The old coaching mantra says that adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it; which is to say you learn more about a person, or a group of people, during the tough times than the easy ones.
For Indiana Basketball Friday might seem to be the worst of times – the settlement between the school and coach Kelvin Sampson, accused of violating NCAA rules, right in the middle of a promising 22-4 season.
In truth, if not actually the best of times, it's at least the most revealing.
In theory every school and every fan base says they want to win the right way, but usually, in reality, they just want to win. Player misbehavior is shrugged off. NCAA investigations are railed against. Contrary media accounts are shouted down. Graduation rates are rationalized.
If a coach is winning at these major programs then nearly whatever means it took to deliver said wins is excused.
Well, Sampson wasn't just winning, he was winning big, putting together a team with a real shot at not just a Big Ten title, but Indiana's first national one in 21 years. His coaching skill was as undeniable as the upward direction the program was headed.
And yet he's gone; and not just with the approval of an administration trying to save its own hide, but with the blessing of the vast majority of fans who just proved it would rather fall short within the rules than win it all outside of them.
At so many programs the specter of an NCAA investigation on something seemingly as minor as excessive phone calls – not academic fraud, not free SUVs, not agents swarming campus – would be cause to rally around the coach.
At so many programs, an investigation would be launched that was as much eternal as internal. The NCAA's initial report just arrived, after all. Indiana didn't have to respond until after the season.
Even then, the goal at many places would be to drag things out, waste vast sums of money with an NCAA-connected law firm and after years complain that at that point any punishment would be unfair to the players who weren't even there. This has worked for colleges for decades.
At so many other programs Kelvin Sampson would be protected and his team would play on.
At Indiana, it cost him his job. The fans would allow nothing else.
It didn't come quick enough for some, but it was quick enough to see the program's priorities on full display, for that character to be revealed.
Yes, it is a bit much to praise a school for doing what they should. Sampson has little counter-argument after breaking the same phone call rule that got him busted at Oklahoma just before improbably being handed the coveted IU job. He's probably headed for the purgatory of the NBA assistantship, perhaps to return or perhaps to not.
And, yes, athletic director Rick Greenspan should go too, not just for hiring Sampson in the first place, but for overseeing a compliance office that missed the coaching staff's extra calls early on, then doing more than a bit of stalling and hiding as the details of the case came out.
And, yes, there were the controversial actions of Bob Knight through all those years, but for this case, leave that endless debate aside. What happened in the past is the past. This is today.
And today Indiana's fans – many of whom were troubled by the Sampson hiring originally – have mostly put aside the lust for a championship and recognized that the program's tradition of NCAA compliance is worth so much more.
The easiest thing to do was to whine that some extra phone calls shouldn't even be considered cheating. This wasn't a bag of cash to a recruit or a fixed transcript or a team that keeps running afoul with the law.
They could have fallen back on the predictable whine of situational ethics about how everyone else is doing it or how the NCAA is just out to get them.
But while not the sexiest of crimes, there was a reason Sampson was making the calls. In recruiting the smallest advantage is a big advantage – consider the common scene of a top prospect sitting in front of a row of college hats, impulsively making a last-second press conference decision based on razor-thin preferences.
One of the top reasons recruits pick schools is because they "felt comfortable" with the coach, or "connected" with the coach. If you as a coach can call a recruit daily, while his rivals are limited to weekly, who is going to have a better "relationship?" That was what Sampson was doing.
"The obvious purpose of these violations was to be the first institution to make recruiting contact with prospects and then to build on the relationship by having multiple impermissible contacts with the prospects in the very important early stages of their recruitment," the NCAA infractions committee concluded in the 2006 report on Sampson's action at OU. "These calculated violations created a significant recruiting advantage over institutions abiding by the telephone contact limitations."
The fans saw it for what it was. There have been few excuses, little dissent and minimal debate about what the proper punishment should be. What hundreds and hundreds of players and coaches had built, a reputation for honor, had been struck down by one coaching staff in a little over one short year.
So no amount of victories could save Kelvin Sampson at Indiana. If IU is going to win the national title, it appears it will be with Dan Dakich, a former Knight player – as head coach.
Maybe doing the right thing will cost the Hoosiers on the court. Maybe the season will be lost.
But in the end, for Indiana, its character will be revealed – which means so much more has been gained.
- Kelvin Sampson