Coaches' Second Chances Often Go Sour

They say Tigers don't change their stripes. History shows that neither do Bulldogs or, now, Hoosiers -- or at least the men who coach them.

February 15, 2008

They say Tigers don't change their stripes. History shows that neither do Bulldogs or, now, Hoosiers -- or at least the men who coach them.
A day after Indiana University released a National Collegiate Athletic Association report alleging major violations in its men's basketball program, campus officials were reported to be meeting to discuss the fate of Kelvin Sampson, the Hoosier head coach. The NCAA accused him not only of making some of the improper telephone calls to recruits that are at the core of the association's charges, but also of lying to NCAA investigators about his behavior.

Sampson arguably had reason to lie, given that he was operating at Indiana under penalties that had been imposed on him after his previous employer, the University of Oklahoma, got into NCAA trouble in May 2006 for similar violations that occurred under his watch there. Indiana hired Sampson as its coach in March 2006, knowing full well at that time that he was under investigation for allegedly breaking the association's recruiting rules.

But in hiring him anyway, Indiana officials engaged in a time-honored tradition of turning their programs over to coaches who've been competitively successful, even if that success has been tarnished by broken rules. And if the latest allegations against Sampson pan out -- Indiana has already acknowledged that some of the improper telephone calls took place, although the university has several weeks to respond to the charges that the coach misled NCAA investigators -- Indiana will join the ranks of institutions where those hires resulted in NCAA trouble.


  • Several years after being hounded out of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas after several brushes with the NCAA, Jerry Tarkanian wound up being hired by his alma mater, California State University at Fresno, in 1995. Fresno's president, John D. Welty, said at the time that he had had "some sleepless nights" but expressed confidence that Tarkanian did not want to embarrass his former institution. But in 2003, a year after Tarkanian retired for good after seven years at Fresno, the NCAA placed the university on four years' probation for a series of rules violations (including academic fraud) that took place under Tarkanian's watch, requiring Fresno State to vacate the performance of its 2000 NCAA tournament appearance.
  • In 1982, Jackie Sherrill became the football coach at Texas A&M University, signing what was then the richest contract ever for a college football coach, at $1.7 million over six years (isn't that quaint now?). Six years later, he resigned just after the NCAA placed the Aggies on two years' probation for a series of recruiting violations. Three years later, Mississippi State hired Sherrill to try to resuscitate its struggling program, and he largely succeeded (some of his methods were unusual, though; he castrated a live bull in front of his players before one game as a motivational tactic, for instance). But the NCAA also punished Mississippi State twice (in 1996 and 2004) for rules violations that occurred during his 13 years there.
  • Jim Harrick built winning basketball programs at Pepperdine University and the University of California at Los Angeles, but was forced out at UCLA in 1996 after officials there concluded that he had lied to investigators looking into possible rules violations. He landed on his feet at the University of Rhode Island for three seasons, and UCLA was placed on probation for three years during that time. Harrick left Rhode Island for the higher-profile University of Georgia in 1999, and his hiring there raised a few eyebrows. In 2003, the program imploded, as Harrick's son was found to have wired money to a recruit for personal expenses, and to have taught a course (in basketball coaching) for which three players earned A's without going to class.

In those cases, as in several more recent cases in which colleges hired coaches with checkered pasts -- see Bob Huggins's hiring at Kansas State (where he stayed only a year, from 2006 to 2007) and now West Virginia University, for instance -- the institutions doing the hiring tended to have programs a little down on their luck that were willing to take a chance on a potentially big upside and hoping to minimize the risk. They usually spoke of the importance of giving people "second chances."

The same was true at Indiana. Although the Hoosier basketball program is a storied one, the team had fallen on hard times after driving Bob Knight out because of issues related to his behavior, not rule breaking. Knight's successor as coach, Mike Davis, struggled in his high-profile predecessor's wake, and Indiana hired Sampson, who had helped turn Oklahoma into a winner, despite the clouds that surrounded him.

Even the 2006 probation for Oklahoma wasn't enough to shake the confidence of Indiana officials. “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,” Adam Herbert, then president of Indiana, said at the time of the NCAA's actions against Oklahoma. “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.”

Wednesday's NCAA report alleges that Sampson did not alter his behavior, however. The coach, the NCAA charges, "acted contrary to the NCAA principles of ethical conduct when he knowingly violated recruiting restrictions imposed by the NCAA Committee on Infractions," and "failed to deport himself in accordance with the generally recognized high standard of honesty normally associated with the conduct and administration of intercollegiate athletics by providing the institution and the NCAA enforcement staff false or misleading information."

Indiana officials expressed dismay about the allegations against Sampson; "I personally and professionally am profoundly disappointed that there is even a hint of inappropriate behavior," said the athletics director who hired the coach, Rick Greenspan. But as Sampson professed his innocence on Wednesday, saying that he had "never intentionally provided false or misleading information to the NCAA," Indiana officials, as is often the case when institutions take a chance on a risky hire, still seemed to hold out hope of a happier outcome.

"I will state that these are allegations, and both [Indiana] as an institution, and the NCAA as an organization, believe in due process," Greenspan said.


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