In hiring Kelvin Sampson to coach men's basketball this spring, officials at Indiana University said forcefully that they were confident that Sampson would keep intact the university's record of having had no major violations of National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. Technically, that is still true. But as of Thursday, Indiana can no longer say that its men's basketball coaches have never broken major rules.
The NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions announced Thursday that it had placed the University of Oklahoma's men's basketball program on two years' probation for hundreds of impermissible telephone calls that its former coaching staff made to recruits to try to woo them to the institution. The chief violator, according to the NCAA, was Sampson, who made 233 of the 577 improper calls, and did so, the panel notes with some irony, while he headed the National Association of Basketball Coaches and led a summit at which the coaches' group sought to restore the primacy of ethics to the profession.
Sampson fostered an environment of "deliberate noncompliance" among his assistants, the infractions panel said, and he did so, said Thomas E. Yeager, the committee's chairman, because he and his fellow coaches viewed the telephone calls -- which were made both excessively and outside the seasonal boundaries that the NCAA imposes to try to limit the pressure on athletes -- as "unimportant" violations and far less significant than cash payments and other sorts of inducements. "The former head coach preferred to think of what he and his staff were doing as 'hard work' rather than cheating," said Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association.
But while rule breaking involving telephone calls "may not be as notorious as some" kinds of violations, Yeager said, "they are far from unimportant," and "have the same goal: securing the commitment of highly recruited student athletes." And on that score, Sampson and his fellow coaches were highly successful, as six of the 17 highly prized recruits who they badgered with phone calls over the four-year period wound up enrolling at or committing to attend Oklahoma, the infractions panel noted.
As it investigated those and other rule violations last year, Oklahoma officials imposed a set of penalties on the program and on Sampson and two assistant coaches who were also involved in the improper calls. Among other things, Oklahoma said Sampson would not receive any of his contractual bonuses for two years, which could cost him about $180,000 (his annual salary is just over $1 million). In ruling on the case Thursday, the infractions committee adopted and added to those penalties, saying that Indiana would face penalties of its own if it did not bar Sampson from making telephone calls to prospective athletes or from recruiting off-campus through next May.
In a statement Thursday, Indiana officials said they would accept all of the penalties that Oklahoma and the NCAA had imposed on Sampson.
“I.U. takes great pride in the fact that we have had no major NCAA violations in 46 years. We are fully committed to maintaining this exceptional record,” Herbert, the Indiana president, said Thursday. “From our first contact, Coach Sampson impressed me as a man of the highest integrity. He provided immediate and full disclosure concerning the NCAA violations about which the Committee on Infractions has just rendered a decision. We all learn by our mistakes and Coach Sampson is no exception in this regard."
Sampson was out of the country Thursday, but Indiana released a statement on his behalf. “I have learned an invaluable lesson, and I hope that this reinforces to other coaches the importance of every aspect of NCAA compliance.”
Of the two Sampson assistant coaches who were also involved in the improper telephone calling, one of them, Ray Lopes, was implicated last month in NCAA findings of similar violations at California State University at Fresno, where Lopes became the head coach after leaving the Oklahoma staff, and the tutelage of Sampson.