The University of Virginia was more worried about 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson turning professional than his going to Kentucky, North Carolina or Virginia Tech, according to a former Virginia assistant coach who recruited Sampson for almost two years.
"I felt there was a good chance he might go pro," said Richard Schmidt, the former Virginia assistant who took the head coaching job at Vanderbilt in April. "I felt that one of them would come up and think he was worth such a bundle of money he couldn't turn it down."
Sampson said he had no firm offer from the National Basketball Association, but Roger Bergey, his coach at Harrisonburg (Va.) High School, said yesterday that the most highly recruited scholastic player since Moses Malone had seriously considered following Malone's route directly into the pros.
"The thing that kept Ralph from becoming a pro was watching Wes Unseld (the Bullets' 255 pounds," Bergey said.
Sarah Sampson, the player's mother, confirmed that story as her son made it official yesterday by signing Atlantic Coast Conference and national letters of intent. The other schools among Sampson's personal Final Four all abide by the national letter.
The hottest rumors in the final weeks centered on Sampson playing in the ACC, but choosing North Carolina, instead of Virginia, 65 miles across the Blue Ridge Mountains from Harrisonburg.
"The rumors were just rumors," said Eddie Fogler, assistant coach and recruiter at North Carolina. "I felt all along he would not go out of state.
"Virginia is close to home and there is a lot of pressure to stay in your home state. It's tougher every year getting kids (to go) out of state . . . The pressure's on you to stay."
Virginia waged a subtle, low-key campaign to snare Sampson. Virginia Coach Terry Holland had never really been involved in a national recruiting battle for a player of Sampson's stature. Holland has a reputation as one of the most honest, ethical coaches in a cutthroat profession. He did little to harm that reputation.
Yesterday, he said, "Thank God he chose Virginia."
The Cavaliers began recruiting Sampson at the beginning of his junior year at Harrisonburg.
"The first time we saw him," said Schmidt, who coached current Virginia stars Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker at Ballard High in Louisville, "was his first game as a junior. We saw he was going to be super, super. We went to quite a few games that season.
"We had our home visit between his junior and senior years. We had somebody at every game he played this season."
Bergey established strict ground rules, cutting off Sampson and his parents from the recruiters. This probably aided Virginia, as well as Sampson's stated preference for a small city like Charlottesville and the people there.
Brownie Cummins, the Harrisonburg athletic director who earned his master's degree at Charlottesville, was elated over the choice.
"Actually, I didn't care if he went to Virginia or Virginia Tech," Cummins said. "I've been coaching in this state for 24 years and i've seen an exodus of great athletes. Of course, I'm selfish, too. I want to see him play."
Cummins also was happy to see the latest Great Recruiting War end.
"It's a great day down here," he said."This is something to get off your back. I've seen more smiling faces this morning than i've seen in a long time. Roger (Bergey) looked like he had a 300-pound sack removed from his back."
But Bergey's future is uncertain. Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell had wooed him to become an assistant coach. Bergey decided to wait until Sampson had signed before making any decisions. Driesell could not be reached for comment yesterday.
For the University of Virginia, the signing of Sampson certainly will be a financial windfall. It could mean as much as $500,000 to $1 million in additional revenues.
Getting to the NCAA Final Four, which is a strong likelihood with Sampson and the Cavaliers' returning players, is worth about $250,000. The Wahoos certainly will get their first national television game and get more appearances - and more dollars - out of the ACC package and regional games.
Except for a limited number of students, the only persons who can get two ACC tournament tickets at Virginia are those who donate a minimum of $500 to the scholarship fund. That figure may raise to $1,000. Some Virginia officials also suggest that a minimum donation now will be in order to ensure a season ticket for the 8,500-seat University Hall.