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A call Indiana has to make

Kelvin Sampson, looking like a dead man walking since the NCAA’s latest allegations that he violated rules and lied to investigators, coached what deserves to be his final game with Indiana on Tuesday.

When a university president announces a one-week investigation into charges against a repeat offender the way Indiana’s Michael McRobbie did last week, he is not looking for an exoneration. He is lining up his lawyers.

Friday is the deadline for Athletic Director Rick Greenspan and a small group of investigators to make a recommendation to McRobbie about Sampson’s future. If the recommendation is that Sampson should be fired for cause, such as “a significant, intentional or repetitive violation” of NCAA rules, according to his contract he could be “suspended pending termination,” and allowed 10 days to request an appeal. After that, McRobbie would make a final decision about whether to fire him.

Compared to academic fraud and paying players, too many phone calls to recruits might seem frivolous, akin to a teenager running up too many minutes or text message charges on his cellphone.

To the NCAA and Indiana, the most serious charges are whether Sampson lied, and whether he continued to flaunt the rules after being caught.

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But to Sampson’s colleagues -- many of the same men who once elected him president of the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches -- the phone calls matter.

The NABC, which adopted what proved to be an unfortunate slogan in “Guardians of the Game,” reprimanded Sampson after the Oklahoma scandal in 2006, with ethics chairman Reggie Minton saying, “We must hold one another accountable.”

Recruits are the lifeblood of an ever more high-stakes game, and anybody who tries to play by the rules gets hurt when somebody else doesn’t.

Eddie Sutton, the former Oklahoma State coach now at San Francisco who competed against Sampson in the Big 12 Conference, said he was “sorry” to hear the reports about Sampson because he thinks a lot of him. But, he added, the issue is serious.

“I’ll tell you why,” Sutton said. “When you can only call a recruit once a week and someone else is calling them more than once a week, that’s a big advantage.

“Anyone who’s been in the game can tell you that next to throwing a bunch of money on the table, that’s as damaging as anything one can do.”

Sutton, of course, was the coach at Kentucky when an assistant coach sent money to recruit Chris Mills, but Sutton was not found responsible.

“I was disappointed when I heard this happened with Kelvin, because it seemed to me if he did what they say, he could have learned his lesson at Oklahoma,” Sutton said.

No doubt Illinois Coach Bruce Weber isn’t crying for Sampson’s being in hot water for overzealous recruiting, considering Sampson recruited and eventually signed Eric Gordon even though the player had orally committed to Illinois.

Indiana was far from clueless about Sampson’s history when it hired him in 2006, knowing he had been disciplined by Oklahoma and could face more discipline from the NCAA for what it ultimately determined were 577 improper calls by the coach and his staff.

Coaches’ contracts and NCAA notices of allegations aren’t always good reading aside from the occasional tidbit.

But the Sampson documents, available online via the Indianapolis Star at www.indystar.com/sports, make the case for firing Sampson persuasive. For one thing, people might lie, but telephone records don’t. And Sampson’s contract clearly was written with this situation in mind, reflecting a university that had lived through the Bob Knight saga, though Knight’s issue was never NCAA rules.

Sampson’s contract seems to mention NCAA rules, oh, about as often as he and his staff allegedly let their fingers do the walking.

Last fall, Indiana self-reported more than 100 impermissible calls by Sampson and his staff, some in violation of the restrictions that had been placed on them after the Oklahoma case, and announced self-imposed penalties that included Sampson’s forfeiting a scheduled $500,000 raise.

The NCAA, after its own investigation, added charges that are potentially major violations -- including that Sampson lied to investigators representing both the NCAA and the school.

Sampson has denied he “intentionally” lied to investigators or “knowingly” failed to comply with sanctions.

Whether Sampson stays or goes, Indiana must respond to the NCAA’s allegation of five major violations by May 8, with an appearance before the NCAA infractions committee tentatively scheduled for June 14.

Sampson deserves a hearing there, but Indiana will decide if it will be as a university employee. If he is fired, a legal battle could still follow, even though his contract says Indiana would owe him only his final month’s pay if he were fired for cause.

Indiana officials no doubt are mindful Ohio State was ordered to pay $2.4 million to Jim O’Brien after firing him for lending a recruit money.

But for Indiana, which prided itself on its pristine record of NCAA rules compliance, there might be no price too high for putting the Sampson era behind.

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robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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The Times’ rankings

ROBYN NORWOOD’S RANKINGS AND COMMENTS:

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Rk. Team (Rec.) Comment (last week’s rank) 1 MEMPHIS (25-0) It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 Tennessee Saturday -- at least according to other polls. (1) 2 KANSAS (24-2) At least both teams to beat KU (Kansas State and Texas) are ranked. (3) 3 TENNESSEE (23-2) Bruce Pearl called John Calipari for extra tickets for the big game. (4) 4 DUKE (22-2) A loss most foul: Entire starting five fouled out against Wake Forest. (2) 5 N. CAROLINA (24-2) Ankle could cost point guard Ty Lawson a fifth game in a row. (5) 6 UCLA (22-3) Bruins are in a February funk -- but it’s better than a March one. (6) 7 TEXAS (22-4) The Longhorns have meant trouble for some very good teams. (7) 8 STANFORD (21-4) Slip-up against Arizona State looks costly for Cardinal in Pac-10 race. (8) 9 INDIANA (22-4) Sampson’s saga didn’t stop big wins over Michigan State and Purdue. (10) 10 CONNECTICUT (21-5) Huskies have won 10 in a row, and have a knack for close ones. (19) 11 GEORGETOWN (21-4) The Hoyas have lost two of their last four games. (9) 12 BUTLER (24-2) Bulldogs play Drake in a Bracket Buster game Saturday. (12) 13 XAVIER (22-4) Josh Duncan leads six double-digit scorers for Musketeers. (13) 14 PURDUE (21-6) Robbie Hummel is an underrated freshman in a bumper crop. (11) 15 LOUISVILLE (21-6) Remember, this team was the preseason No. 6 in both polls. (15) 16 WISCONSIN (21-4) Butch’s banked three-pointer was so ugly it was beautiful. (16) 17 MICHIGAN STATE (20-5) Magic Johnson dropped by Monday to try to inspire the Spartans. (17) 18 WASHINGTON STATE (20-5) Some think Tony Bennett would make a good Indiana coach. (21) 19 NOTRE DAME (19-5) Sophomore Luke Harangody averages a double-double. (20) 20 ST. MARY’S (23-3) Gaels beat Loyola Marymount by 31 and Pepperdine by 36. (22) 21 KANSAS STATE (18-6) Beasley narrowing gap with Tyler Hansbrough for player of year. (18) 22 VANDERBILT (22-4) Nice pair of wins for Vandy scrapbook over Kentucky, Florida. (24) 23 TEXAS A&M (20-6) Texas smacked the Aggies on Monday after earlier upset. (15) 24 MARQUETTE (18-6) The Golden Eagles bumped Pittsburgh from the top 25. (Unranked) 25 DRAKE (23-3) After 21-game winning streak, Drake has lost two of three. (23) *--*


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