Inside the Hall caught up with Wertheim and asked him about the thought process behind the story, his dealings with Kelvin Sampson, Crean’s relationship with Sampson and more. Our Q & A is below:
Inside the Hall: Your story is the most detailed chronicle of the last 30 months in Bloomington we’ve read. Did you go to your editors with the idea or did they assign you the task knowing you’d do best at it? How long did you work on it?
L. Jon Wertheim: Thanks. An editor at Sports Illustrated asked me if I had interest in the story, given my Bloomington ties and IU ties. I said, ‘sure,’ thinking I would write a Tom Crean profile and just sort of rehash L’Affaire Sampson. It occurred to me, though, that while the day-to-day coverage was quite strong, no one had really told the Sampson saga from start to finish.
The larger issues of race and culture and pressure to win become clearer when you can step back a bit. Also, as I spoke to people in town—everyone from IU administrators to folks at Rosie’s diner*— it was clear that the wounds weren’t entirely healed. I visited Bloomington in mid-August and worked on the story on and off for a few weeks.
* Visit if you haven’t already done so. Best pie you will ever eat.
ITH: You were able to talk to Kelvin Sampson. We’re not aware of him talking to anyone else on the record about IU. How hard was he to track down? Did he seem annoyed by any of your questions? Did you get any sense of regret from him?
Wertheim: I contacted Kelvin Sampson last summer via the Bucks and was told he wasn’t interested in speaking. Then in late September he called me out of the blue. My impression was that he heard that I had spoken with various people who were not painting him in a favorable light and decided he ought to get his side of the story across. In the end, I probably spoke with him half a dozen times. I did get a sense of regret and remorse.
I also got a sense that he feels as though his punishment—both literally and in terms of the hit his image has taken—did not fit the crime. I see it both ways. I think it’s hard to look at the facts and the unraveling and not hold him largely responsible. But I also think there’s an irony/sadness in that for all the indefensible behavior in college basketball, making improper phone calls (even as a repeat offender) doesn’t rate too high on the list.
ITH: You talk a bit about how fond former IU President Adam Herbert was of Sampson. There seems to be a debate on Herbert’s involvement in hiring Sampson. Some believe he was the main person responsible yet ultimately Rick Greenspan lost his job over this debacle. From what you gather, was it Herbert’s decision to hire Sampson and what role did Greenspan have in the decision?
Wertheim: I had been told by multiple sources that Herbert took an active role in the hiring of Sampson. Let’s put it that way. I asked a variation of this question to Herbert via email and was not extended the courtesy of a response. I know that Bob Kravitz raised this issue as well but I thought the lack of accountability and candor was pretty galling. For the high-minded “light and truth” talk (at a publicly funded university, no less), you’d like to think the leaders would have been significantly more answerable to the students/constituents when scandal hit.
As for Rick Greenspan this didn’t make the SI story, but I emailed him a question about Dr. Herbert and whether he felt betrayed or thrown under the proverbial bus. His response: “On these type of questions, I have and will continue to take the high road. I have seen the low road and there is too much traffic.”
ITH: Tom Crean’s relationship with Sampson appears to be over if the quotes in the story are any indication. We know they were once good friends. Do you believe the riff is a result of the circumstances or did something bigger happen here?
Wertheim: This is the “media training” response: “That’s a question for Coach Crean.” Reading between the lines, though, there’s simply too much tension and awkwardness to sustain the friendship. I also think it didn’t help that so many players, pledging loyalty to Sampson in most cases, stopped going to class and transferred, killing IU’s APR.
ITH: You mention a ruling from the NCAA is expected in mid-November. We hadn’t heard of a definitive date for a decision reported previously. Is mid-November a timeline provided by the NCAA or IU?
Wertheim: That came from a source at IU.
Recommended reading: Transition Game: How Hoosiers Went Hip Hop by L. Jon Wertheim
Filed to: L. Jon Wertheim