2-14-07 -- Getting rid of coach Kelvin Sampson might not be the solution to Indiana’s problems. It’s a move that might just create a bigger mess.
When Sampson was accused Wednesday of five major NCAA infractions, it immediately set off a widespread debate over what the university should do next and whether Sampson should continue coaching at Indiana, which hasn’t had a major NCAA rules violation in nearly half a century.
“The thing I’m disappointed with is that the allegations have come out, and I feel we have to react in some way that’s in the best interests of the team and the best interests of the university,” trustee Philip Eskew Jr. said. “I think there are options.”
There’s no guarantee the NCAA would reduce Indiana’s potential penalties, and the university, which has spent the past decade paying millions of dollars to fired coaches and athletic directors, could wind up in another costly split-up.
According to the contract signed in April 2006, Indiana pays Sampson an annual base salary of $500,000. With five years left on the deal, the cost could reach at least $2.5 million.
Sampson’s deal includes termination clauses for violations of university or NCAA rules that eliminate the payments. Attorneys, however, have differing views on whether the accusations, which include providing false or misleading information to investigators, would allow Indiana to fire Sampson with cause and get off the financial hook.
Athletic director Rick Greenspan acknowledged Wednesday these are only allegations since the NCAA has not yet made a ruling, and the distinction could be important.
“It (the contract) talks about significant, intentional or repetitive violations, so the question becomes when does it become a violation?” said Indianapolis attorney Stephen Backer, a former trustee at Indiana who works in contractual law. “That’s the issue. I’m sure that’s what they’re meeting about today.”
The university has until May 8 to respond to the NCAA’s report. Sampson and university officials are scheduled to appear before the infractions committee June 14, with a final ruling expected within a month.
University spokesman Larry MacIntyre confirmed Thursday that president Michael McRobbie was still consulting with the school’s lawyers, trustees and administrators. MacIntyre would not provide details on those discussions but acknowledged both sides have to abide by the rules set forth in the contract.
MacIntyre said Dorothy Frapwell, the university’s counsel, declined to discuss Sampson’s contract.
Milton Thompson, also an Indianapolis attorney, believes there’s another caveat, too.
While he contends Indiana’s report and Sampson’s acceptance of the school’s penalties in October amount to an admission of significant and repetitive violations, the coach may still have legal protection because he wasn’t fired four months ago.
“There can always be a liability issue,” Thompson said. “If they accepted the sanctions and didn’t fire him then, that may be an area he could pursue.”
Other potential clauses that could absolve the university of a hefty payout include those for moral turpitude and conduct seriously prejudicial to the university.
Both attorneys believe they are broad enough provisions that the university could use either one to make its case for firing Sampson with cause.
But even that can be tricky.
“In my opinion, yes, his conduct has been prejudicial to the university,” said Backer, who was against Sampson’s hiring from the start. “But the provision says it has to be seriously prejudicial, and the question is has it risen to the level of being seriously prejudicial?”
When Sampson was hired by Indiana two years ago, he was already facing NCAA allegations of improper recruiting phone calls at Oklahoma. That ended with Sampson and the program being sanctioned by the NCAA.
There is precedent for coaches winning lawsuits in these types of cases.
Former Ohio State coach Jim O’Brien was fired in June 2004 after giving a Serbian recruit a $6,000 loan in 1999 to help cover the family’s medical expenses. O’Brien later won a suit for wrongful termination against the university and was awarded $2.2 million plus interest. Ohio State has appealed the decision to Ohio’s Supreme Court.
Indiana would certainly prefer avoiding an expensive lawsuit.
Until the university decides what to do, though, the Sampson debate will rage among fans and supports.
Some students who have been ardent supporters during Sampson’s two seasons in Bloomington, Ind., arrived at Wednesday night’s game with signs backing the coach. Yet Sampson drew more boos than cheers during pregame introductions.
Others have taken their concerns straight to the top.
“I spoke with President McRobbie last night on the phone, and I told him how I felt, how disappointed I was,” Eskew said. “I told him you have to do what’s right for the university, the students, yourself and the trustees.”
The bigger issue may be determining what’s more costly—a hit to the university’s reputation or the university’s budget.
“My personal opinion is that it’s the reputation of the university that is more important,” Eskew said. “My concern is really the reputation of the university.”