Season on the brink

Norman Dale, Hoosier coaching legend that he was, once dealt with obstinate players at Hickory High by playing just four guys in a foul-plagued game. In the process, he boldly told the baffled ref, angry fans and his own kids who was boss.

“My team is on the floor,” he said.

The real life Hoosiers, in the middle of a coaching drama worthy of Hollywood, already tried a Jimmy Chitwood move to keep the self-destructive Kelvin Sampson in charge – “I play, coach stays. He goes, I go.”

It didn’t work, Sampson went.

Now the Indiana players get to decide the next move. They can follow up on their bold talk and, indeed, walk; skipping Saturday’s game at Northwestern that will mark the debut of interim coach Dan Dakich.

Six players – D.J. White, Jordan Crawford, Armon Bassett, Jamarcus Ellis, Brandon McGee and DeAndre Thomas – reportedly didn’t show up for practice Friday, bolstering the belief that the IU house still is very much divided.

Sampson, who agreed to a $750,000 contract settlement Friday after the NCAA dropped a major infractions case on him and accused him of lying to investigators, reportedly will try to get the players to return to the team.

We’ll see. Kids usually are more bluster than action, and the likely scenario has the entire Hoosiers roster on the bus Saturday.

But if they don’t – if they play Chitwood – then Dakich should play Dale.

My team is on the floor.

For good. Anyone who doesn’t make the trip to Northwestern should spend the time cleaning out his locker. If Dakich needs to find some warm bodies to be Indiana Hoosiers for the rest of the season, half the student body will be down at Assembly Hall by sunup Monday.

You’re either in or you’re out Saturday for Indiana, the day hurt feelings need to go away. The players might think the firing of their coach and the confusion in their life is unfair, but hey, welcome to adulthood, guys.

If college sports is supposed to prepare young people for real life – as those sappy commercials tell us – then the players are about to realize what happens to everyone who goes pro in something other than basketball. And in truth, they get rid of pro coaches, too.

If anyone is going to be able to hold the ship together, perform a Hoosier miracle in the middle of a 22-4 season, Dakich might be the perfect guy.

He once had the most impossible assignment in basketball – he was called on by coach Bob Knight to defend a North Carolina guard named Michael Jordan in the 1984 NCAA regionals.

Dakich, a 6-5, hardnosed but not particularly athletic senior captain, immediately did two things. 1) He threw up. 2) He looked up the NCAA record for most points scored in a tourney game. It was 60.

“I didn’t want to spend my life having people say, ‘Didn’t Michael Jordan score 70 on you?’ ” Dakich told me a few years ago.

Jordan wound up with 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting. IU won by four, and Dakich forever was an IU legend.

So this, well, maybe this isn’t so difficult. At least if he can get the players to understand that these things happen and how they react to it says more about them than any number of victories or defeats.

Sampson is gone because of his own mistakes. No one told him to break the exact same excessive phone call statutes that got him busted in 2006 at Oklahoma. This was an act of stupidity as much as corruption.

There isn’t a cause for the kids to rally around, a wrongful firing to lash out at. This was fair. Heck, the 750K was more than fair – IU paying out just to end this headache.

There is no question athletic director Rick Greenspan should be fired, too. He hired Sampson despite a history of NCAA trouble and lousy graduation rates. Then he oversaw a compliance office that didn’t do much to stay on top of the coach. Then he defended Sampson’s nonsense defense of the extra calls last fall and then didn’t act on the current NCAA investigation until it came out in the media.

If Sampson is gone, Greenspan should be, too.

But that isn’t enough for the players not to play.

Forget what’s “fair” here. Life isn’t “fair,” and no young person given the opportunity at a free ride and all the trappings of playing big-time college basketball should be whining about fair.

Saturday morning they can decide whether they want to cast their lot with Sampson or cast their lot with one another. They can be kids, or they can be men. It’s their decision – “he goes, I go.”

But if they’re a minute late for that bus, then Dakich should make sure Indiana Basketball goes right on without them because it is far worse to cave in here than lose a couple of games.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Feb 22, 2008