Indiana fans were uncomfortable when their beloved program hired someone operating under a cloud of NCAA sanctions.
As it turned out, IU had multiple options like that, and the path they chose turned out to be much worse.
At Memphis at the time, current Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari wanted the IU basketball job in 2006 when Mike Davis resigned.
Former Indiana forward Brian Evans played for Calipari in the NBA, and he got a phone call when the position opened up.
“I know — I KNOW — John Calipari (then at Memphis) wanted the job really bad. I played for him in New Jersey; he reached out to me,” Evans said in a lengthy oral history documenting IU’s journey from Bob Knight to Mike Woodson by Bob Kravitz of the Athletic.
Calipari was one of a few candidates IU considered for the job, along with Gonzaga’s Mark Few. The pair have turned out to be two of the most successful coaches in college basketball over the last 20 years.
But then IU President Adam Herbert and some IU Trustees got involved and imposed Sampson on the program to the surprise of just about everyone involved.
“Stunned. Absolutely stunned by that hire,” Evans said in The Athletic piece.
Calipari had already seen his UMass Final Four appearance erased by the NCAA when IU was considering him, and a second trip to the Final Four with Memphis would also later be vacated. He left each program under a cloud of scrutiny but has managed to avoid personal culpability, and he led Kentucky to the 2012 national title. That was the same team Indiana defeated with the famous “Wat Shot” in 2011, and then lost to in the 2012 Sweet 16.
So perhaps IU was reticent when it came to potentially tarnishing its squeaky-clean reputation with Calipari?
But Herbert’s man Sampson arrived at IU already under scrutiny for NCAA violations, and very quickly he repeated in Bloomington the same compliance fouls he committed at Oklahoma. His actions disrupted a promising 2007-08 Indiana season led by one-and-done 5-star Eric Gordon, and it took three full seasons after that for IU to recover from the resulting sanctions.
Fast forward 14 years since Sampson left the IU program in shambles, and now his Houston program, along with Gonzaga’s Few and Kentucky’s Calipari make up three of ESPN’s top-four in its way-too-early top-25 for the 2022-23 season.
Indiana had a few good years under Sampson’s successor Tom Crean, but it hopes it has finally risen from the ashes in a more lasting way under Mike Woodson.
The Hoosiers join Houston, Gonzaga and Kentucky in ESPN’s top-15 for next season.
We’ll be left to wonder where they’d all stand today if Calipari had gotten his wish in 2006.
The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”