Violations at Oklahoma came amid competition for high-profile players

Violations at Oklahoma came amid competition for high-profile players

By Doug Wilson, H-T sports writer

May 15, 2006

Kelvin Sampson’s path toward an NCAA investigation started about six years ago when Oklahoma began chasing blue-chip recruits.

For years, Sampson had put together winning teams primarily by recruiting junior college players and high school players who weren’t heavily recruited by the nation’s top basketball programs.

But as his Oklahoma program rose toward national prominence, culminating with an NCAA Final Four game against Indiana in 2002, Sampson and his assistant coaches raised their sights.

According to Sampson’s testimony to NCAA investigators, the former Oklahoma coach and his staff started making more calls to recruits than the NCAA allows because that’s what many schools do in competing for the nation’s top high school players.

“We were recruiting kids that weren’t on anybody’s radar, you know, and you just followed the rules. It’s easier to recruit those kids,” Sampson said in a September 2004 interview with NCAA enforcement staff. “And I think we started changing when we started recruiting higher profile kids because it was different and we’d never done that before.”

NCAA Director of Enforcement Julie Roe and Associate Director of Enforcement LuAnn Humphrey interviewed Sampson three times between September 2004 and September 2005, according to interview transcripts obtained from the University of Oklahoma through an open records law request.

In those interviews, Sampson describes having been aware that he and his staff at Oklahoma weren’t following NCAA rules that limited them to one recruiting phone call per week to high school seniors and forbade calls to juniors. He explained the extra calls by saying it takes numerous calls even to reach some of the top recruits, and often you end up talking to their parents instead. Others recruits like to talk with coaches and expect to hear from them several times a week, he said.

“There was a period where you know you felt that you weren’t doing it right,” Sampson told investigators. “But you rationalize it because you don’t think you’re cheating. You don’t think you’ve gained an advantage.”

Sampson said it appeared from talking to recruits that other schools were calling them more often than Oklahoma. He said he hates giving excuses, but it felt at the time like Oklahoma had to keep calling if other schools were.

“Just because school A calls him every night and school B’s calling him every night, that doesn’t mean that we should and that bothered me, bothered me, but I didn’t stop it,” he said.

Phone calls don’t make or break landing a recruit, Sampson said.

“I never thought, “We’re doing something that’s considered, hey, this is a major violation. You’re breaking a hallowed rule here,'” Sampson said. “A hallowed rule to me is exchanging a gift, a benefit, monetary things. Like we know of kids that have said to us, here’s what this school is offering.”

Oklahoma was caught for breaking the phone call rules, Sampson said, because coaches at rival Oklahoma State reported Oklahoma to the NCAA.

The NCAA’s Humphrey told Sampson in August 2005 that the investigation, using phone records, had found about 20 potential recruits with problems with impermissible phone calls and about 10 of them ending up playing at Oklahoma.

Humphrey and Roe asked Sampson about many of the individual recruits who received too many calls. With one of those potential recruits – a high school senior in 2001-02 whose name is blacked out in the transcript with a marker – Sampson said he remembered making too many calls, but ultimately backed away from recruiting that player.

“I remember one of the times he came up, his father brought me a booklet, and he said that all of the coaches that are recruiting (his son) are buying some kind of pyramid deal,” Sampson said. “I have no idea what he was talking about, and that was when we knew we had to get out of the (player’s name marked out) sweepstakes.

“I mean, I couldn’t tell you what it was. All I knew was I had a sick feeling in my stomach talking to him.”

Sampson told the NCAA staff he ultimately appreciated that Oklahoma’s excesses with phone calls coming into the open because it was a wake-up call that sparked an overhaul of attitudes, systems and processes for complying with NCAA rules.

He said bringing in experienced new staff members, who were former head coaches themselves, was an important part of ensuring NCAA compliance at Oklahoma. That new staff included Assistant Coach Ray McCallum and Director of Basketball Operations Jerry Green, who now holds the same positions at IU.

Green, a former head coach at Tennessee and Oregon, was hired to coordinate the Oklahoma basketball program’s compliance with NCAA rules, Sampson said.

The changes at Oklahoma also involved sending text messages on cell phones to recruits, rather than making phone calls, because the NCAA has no limitations on the number of text messages that can be made.

Each interview concluded with NCAA staff commending Sampson for his cooperation.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever had an interview with anyone who’s been so honest,” Humphrey told Sampson.

The NCAA held another hearing with Sampson April 21. According to Oklahoma Associate Athletic Director for Communications Kenny Mossman, the university will not provide a transcript from that hearing because it isn’t going to receive one from the NCAA.