Next step for Sampson

Next step for Sampson

by Chris Korman, H-T sports writer

November 5, 2006

Kelvin Sampson.
From the Nov. 5, 2006 Bloomington Herald-Times

BLOOMINGTON – History weighs heavily on all of us, but few of us are as aware of it as Kelvin Sampson.

Sampson, the man chosen to replace Mike Davis as the Indiana basketball coach, has told his story hundreds of times. His anecdotes are lively and meant to illuminate – in just the right balance – the man about to begin his first season leading one of America’s great basketball programs onto the court.

Hard work – the hallmark of his teams – he learned from his own father, a teacher and basketball coach who went by Mr. Ned. To support his family, Mr. Ned took any odd job he could find, eventually bringing young Kelvin with him to work long days in the hot fields of North Carolina during summers.

Sampson’s humility was earned through two unsuccessful trips into Jud Heathcote’s office in the fall of 1978. Heathcote was then the coach of the Michigan State Spartans, the most powerful team in college basketball thanks to its dazzling star Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Sampson was a graduate fellow who’d chosen East Lansing as the next step in his life with the intention of sneaking his way into a position with the basketball team any way he could.

On the third try, Sampson convinced Heathcote to let him hang around the team and even move up the ranks to become a junior varsity assistant.

So a career was launched.

Today, though, as Sampson, 51, walks onto the floor for the first exhibition game at what will likely be his last coaching stop, he is no longer the simple, blue-collar coach all those old stories point to.

Partly because of his own actions and partly because to coach in Bloomington one must be part rock star, part saint and, mostly, able to make kids win all the time.

He tries to stay grounded. He constantly tells his kids to remember where they came from, and speaks longingly of his failures and learning experiences at non-basketball schools Montana Tech, Washington State and Oklahoma.

But recent history – the most dangerous kind because it has yet to be rubbed smooth by time – tells its own stories and provides different lessons for Sampson.

He carried recruiting violations – he and his assistants made about 577 extra phone calls to recruits from 2000 to 2004 – and poor graduation rates with him from Oklahoma.

And he stepped into a program that had been torn apart by the lingering, twisting end to the Davis era, which was never able to separate itself from the glorious and tumultuous rein of Bob Knight.

Still, Sampson’s arrival reignited one of the most insatiable fan bases in the entire country. He has been unabashed in saying that he came to Indiana for one reason: the chance to win a national championship.

He took what many viewed as the first step toward that goal by signing highly-touted Indianapolis guard Eric Gordon.

In the process, he infuriated Bruce Weber, the Illinois coach who’d received a commitment from Gordon earlier.

That is how it’s been for Sampson. He throws a jab only to take a hook to the jaw.

Even though he is now doing what he says he loves, teaching basketball and helping to mold the young men he coaches, questions remain for Sampson.

Can he get a group of players he didn’t recruit to buy into his system of playing with full energy and an edge? Sampson has said before that his teams only fully understand his system when they are made up completely of players he has gone out and recruited. That didn’t stop him from winning 23 games his first year at Oklahoma, though.

Sampson’s current focus may be on this season but ultimately he sees himself as a program builder. That seems to be what Indiana fans want. What they want to know is whether Kelvin Sampson will add to the prestige of Indiana or buckle under the burden of trying to recreate a program that for so long has been associated with one man, Bob Knight.

Sampson declined to be photographed in front of Indiana’s five national championship banners for this story.

He explained his decision: “We’re trying to build a program right now. I want our kids to think about this year and this team. Indiana’s history is what drew me here … But for our first year, we’re just trying to establish something. I want this first year to be known for these kids giving unbelievable effort, not trying to chase a championship.”

Jud Heathcote, the Michigan State coach who eventually gave in to Sampson’s persistence, thinks his old protégé’s methods will work.

The Sampson way

“He was actually pretty cocksure, even then,” Heathcote said, referring to the Sampson he first met in 1978. “He thought he could do it all. I just didn’t want to let him.”

Heathcote, retired now, still speaks with Sampson about once a month.

When Sampson decided to take the Indiana job and return to the Big Ten after more than 25 years, he called Heathcote early one spring morning to let him know.

“He calls me and of course he says, ‘I have a big list of guys I wanted to call and tell but you were No. 1,” Heathcote recalls. “And I said, ‘I bet you got about 10 other guys who were No. 1, too.’ ”

During a 19-year long career at Michigan State, Heathcote mentored dozens of young coaches. So he has a few theories on the growth of a coach.

“Whenever a coach comes out of your program, he is going to do a lot of the things that you did,” Heathcote said from his home in Washington State. “But he must become his own man at some point. He must make his teams in his image and be his own man.”