Bloomington. Soon he was discussing thejob with his brothers-in-law, Jim and John Harbaugh--coaches of the Stanfordand Baltimore Ravens football teams, respectively--who knew something aboutrebuilding programs. Later that week Crean was introduced as the Hoosiers' newcoach.

While Creanacknowledges that the process "moved fast, real fast," he insists thathe did due diligence and knew what he was getting himself into. "If youwere in college basketball, you had some strong ideas that there was some workto be done [at Indiana]," he says, slowing to choose his words carefully."Not just because of what happened with the previous coach, but [by]looking at suspensions--this guy missed three games, that guy missed threegames. Word gets around fast, no doubt."

Still, there was aconsiderable gap between Crean's expectations and the reality of the mess hewas inheriting. The job wasn't going to require a broom and dustpan; it wasgoing to require industrial cleanser. This was laid bare during his first fullweek of work when, Crean says, he showed up at an academic progress meeting andlearned that team members were carrying a total of 19 F's. "We tried to getthose grades up," he says of making sure players attended class. "But19 F's?"

Gordon, asexpected, announced his decision to enter the 2008 NBA draft. A few weeks laterCrean and his wife, Joani, met with freshman center Eli Holman in thebasketball office to discuss Holman's future. A Sampson recruit, Holman hadbeen suspended for a season in high school for shoving a ref; his short tempersurfaced in Crean's office. At one point, according to Crean, Holman became soanimated that he grabbed a potted plant and threw it against the wall,triggering a call to campus police. No one was hurt and Holman wasn't arrested,but it was clear he was not coming back to play for Crean.

Sampson believesthat his former players were "thick as thieves" and that a "packmentality" took hold. Besides, he says, "I think anytime a coachleaves, there are going to be transfers." Crean contends that as he wastrying to persuade players to stay, others were undermining his effort. Intotal six scholarship players have left for schools ranging from Xavier toRobert Morris College in Chicago; Holman transferred to tiny Detroit Mercy,where McCallum, the popular assistant under Sampson, had just been named coach."It's not like the players didn't have help deciding to leave," saysCrean, choosing his words with painful precision. "There was orchestrationand things of that nature."

Asked aboutSampson specifically, Crean says only, "We had a great relationship. But onthe record I choose not to talk about it anymore." Sampson says of Crean,"I have a lot of respect for Tom. He is an excellent coach and was anexcellent choice."

And for Crean, thehits kept coming. Two top recruits landed by Sampson, Devin Ebanks and TerrellHolloway, opted out of their letters of intent. In anticipation of a dreadfulAcademic Progress Rate (APR) score--a semester-to-semester metric that, unlikethe GSR, penalizes programs when players leave school early--the basketballprogram punished itself preemptively again in July, giving up two morescholarships for the 2008-09 season. After a May hearing in Seattle, the NCAAdowngraded one of the five major charges to a secondary violation but allegedanother major infraction against Indiana, the dreaded "failure tomonitor" charge. Then on June 26, Greenspan, the embattled AD, announcedhis resignation effective Dec. 31.

The NCAA verdicton all charges is expected in mid-November. But for Crean, the more pressingconcern is fielding a competitive team. The leading returning scorer for theHoosiers, a national-title contender last season? Former walk-on Kyle Taber, asenior forward who averaged 1.3 points in 2007-08, and he is coming off kneesurgery and won't be available until mid-November. The other starters? A mix ofmore walk-ons, freshmen and junior college transfers such as Tijan Jobe, a7-footer who averaged 4.0 points and 4.0 rebounds for Olney (Ill.) CentralCollege last season.

When Illinoiscoach Bruce Weber, perhaps still smarting from Sampson's ethically questionablerecruitment of Eric Gordon, predicted in June that "Indiana will suck"this season, surely he could have chosen more delicate words. But few woulddisagree with the sentiment. As Crean warned his players, "The perception:You're probably going to be picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten. Thereality: [At least] you're going to make it big on television."

Crean balancesMidwest pragmatism with heaps of optimism. Here's a man who doesn't see theglass as half full. He sees it as overflowing. With Dom Pérignon. From 1975.The challenges, he says, have only hardened his resolve "to see thisthrough." He is "pumped up" by the reception he's received fromfans. The hard times that await? "I didn't take this job for theimmediate--and I've had to remind myself of that at least eight dozentimes--for where it's at now. I took this for where it's been and where it canpossibly go."

Like a man on acrusade--which, in a sense he is--Crean has threaded his way across the stateof Indiana, bringing his message of hope (and patience) to Hoosiers fans inFort Wayne and Indianapolis and Evansville. He has appeared in ads for theBloomington Animal Shelter, raised money for the Bloomington Children's Museum,risked carpel tunnel syndrome from signing so many autographs. In an effort torepair charred bridges, he has made overtures to Bob Knight, making it clearKnight would be welcomed back into the program. (Knight has not yet respondeddirectly.) "Coach Crean's already done a lot to make Indiana basketballfeel like something special again," says Kitchel, the IU All-America."The past now seems further past than it was."

The message isclearly spreading. As dreadful as the Hoosiers are likely to be this season,Crean has lined up one of the nation's top five recruiting classes for 2009.Among the six committed high school players are Jordan Hulls, a point guardfrom Bloomington, and Christian Watford, a highly touted small forward fromBirmingham. The Hoosiers will also gain guard Jeremiah Rivers, son of Celticscoach Doc Rivers, a transfer from Georgetown.

Crean appearswilling to split the difference between the outdated rectitude of Knight andthe recklessness of Sampson. In a sign-of-the-times personnel move, Crean hiredRoshown McLeod as an assistant coach in August. A former standout at Duke andan NBA player, McLeod had been an influential and well-connected figure in AAUcircles. McLeod played high school basketball at St. Anthony's, the New Jerseypowerhouse and current school of guard Dominic Cheek, one of the country's tophigh school seniors. As recently as June, Cheek hadn't considered Indiana atall; now it's suddenly on his short list of schools. "[McLeod] came highlyrecommended by coaches I respect like Mike Krzyzewski and Lenny Wilkens,"says Crean. "He played at a high level and can work with our wings and bigmen."

While Crean hasyet to coach his first game at Indiana, in August he was rewarded with atwo-year contract extension, a tacit acknowledgement that a) the job hadmutated into something other than the one he'd agreed to; and b) his brave facehas been noticed and appreciated by his superiors. He will earn a total of$23.6 million over the next 10 years (compared with $18 millionover eight in the original deal). Burned the last time around, Indiana includedin the contract a provision permitting the school to fire Crean if he or hisstaff commits an NCAA infraction.

That, Crean says,is fine by him. Sitting in his office in Assembly Hall, in front of a placardreading climbing is easier than hanging on, the new coach points to a wallcovered with glossy photos of various Indiana All-Americas. The challenge mightbe daunting, he says, but the goal is simple: build the program back to whereit was, then sustain it in a way that doesn't discredit the tradition. Putanother way, while it might be in slightly used condition, the soul of Indianabasketball is not for sale.

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Luke Winn checks in from Bloomington with a completescouting report on this year's Indiana team.

SI.COM/INDIANAHOOPS

Indiana had become basketball's equivalent of LehmanBrothers, a proud institution ROCKED TO ITS CORE by greed, ambition and badmanagement.

If Indiana was no longer the force that had won THREENCAA TITLES under Knight, there was comfort in this: The school played by therules.

"Crean's already done a lot to make Indianabasketball feel like SOMETHING SPECIAL again," says Kitchel. "The pastseems further past than it was."

Crean doesn't see the glass as half full. He sees it asoverflowing. WITH DOM PÉRIGNON. From 1975

PHOTODavid E. Klutho Stripes,NO STARS
Crean inherited a mix of walk-ons, junior college transfers and freshmen--butno returning starters.
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (DAVIS) CleanSlate
Crean (watching Broderick Lewis dunk at Midnight Madness) has to succeed inways that Davis (below, right) and Sampson (with Dakich, in jacket)failed.
PHOTODavid E. Klutho[See Caption Above.] PHOTODavid E. Klutho PHOTOJERRY COOKE UnhappyAlum
Benson (54), the center on IU's 1976 championship team, gave up his tickets inprotest of Sampson's hiring.
PHOTODavid E. Klutho ThreeCheers
Crean conducted his first official practice at Indiana in front of 8,000 fansand two dozen former players.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)