Wednesday, March 28, 2007

About Bruce Pearl and Illinois

I'm posting this for two reasons:

1) It ought to be required knowledge of fans of both Illinois and Iowa how the Bruce Pearl/Deon Thomas story went down. It's not as if Bruce Pearl was a rogue agent, acting alone. And it's not as if he's the most sensible target Illini fans should be focusing their crosshairs on.

2) There are no rumors going around today. None. The ol' H.M.S. Rumormill got the wind taken out of its sails with Pearl's flat rejection. So until I hear more, I'm ripping off the Hawks Nest.

Originally posted by the king of the message board novella, tiggerhawk...

About Pearl, Deon Thomas, Jimmy Collins

Its been a long time, and there are so many, many salient details--but the basic facts are not all complicated.

1, First, Pearl was NEVER the major player in the affair that he has been portrayed as. What he was, was the VISIBLE character in the drama.

2. Iowa wasn't even initially involved in the "get the cheating Illini" "conspiracy" (as the Illini have always thought of it).
Ironically, current Illinois Coach Bruce Weber was involved on the other side at the outsel (though not as a significant figure). Weber was on Keady's staff at Purdue at the time, when another assistant who recruited the Chicaco area was told by a coach in the Chicago Public League that he would deliver one of his players but it would cost $15,000--the going price to match (allegedly) what Jimmy Collins was providing for delivering public league standouts to Illinois.

Purdue wasn't alone in angry frustration about the Illini. Digger Phelps, then the Notre Dame coach, and Indiana's Bobby Knight also felt that honest rograms were being shut out of Chicago, and privately the then Big Ten Commissioner (a former Hawkeye, and very close to Iowa AD Bump Elliot) wanted the situation cleaned up.

Iowa had had its own experience with the Illini methods. Tom Paine, who played on Bucky O'Connors Hawkeyes in the late 1950's, had a son, Michael, who had been raised to be a Hawkeye; and Michael had a Quincy, IL teammate named Bruce Douglas, maybe the best player in the state, that Iowa wanted very badly and thought was committed to the Hawkeyes--until young Douglas told the senior Paine that Illini boosters were providing him mom a house, and no way could he pass that by.

Bruce Pearl at the time was Tom Davis' point dog for recruiting in Illinois, and when Pearl told Davis that he feared that a Chicago kid named Deon Thomas was backing out of his verbal commitment to the Hawkeyes and that he suspected that Illini Coach Lou Henson's chief assistant, Jimmy Collins, or Illini boosters were once again offering improper financial inducements, Davis informed the Iowa AD of Pearl's suspicions.

Bump Elliott was a long term AD, one of the most respected in the nation, and very influential in the Big Ten. Most of those close to the situation assume that Bump brought the matter to the attention of other ADs around the BT. But in any case, Elliott decided that Pearl should tape record his further phone conversations with Deon Thomas. Bump requisitioned the necessary equipment and had workers from the U of Iowa electrical staff install the tap on Pearl's home phone and instruct him in how to use it.

Pearl taped the conversation, immediately turned it over to the AD--who later made the tapes, U of Iowa phone records, fiancial transactions, etc available to Dave Berst, head of NCAA Enforcement at the time.

That pretty much was the extent and the end of Pearl's involvment, with the exception of course that he was interviewed extensively by NCAA Enforcement.

There was one other development in the incident that involved Pearl directly. A high school pal of Deon Thomas had talked to Pearl prior to this, interested in finding out how he would go about trying to become a ball boy at Iowa when he enrolled the next year, and hoped Pearl would put in a good word for him. The kid had tipped off Pearl even before the taped phone conversations and told Pearl that Thomas was talking to his friends about the Illini offer--with the specific details (type of car, amount of money) exacly the same as Thomas mentions in the taped phone conversation with Pearl.

The NCAA wanted to interview the kid--whose family had sent him out of the city to stay with relatives after the major gang in that part of the city, the "Disciples" threatened his life (there were alot of ties between gang leaders and public league coaches). The kid remained in hiding until the NCAA investigation was over.

The NCAA's investigation ended in frustration. As a private non-governmental organization, the NCAA naturally has no subpoena power or any means to compel testimony or the production of records. Illinois stonewalled the NCAA, refusing to make the relevant internal records available, And the NCAA has no power to require testimony under oath & the threat of sanctions for lies and evasions.

In the end, Berst held a press conference in which he pointedly said that the NCAA basically thought Illinois was guilty of serious improprieties but they could not be proved. He emphasized that they were not exonerating Illinois, just unable to obtain the necessary evidence to find Illinois guilty of major infractions.

NCAA Enforcement did manage to nail the Illini for minor infractions, censured the program, assigned minor penalties.
It was left to the U of Illinois to clean up the mess itself--which it did a year later. It forced Henson to retire, terminated Collins employment, and brought in squeaky clean Lon Kruger to restore integrity to the Illini program

(Great irony that Kruger now is being discussed along with Pearl as coaches that Iowa is interested in).

If you're interested, Dave Berst was extensively quoted in the newspapers at the time, the NCAA released its own report and extesive summary, and Iowa & Chicago newspapers gave extensive coverage to the events, including related matters such as the account given by a kid named Ellis from East St Louis to his coach at Notre Dame of a similar offer to that made to Thomas.

The ire of Illini fans toward Bruce Pearl is unabated after more than fifteen years. The explanation for this is very simple, and hasn't changed from the start. While it was Iowa AD Bump Elliott who decided to "blow the whistle" on Illinois and authorized the tape recording of the Pearl-Thomas phone conversations to get the evidence, there was no way that Henson and Collins or the Illini apologists were going to target the highly respected Bump Elliott, a man of great influence in college athletics and an individual of unquestioned integrity--so instead they scapegoated Bruce Pearl,a brash young Jewish kid from inner-city Boston who did the job his boss assigned him.

All the principals have now moved on--Knight is in Texas, Keady retired, Phelps working for ESPN, Elliott and Davis retired, Henson & Collins forced out, new ADs everywhere, Berst promoted to cushy pre-retirement.

No earthly reason why the affair should have any bearing on Iowa's pursuit of Pearl to succeed Alford, if Barta decides to find out whether Pearl would be interested in the iowa job.

I got a lot of the details from conversations with Berst, who I had dealings with thru our company's contracts with the NCAA, and with Al Grady (the superb sports editor for forty years for the Iowa City Press-Citizen), George Wine (the Iowa SID then) & a former student of mine, then a reporter for the Tribune, all of whom were aquaintances of long standing.

Many of the key participants are still very much around--Berst no longer Director of Enforcement but still in the NCAA hierarchy, verging toward retirement, Bump lives in retirement in Iowa City, so does George Wine, Tom Davis just retired at Drake. I've no idea how willing any of them would be to reopen such a rotten waste can, but hopefully someone is going to write the definitive story of the whole affair--its a classic tale, and there is still so much need for real reform in college athletics that its a tale that needs to be heard by everyone.
Tigger, please. Thanks for chronicling an indispensably important piece of Hawkeye history.


Deacon said...

You're going to lose the precious Illini demographic with this post OPS. Nobody likes a realist.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on the situation but I guess in a blog you can write whatever you want.

Questions, if Illinois was offering illegal benefits to Thomas why were they cleared by the NCAA regarding Thomas? Your reasoning is because some guy named Berst thinks so.

I'm sure if Illinois was offering illegal benefits to B. Douglas they would have offered the same to his teammate that they were trying to get as well. But that guy did not go to Illinois, can't remember where Michael Payne went. But Payne must have got more from the college he attended than what Illinois offered. I’m not sure if that is who you are trying to refer to in your article but if it is it is spelled Payne not Paine. My opinion is you have no credibility with that mistake.

I also remember a player Illinois wanted desperately shortly thereafter but did not get. So I think the same can be said for another highly recruited Illinois player that did not go to Illinois. His illegal benefits must have been better at the school he went to. Can't remember where Easy Ed Horton ended up but I think he played somewhere in the Big Ten.

I love the following:

NCAA Enforcement did manage to nail the Illini for minor infractions, censured the program, and assigned minor penalties. It was left to the U of Illinois to clean up the mess itself--which it did a year later. It forced Henson to retire, terminated Collins employment, and brought in squeaky clean Lon Kruger to restore integrity to the Illini program

NCAA penalty determined 1990
Dean Thomas selected by the Dallas Mavericks in 1994
Lou Henson retired in 1996

You my friend are an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Anyone interested in the real story can read this and also follow unbiased links to newspapers stories and the NCAA report.