Basketball: The NCAA & the Sampson Ban

by Hayden Alfano

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) got one right. Last week, the NCAA — the governing body for most intercollegiate athletics — effectively banned former Indiana University men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson for five years.

The NCAA has all sorts of rules, including strict guidelines as to when and how often coaches at its member institutions can contact high school athletes. Sampson’s sin: he and his assistant coaches made more than 100 improper phone calls to recruits during the 2006-2007 season. A rather minor transgression, actually, save one thing: During that time period, he was already under NCAA sanction for doing basically the exact same thing while employed as the head coach at the University of Oklahoma.

Sampson, who resigned from Indiana under pressure in February and is currently an assistant coach with the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks, is certainly the bad guy in all of this. But he’s hardly the first coach to breach NCAA rules, and he won’t be the last. What makes this situation remarkable is the penalty imposed.

Typically, when coaches break the rules, they are fired or resign, and go on to find other college coaching jobs, with little or no sanction. The programs they leave behind, however, takes the full brunt of the NCAA’s wrath: probation, where even minor subsequent violations could bring major penalties; reductions in the number of athletic scholarships they are allowed to give student-athletes; and bans on post-season play, to name a few potential punishments. Under the auspices of a “lack of institutional control,” the NCAA’s message is seemingly clear to its members: Don’t hire coaches who aren’t going to keep their noses clean.

Ultimately, though, the people hurt most by these sanctions are the student-athletes themselves. They are the ones who play at a disadvantage because their team’s scholarships have been reduced. They are the ones who don’t get to chase their dreams of league titles and national championships because of post-season bans. And they are the ones who often have to sit out a year if they want to leave the mess behind and play at another school under NCAA transfer rules.

Indiana’s basketball program hasn’t exactly gotten off scot-free. The NCAA added three years of probation to the self-imposed sanctions the school had already announced, which included mostly adjustments to the rules governing recruiting. But the players, none of whom are responsible for any of this, have gone relatively unpunished.

Sampson, meanwhile, faces one of the harshest punishments ever given to a coach. His is not technically a ban, but a “show-cause” order. For the next five years, if any NCAA institution wishes to hire Sampson in any capacity within its athletics department, it must convince the NCAA not to sanction levy a sanction.

Such penalties are extremely rare. The last one in memory was a ten-year “show-cause” order against former Baylor University men’s basketball coach Dave Bliss, who was found to have made tuition payments for a couple of Baylor players — a much more serious rules violation than Sampson's infraction — and Bliss was also involved in a cover-up of the bizarre and tragic murder of Baylor player Patrick Dennehy by his teammate, Carlton Dotson. It’s a near-certainty that no NCAA institution will risk sanctions by hiring Sampson or Bliss during the tenure of their “show-cause” orders, and both face the very real possibility that they won’t coach in the college ranks again.

And that’s how it should be. It has taken too long, but the NCAA has finally hit on the way to discourage coaches from breaking its rules: Deal harshly with those who do.

(Hayden Alfano is the author of Rhymes With Hondo, a blog about the Boston Celtics, and 19'9", a college basketball blog.)

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