Curle: The Fall of Sampson

The fall of Kelvin Sampson has been sad for me to watch.

It was hard for me not to root for him throughout his career. He's a North Carolina native who grew up in the Laurinburg area, near my hometown. A Lumbee Indian and son of one of 500 Lumbees who fought the Klan at the Battle of Hayes Pond, he starred for four years at Pembroke State in both basketball and baseball, the sports I grew up playing.

In 2005 and 2006, he was one of four coaches that participated in "Operation Hardwood: Hoops With the Troops" in Kuwait.

And I suppose it didn't hurt that we share a birthday, as well.

As a person, there is a lot for me to like about him. Unfortunately, I can no longer say the same as a coach.

He climbed the college basketball ladder about as successfully and methodically as one can.  His head coaching career started at lowly Montana Tech back in 1981, and he steadily worked his way up the ranks over the next 13 years. In 1994, he landed the head coaching job at Oklahoma at the relatively young age of 38.

Somewhere along the line in Norman, OK, Sampson turned down a far-too-common path for many coaches and players these days, seeking a competitive edge outside of the rules of the game. Despite repeated warnings from the school and the NCAA, Sampson could not help himself in breaking the rules of recruiting by making repeated, excessive contact with potential recruits via phone.

He fled Oklahoma to Indiana University in 2006, right before the NCAA decided to sanction him. Despite a fresh start at a new school and continued punishment and restrictions, the phone calls continued. And now Sampson's 26-year climb to the top of the basketball coaching world hangs in the balance as Indiana ponders firing versus suspension.

And to think, back in 1996, Sampson could have been coaching the Red and White.

Close, But Not Quite
Sampson, along with Herb Sendek, was one of two finalists for the vacant head coaching position following the resignation of Les Robinson. He seemed like the natural fit, given his North Carolina ties. He was the more-qualified of the two candidates, having been named the 1995 national coach of the year by the AP after leading the Sooners to a 23-9 record in his first year in the (then) Big Eight. Luring a local boy home to coach on Tobacco Road, just an hour and a half from his family and humble upbringings, almost made too much sense not to happen.

But as we saw with the latest coaching search, luring "home" a big-time name from the Big 8/12, despite how much "sense" it makes, is never a done deal. As with Rick Barnes, Sampson decided to stay out west. State hired a 33-year old Pitino prodigy from the MAC, and the rest is, as they say, history.

The Sendek era does not need to be rehashed, but looking back, one wonders if Sampson would've taken State down the same path where he ultimately stands at the moment. Assuming the pressure to win in the Big 12 and Big 10 led Sampson to continually break the rules at Oklahoma and Indiana, the tremendous pressure to succeed in the ACC here in Raleigh could've easily pushed him that same direction.

There is no greater pressure cooker environment in college basketball, in my mind, than being the next door neighbor to what the national media has deemed "The Greatest Rivalry in College Sports." The failure to equal the constant comparisons to Duke and Carolina were the major factor in what ultimately drove Sendek, after 10 years of good-but-not-great success, to the desert of Tempe.

If it drove a man like Sendek to leave the ACC, could it have driven a man like Sampson to cheat?

It's scary to imagine the ramifications of a Sampson recruiting scandal on the State program given recent history. Sendek was hired after Robinson "took one for the team" in the wake of the Valvano ousting. Robinson's role from the get go, given the school's self-imposed restrictions and academic measures, was to heal the program. Winning was almost an afterthought, secondary to putting some time between the present and the Valvano scandal. Robinson's role was to lead a five-year long "Mea Culpa" for the college basketball world, and he served in that capacity admirably.

It was Sendek who was hired to return State basketball to prominence, and though he never won a championship of note, he did a great deal in turning State into a team that showed flashes of competing with the major college basketball programs down the road. He recruited a big-time player away from Syracuse in Julius Hodge whose skills and personality helped put State basketball back on the map. More importantly, Sendek did it cleanly and within the rules.

Had Sampson been hired in 1996 instead of Sendek and fallen into the same trap he did at Oklahoma, there's no doubt in my mind State would've suffered a public relations blow too severe to recover from, at least within any imaginable timeframe. There aren't enough Les Robinsons in the world to clean up the kind of PR mess that would've been left behind.

The violations Sampson is facing today make the stuff Valvano dealt with in the late 80's and early 90's look like child's play, and two scandals for one program within a 15 years of each other would be devastating. Maybe not "death penalty" devastating, but my guess is NC State be the conference doormat until my son starts thinking about college.

He's three.

And even after "recovering" from the kind of scandal Sampson faces, the recruiting and coaching searches undertaken by State for likely decades to come would've been hindered by a large and slowly dissipating cloud of major impropriety. Indiana University is fortunate in that they have had a relatively clean record to this point; the NCAA may spare the school some of the wrath reserved for repeat offenders.

Like perhaps a Sampson-led Wolfpack team.

Sampson is ultimately, I think, a good man who could not divorce himself from the need to win at all costs. Those men are a risk for any program to put at the helm of their program, and Indiana should've known better.

I can't say State did know better at the time, but the school is fortunate that it did not work out back in 1996.

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