In the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, there is a small feature on the college basketball department page about the fallout from Kelvin Sampson's situation at Indiana, one year later. You can read it here, although you need to be an Insider. ()
I finally understand.
I'd always heard about the Indiana Tradition or doing things the Indiana Way, but I'd usually roll my eyes at such pronouncements, thinking of them as nothing more but tired, clichéd statements from Bob Knight disciples. I'm a bit of a cynical guy.
Times had changed, I thought. It's OK to bend the rules in recruiting, as long as you win, as long as you don't get caught. It's OK you don't fit the Indiana mold, doing things the right way with dignity and class, as long as you win. It's OK to bring in players of questionable character, as long as you win.
This is what the Kelvin Sampson era was at Indiana: win at all costs. And I was hooked, cast under his spell, because that's all I wanted for my team, too. I wanted to win.
I wasn't alone in this. Younger fans my age, (I was 21-23 during the Sampson's reign of calling) saw past all our elders knocks on Sampson. Sure he was a cheater at Oklahoma, but that's in his past now. Sure his graduation rate is horrible, but it's calculated sort of weird. When former players like Ted Kitchel made comments like "I wouldn't hire that guy to coach my fifth-grade girls team," we laughed. Had to, right?
Sure, we saw some of the same things, but we turned a blind eye, put it in the back of our minds. This guy was a winner. And hey, these days, everyone is cheating to keep up with their competition.
And when he scooped up Eric Gordon from the Illini, we put it even further back in our minds. Here was a guy that finally got top talent from Indianapolis. The days of missing out on a Greg Oden or a Mike Conley Jr. or a Josh McRoberts were over. This guy could recruit with the best of them too.
Times have changed. These old guys just don't get it, we thought. Or did they?
As last season began to unravel like a ball of twine thrown from a skyscraper, all the knocks on Sampson began to rear their ugly heads again. He's a cheat. (The impermissible phone calls.) His program is run with no regards to actually keeping kids in class and out of trouble. (The second semester GPA for the squad was woeful and drug use was apparently rampant during the season.)
A whole lot of mess later, IU hired Tom Crean. And I began to see you can have it both ways. You can be a program that graduates, (the latest NCAA figures had Marquette's men's basketball team graduating 100 percent of its players), you can be a program that has kids in class, out of trouble and has dignity and character.
Perhaps most of all, you can have a program that has all these things and wins.
This is what Tom Crean brings to Indiana. He has the winning prowess, but without the baggage. He is of Midwestern roots, has coached in the conference under Tom Izzo and understands Indiana. Understands the tradition, the culture, understands how to do it the Indiana Way.
Kelvin Sampson pretended he knew all this, he acted like he respected it all. It was clear he didn't. But Tom Crean lives and breathes it. He gets it.
Watching the team this season—a team that's only won once in the last 63 days—hasn't been easy. But they play their hearts out every time out on the court. You find yourself really liking them. This group of mismatched and slapped together souls has hustle and heart.
It feels right and feels good. Fans, for as bad as this team has been, are behind them every step of the way, because they realize a tremendous recruiting class is coming in, and in a short few years this team will be a winner again, and they'll be winners just like those teams of yesteryear, when things were done with class.
This is Indiana basketball. For the first time, I'm starting to see what that means.