More on Kelvin Sampson....
As expected, Indiana has officially named Kelvin Sampson as their new coach. Not only that, IU has signed Sampson to a seven-year contract that will pay the coach an average of $1.5 million per year. (Zounds. That is a huge commitment for any university--especially one without a cash cow football program.)
So Sampson is now a Hoosier. After Wednesday's initial flurry of surprised--and, at times, unhinged--reactions, the proverbial second wave has arrived: hey, wait a minute, the second wavers say. Maybe this guy's a good, even great, hire. This second wave arrived in my in-box in the form of an excellent email from alert reader and current Oklahoma student James J., which included the following:
The reasons you give for liking Sampson focus almost completely on basketball, which is what he's supposed to have control over. But your reasons for not liking him both have little to do with basketball and are not entirely his fault. I hope you will give him a fair chance.
Well said, James! So let me be rightly understood as being firmly and unequivocally seated on the fence here, which is why I divvied up Wednesday's post into things I like and things I don't.
Not only am I all for giving Sampson a chance, I in fact, as a shameless Big Ten homer, badly want him to succeed: to keep the next Josh McRoberts in the Big Ten, to return the Hoosiers to a level where Assembly Hall will be bulldozed sooner rather than later, and to give the conference another program of the strength and consistency displayed by Michigan State or Illinois over the past few years.
Part of wanting someone to succeed, though, is having a responsible understanding of the obstacles to that success. So let me just clarify a couple points here....
On Sampson's record in the tournament. The 2002 Final Four notwithstanding, it's not good. The coach's supporters and detractors agree it's not good and thus give alternate explanations for it.
Supporter: "OU's NCAA flameouts were somewhat predictable. Sampson never really had the horses, and his teams were generally worn out in March because they'd played harder for longer than just about every team in the country."
Detractor: "After 12 years of enduring Kelvin Sampson basketball, we have figured out the man's modus operandi: play hard to start the season; experiment with lineups; give the younger guys a chance; pull out some wins you shouldn't early on; curl up in a ball and play as if somebody on the inside might be making illegal bets come tourney time."
Conclusion: Wait and see.
On the phone calls. Sampson acknowledges his program in Norman violated NCAA rules pertaining to contacting recruits. To supporters of the coach, the apposite response here is a roll of the eyes at the silly arcane NCAA rule book. Hey, I can roll my eyes with the best of them when it comes to silly arcane rules. But the point here is not the calls, per se, which, to parrot my Wednesday post, no one is claiming rise to a "Baylor-level" as far as seriousness. (Nothing, quite frankly, rises to the Baylor-level.)
Rather, the point here is what it says about the coach. As it happens, these particular rules are not arcane, they're black-letter: you can't call recruits that are too young to even be recruits yet. Sampson's staff called anyway--repeatedly and systematically. (Ask a rival coach, off the record, how trifling this is. Recruiting is everything.)
And that worries me. A worry that can be assuaged with clean living from today on, yes, but a worry nonetheless.
...and on Billy Packer
Thanks to everyone who's donated to the Billy Packer Retirement Fund. Donations (which, assuming Packer does not retire, will go toward tornado relief in Springfield, Illinois) will continue to be accepted through Monday night's national championship game. (Even if he decides to retire only after the under-4 timeout in the second half, it's still worth the effort.)
Along with the donations came email, much of it of the right-on variety. But let it be known that there were a couple alert readers who wrote in to say they in fact appreciate Packer's willingness to tell it like it is, as opposed to the loud but empty all-coaches-are-great cheerleading offered by (do I really even have to say his name?).
There is a precedent--a rather excellent one, actually--for such pro-Packer sentiments. Last year Jason Zengerle penned a spirited and eloquent defense of Packer in The New Republic. Praising Packer's "combination of arrogance and fearlessness," Zengerle likened the CBS analyst to Simon Cowell and saluted his "critical eye."
I've always enjoyed Zengerle's work. Still, reading this particular piece, I was led to wonder if Packer benefits from the attitudinal equivalent of the fat bald guy rule. The sovereign assumption here seems to be: this guy is so undeniably annoying, his analysis must be really good. For Zengerle, at least, this arrogance plus analysis equation nets out to a positive balance. Hey, to each his own....
But for me this same equation produces a decided deficit. The example that Zengerle cites as representative of Packer's level of analysis--Delaware State's use of their big man against Duke to get Shelden Williams out of the paint in the first round of last year's tournament--would of course have been spotted immediately by any other analyst besides you-know-who. So must we get slathered with all the arrogance in exchange for that simple piece of analysis? Of course not.
(I would also question whether the arrogance in question is really so "fearless," self-indulgence being a pretty good candidate for the opposite of courage.)
Packer's analysis is fine as far as it goes. He does one thing and does it pretty well: he talks matchups. But there are analysts who are better who don't make me want to hit the mute button. Specifically, there are analysts who do more. Rick Majerus can be flat-out odd, yes, but one of the pleasures of his commentary is his effortless ability to shift from discussing player technique to coaching strategy.
(Packer has also started to have problems seeing the game: responding to every whistle by saying there's been a foul called when actually the offensive player traveled or stepped on the end line, etc.)
In the end, Zengerle's critical analysis vs. shill dichotomy is false. It was false 60 years ago when Richard Hofstadter posed it as embracing the only two possible modes through which to write American history and it's false here.
You don't have to choose between being Billy Packer or you-know-who. You can be Jay Bilas.
In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
South Carolina beat Michigan 76-64 in Madison Square Garden last night to win the NIT. (Box score.)
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!
Is this the best way to crown a champion?
On Wednesday I linked without comment to a couple of articles that basically pose the following question: given that neither Connecticut nor Duke (nor any other 1-seed) will be there this weekend, does not this Final Four feel a little ersatz?
The readers respond!
Since I am an Illinois alum, of course I was cheering on the Illini basketball team last year. They had a wonderful regular season. They were crowned Big Ten conference champions—an honor. So, yes, I felt a pang when UNC defeated them in the final game last year. I felt tempted to complain, “The best team didn’t win! We were better all year than the Tar Heels! They were just better than us tonight!”
But I put that temptation away. Settle it on the court.
Sure it’s more pressure. But most of us want to know who will perform best under pressure. We don’t want to know who’s just good “on paper” or “in practice,” or when fewer people are looking on.
Hemingway said that grace is “courage under pressure.” We pay to see that kind of grace. We want to be blessed by it, by the witnessing of it—a blessing I felt watching the boys of Mason defeat UConn last Sunday.