Exiled Sampson admits mistakes, rues bad timing of offenses

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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After three seasons with the Bucks, Kelvin Sampson has moved on to a job in Houston. (Getty Images)  
After three seasons with the Bucks, Kelvin Sampson has moved on to a job in Houston. (Getty Images)  

Kelvin Sampson was mocked, ridiculed and later banished from the NCAA for five years.

Not for handing a bag of money to a recruit, academic fraud or even lying to the NCAA.

His sentence -- which was delivered about three years ago -- was for making illegal phone calls.

Sounds insane, doesn't it?

Sure, Sampson was a repeat offender who had committed the initial act while at Oklahoma and then did something similar at Indiana.

Just imagine if it happened now, in the world where agents and runners are running so rampant that some experts believe the answer might be to legally pay college athletes.

"There was a lot of cheating going on at the time, not just with phone calls," Sampson said. "Looking back, the NCAA had to set an example. But there are no excuses. I screwed up."

"That's how far it's swung since Kelvin left," said former Maryland coach Gary Williams, a friend of Sampson's. "I think a big part of Kelvin's situation was the timing because I was shocked just as much as everyone else how hard he got hit."

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I asked one high-ranking member of the NCAA where the illegal phone calls violation currently stacks up.

"We don't even care about that anymore," they said. "We aren't even wasting our time and resources with it."

So much so that the rules, in fact, are likely to change this year. There will almost certainly be more communication permitted between coaches and recruits, potentially even unlimited calls, and the NCAA is also set to allow text messaging in the recruiting process.

"I think it's the right thing to do," Sampson said of the proposed legislation regarding phone calls. "These days kids dictate the calls and they choose whether to talk to you or not. It's good for coaches because it's hard to build relationships with kids."

"I'm glad the rule's going to change because it'll put a lot of coaches' minds at ease about the phone-call rules," he continued.

Sampson was hit with a five-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA, which basically means he can't coach in college basketball until 2013. He was also accused of providing false information to the NCAA, a claim he continues to deny.

"Initially, we didn't understand why it was at the level that it was," Sampson said of the punishment. "But at the end of the day, I have to take responsibility. I broke the rule. There's nobody else to blame."

On the surface, it all appears to have worked out just fine for Sampson, who was tossed a lifeline by San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford days after being fired. After a few months in San Antonio, Sampson spent the past three years as an assistant with Scott Skiles in Milwaukee.

"I was still a little wounded when I got to Milwaukee," Sampson admitted. "But the people with the Bucks were my penicillin."

He recently interviewed for a pair of NBA head coaching jobs and recently hooked on as Kevin McHale's top assistant with the Houston Rockets.

While he has come to grips with what happened, the most difficult part of him being run out of Bloomington was being put on par -- perception-wise -- with some of his former colleagues who are doing far worse.

"People calling me a cheater is what hurt me," Sampson said. "I made mistakes, but I'm not a cheater."

He talks about the lack of McDonald's All-Americans he coached at Oklahoma and how he would have secured more high-profile players had he been truly cheating.

"Kelvin is a great coach," Williams said. "His kids always played hard and he got the most out of his players."

Let's face it. If Sampson truly wanted to cheat, he would have done what many of those in his profession do: Purchase another cell phone, one not in his name, to skirt the rules of the NCAA.

Sampson didn't do that.

It started in Oklahoma, where he and his staff made more than 500 impermissible calls over a five-year span. When he arrived at Indiana, there were restrictions: He couldn't call recruits, but they could call him. He was later caught for being involved in three-way calls.

"When I look back now, I think to myself about how careless and stupid I was," Sampson said. "I screwed up, it's my fault and I have to take responsibility."

Sampson's rapid ascension up the professional coaching ladder has come because he can coach and due to the fact that nobody cares about phone calls in the NBA.

And nowadays, with far more important concerns, no one cares in college basketball, either.

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