Indiana basketball: has this been easy?

BLOOMINGTON, IN - DECEMBER 19: Tom Crean the head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers gives instructions to his team during the game against the Howard Bison at Assembly Hall on December 19, 2011 in Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana won 107-50. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

IU is now 23 games into the season and beyond the halfway point of the Big Ten season, and after a long wait, the first Indiana-Purdue game of the season is upon us. I'll have more to say about the basketball matchup tomorrow. For today, the fan dynamic is the interesting part. IU hasn't defeated Purdue in nearly four calendar years. The Boilermakers enjoy a 5-game winning streak over IU, their longest since the early 1970s. Purdue has been vastly more successful than IU over the last three seasons and stands a reasonable chance of being better than IU this year, particularly in light of the last couple of weeks. In such a rosy scenario, only Purdue fans could find a way to consider themselves the aggrieved party. Because "Clappy the Clown" jokes aren't as cutting this year, apparently the new meme is that IU has not suffered enough for its sins:

Purdue is desperate to prove that Indiana hasn't passed them. Our fans are both tired about hearing how they're back and honestly, some are a little bitter that they can decimate their own program via cheating, yet suddenly come back like its nothing and pass us when we saw years of hard work lost because of injuries at the absolute worst time. Mackey Arena is going to be a very hostile place for them on February 4th.

Got that? IU was able to "suddenly come back like it’s nothing." Never mind that the last three seasons comprised three of the worst seasons in program history, and unquestionably the worst three year run in program history. Never mind that the upperclassmen on this team, particularly Tom Pritchard, Verdell Jones III, Daniel Moore, Matt Roth, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, and Derek Elston, were thrown to the wolves whether ready or not, and spent their time as underclassmen getting horsewhipped by better teams and more experienced players, gaining the experience that had allowed them to emerge as a respectable team this season. So, if you are one of the many devoted IU fans who helped IU finish #12 in the country in attendance last year, toughing it out during IU's third consecutive 20 loss season, apparently it was "like nothing."

I don't want to make light of the Kelvin Sampson disgrace. I didn't make light of it when it was ongoing. Here's one of several posts I wrote at the time:

So, where am I on this? Pretty damn depressed. I wasn't thrilled when IU hired Sampson, but the more I saw of him, the more impressed I became. My hope was that after a rough start and some bad publicity, Sampson would have a successful 15-year run at IU, with one or more championships, and would leave with a clean NCAA record and with his personal reputation and IU's reputation intact. Now, that's never going to happen. Sampson is always going to be under the umbrella of suspicion, and so, by extension, will IU, for as long as he's here. I, like most IU fans, took great pride in IU's status as one of the slim minority of major athletic programs without any major violations in recent decades. It's not clear that IU will be put on probation for these offenses, but it's going to be a close call. My estimation of Sampson's ceiling at IU is much lower than it was two days ago. As it stands, I would be surprised if Sampson is still at IU five years from now. As I may have said yesterday, and as I have thought many times in the last 18 months, all we really wanted was for IU basketball to be fun again. This isn't fun. I'm not going to call for Sampson's termination at this point, but if the inevitable NCAA investigation reveals more, I certainly may come around to that viewpoint.

To be clear, I wrote that after IU's initial public report of the "three way call" issues in October 2007, not after the release of the much more damning NCAA report was produced in February 2008, the details of which made Sampson's prompt termination for cause a no-brainer. Still, at its foundation, the phone call issues were, after all, phone call issues. I believe that the only improper benefits that surfaced in the investigation were Derek Elston's receipt of a T-shirt and a backpack, deemed a secondary violation by the NCAA and apparently a function of the Elston family's long friendship with former IU assistant and current Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer.

Let's consider some of the more recent scandals in major college athletics. In 2008, the same year that IU blew up its program while in the midst of its best season in 15 years, Memphis rode to the NCAA title game on the back of a player who a) was academically ineligible and b) whose brother received thousands of dollars worth of free flights on the team charter. In the last three seasons, Memphis has two NCAA bids and one NIT bid, and the coach at the time, John Calipari, got a better job at Kentucky. Then there is Tennessee, where Bruce Pearl committed NCAA violations and lied about it. Tennessee knew about Pearl's lies in September 2010, but the Vols weren't about to blow up a good season. Tennessee fired Pearl after the 2011 NCAA Tournament, where the Vols lost to Michigan in the round of 64. After the 2004 season, Ohio State's coach was fired for paying a player. The Buckeyes were back in the NCAAs with new coach Thad Matta by 2006.

Again, I'm ashamed that IU took a gamble on a coach with a checkered past and very disappointed that it was allowed to happen again at IU. But the history of college basketball is littered with programs that have committed far greater offenses and have paid far lesser prices than what IU has paid for the only NCAA blemish in the program's history. I don't blame the NCAA for what has happened to the IU program over the last three seasons. That had much more to do with Sampson's low academic and behavioral standards for the program than with anything related to the sanctions imposed by the NCAA. But the only reason IU's "comeback" is a big story is because IU, chastened by the Sampson incident, elected to start with a clean slate. When he got the job in April 2008, Crean could have made excuses and cut corners for Armon Bassett, Eli Holman, Jamarcus Ellis, and DeAndre Thomas. He could have coddled Jordan Crawford. But he didn't. He decided to start over, at much risk to his own reputation and career. A coach who had never had a losing season in his first 9 seasons as a head coach, who had never lost more than 14 games in a season, who had not lost more than 12 games in a season in the seven years before he came to IU, lost 25, 21, and 20 games, respectively, in his first three seasons at IU.

I certainly agree that the Sampson era is a deserved blot on IU's reputation, and shouldn't be forgotten. But it's not the defining moment in our program's history. I reject the notion that IU, its fans, its players, and its coaches somehow have not suffered enough, considering the nature of the offense. As an alumnus, I didn't get a vote on the Sampson hire. It was foisted on the IU community by a feckless president and a couple of rogue trustees, over the objection of an athletic director who wasn't strong enough to stop it. Here's who had nothing to do with the Sampson hiring or any of the offenses committed under his watch:

  • Tom Crean;
  • Current IU president Michael McRobbie;
  • Current athletic director Fred Glass;
  • any of the current players;
  • any of the current assistant coaches;
  • the fans and alumni.
It's unfortunate but inevitable that the fallout of scandals affects both the innocent and the guilty. The alternative, for the NCAA, is not doing anything at all. Ultimately, the current players and coaches and the alumni and fans, none of whom did anything wrong, have paid the bulk of the price for what happened during the Sampson era. Don't let the Purdue fans get you down. The price has been paid, and then some. Enjoy the improvement with a clear conscience, IU fans.
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