Kelvin Sampson - Welcome to Bloomington

March 31st, 2006
Despite the standing ovation he received at his press conference, to say Kelvin Sampson’s introduction as Indiana’s new head coach has been greeted less-than enthusiastically by Hoosier nation would be a bit of an understatement.  As Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz put it so delicately in his column, “is this truly the best IU could do?”


This, mind you, is the same Kelvin Sampson who was named the national coach of the year in 1995, who has never had a losing conference record in the Big 12, has won three straight Big 12 Tournaments (2001-2003), advanced to the NCAA Tournament 11 times – including a trip to the Final Four in 2002 – has eight straight 20-win seasons, and has the highest winning percentage in Oklahoma history.


Now there is cause for concern among Hoosier faithful.  Namely, the inexcusable graduation rates of the Sampson era (bad even by the NCAA’s new math) and the ongoing NCAA investigation into recruiting violations at Oklahoma involving improper phone calls and contacts with recruits.  According to, should the NCAA determine that sanctions are warranted above and beyond Oklahoma’s self-imposed penalties, Indiana would have to pay the price.


But the reaction has still been puzzling, considering that just about any other program would be thrilled to have someone with Sampson’s resume taking over as head coach.  The problem, it seems, revolves around the notion that IU still sits among college basketball royalty – right next to Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and UCLA.  Hoosier fans have made this point repeatedly, many by expressing astonishment that Mark Few appears as though he turned down the job to stay at – gasp – Gonzaga. 


Indiana has tremendous tradition, five championships, a legendary arena, Hall of Fame players and coaches, and as rabid fans as you will find anywhere.  They are also no longer among college basketball’s elite.  Yes, they’ve played in two Final Fours and six Sweet Sixteens since their last NCAA championship in 1987.  But in that time they have also failed to advance past the second round 11 times.  The Hoosiers are 8-9 in the Big Ten Tournament since its inception in 1998 with no titles, and have not won the regular season title outright since 1993.  If Indiana was among college basketball’s elite, Sean May probably wouldn’t have gone to Chapel Hill, and – as Kravitz pointed out – the school wouldn’t need to hire a recruiter to find a coach. 


The question is not whether or not Indiana basketball is still synonymous with winning, but whether or not they can get back to that level again.  Hoosier fans are not known for their patience, and Coach Sampson must accomplish no less than a return to greatness – quickly – or feel the same heat from Indiana faithful that sent Mike Davis packing. 


However, this is a great hire for Indiana.  For a coach to amass so many wins with a program that has to compete with Spring football, one can only wonder what he can do at a school where basketball is indisputably king.  Coach Sampson should soon answer his doubters, and return Indiana Hoosier basketball where they truly believe they rightfully belong. 


Kevin McNeill's Poll Position is a new weekly feature on CHN.