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ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Good for the soul, if not the sole

January 23, 2008|Robyn Norwood

There have been barefoot kickers and barefoot runners. Now there's the barefoot basketball coach.

Ron Hunter of IUPUI -- that's Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis -- will coach his team's game against Oakland barefoot Thursday in Indianapolis to draw attention to an organization seeking donations to help distribute shoes to needy children around the world.

Hunter will ditch his size 13s and ask people to give money or new shoes to Samaritan's Feet, a nonprofit founded by Manny Ohonme, who grew up poor in Nigeria and was given his first pair of shoes by a missionary at age 9, then went on to play basketball at North Dakota's Lake Region State College.

Ohonme's charitable organization, based in Charlotte, N.C., has given away 300,000 pairs of shoes since 2003, a spokesman said.

Hunter doesn't consider coaching shoeless a true hardship when many children own no shoes at all, but said he is uncertain what to expect.

"I'm very active," he said. "I've broken my leg in a game before, against Youngstown State, I stomped so hard.

"My trainer and doctor said they'll be sitting behind the bench, but if I stomp one time without shoes on, I'll probably figure out that's not a wise thing to do."

In the basketball world, expensive shoes, rich endorsement deals, and NBA players who barely wear shoes before tossing them away have become symbols of excess.

A college team might go through 150 or more pairs of shoes a season, and the Clippers' Sam Cassell says he wears a new pair every three games. "I give them to the Salvation Army and the Goodwill. I just give them away, big bags of sneakers."

But although the Charlotte Bobcats donated lightly used shoes to a Nigerian national team through Samaritan's Feet, the organization is seeking donations of money or new shoes more than tattered sneakers that can't be sufficiently cleaned, or even lightly used college or professional players' shoes.

"I'm dealing with the Indiana Pacers and they asked that general question," Hunter said. "I told them, 'For $19, buy a kid a pair. Kids around the world don't care if they're Jermaine O'Neal's shoes. What they want is a pair of shoes."

Hunter, introduced to Samaritan's Feet by Todd Melloh, an old friend who serves as the charity's marketing director, says he has approached Nike and the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches about supporting Samaritan's Feet. Ohonme said Skechers, Converse and LA Gear have donated thousands of shoes to the organization.

Hunter's goal is to secure enough donations for 40,000 pairs of shoes, then travel to Africa this summer to help deliver them, even though the trip might come during July recruiting.

"If I miss recruiting a kid because I give hope to a child, so be it," Hunter said. "If three kids get a pair of shoes, this will all have been worth it."

Trendspotting

Oregon State Coach Jay John was fired Sunday, and while it wasn't notable that it happened -- he was 28-68 in Pacific 10 games, including 0-6 this season -- it was notable that it happened with 12 games left in the regular season.

Midseason coaching changes appear to be a trend, with Jessie Evans placed on leave at San Francisco as the school brought Eddie Sutton out of retirement to finish the season and Vance Walberg citing personal reasons when he resigned at Pepperdine amid mounting losses and tension within the team.

It's just one more way the colleges are becoming like the pros.

"It happens in the NBA all the time, and it's starting to happen more and more in college," said Kevin O'Neill, the former college and NBA coach who is interim coach at Arizona during Lute Olson's personal leave and has been designated his eventual successor.

"As long as they're willing to pay the money they owe to the coach, it seems to me they can do what they want."

That's not the traditional college thinking, where coaches and administrators like to talk about teaching players life lessons such as the value of perseverance and keeping commitments -- not that coaches pass on many better offers when they come, but at least it's usually after the season.

It might seem administrators are trying to get a jump on the search for the next coach. But Dana Pump, who seeks to assist schools in hiring coaches through his firm, ChampSearch, questioned whether that matters.

"It doesn't make a difference in the group of candidates," he said. "It's not like they're getting a head start. It's kind of a way of letting their donors know they're making changes. It's about winning, making money and filling the seats."

One coach who appears safe for the moment: Loyola Marymount's Rodney Tention. Athletic Director Bill Husak said through a spokesman that Tention, 4-16 this season, his third year of a five-year contract, is not in jeopardy although questions about the program are being addressed.

Player fired too

Another casualty of the Oregon State purge was center C.J. Giles, who was dismissed from the team by interim Coach Kevin Mouton shortly after he took over.

Giles had transferred to Oregon State from Kansas after being dismissed from that team for a series of off-court transgressions, including a police citation for misdemeanor battery involving a former girlfriend.

John's acceptance of Giles had been seen as a last-ditch effort to save his own job. Giles played in 10 games this season, averaging about six points and six rebounds.

Mouton didn't cite any new offense in dismissing Giles.

"His past behaviors in my view made it a situation where there would have been issues going forward with the way we need to run this program," he said.

Times staff writer Jonathan Abrams contributed to this report.

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robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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