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Through the Trifocals

In the second part of the series "Why Illinois Can't Cheat!", Illinisports discusses the Illinois football program and some of the events that have transpired since the Slush Fund that have helped to mold university philosophy. <br><br> Read more in Illinisports latest column from IlliniBoard.com.

The Slush Fund scandal of 1966 destroyed Illinois' reputation into perpetuity. And the real irony is that Illinois was not one of the major cheaters in college football and basketball at the time.

Illinois was like the automobile driver who is driving along an interstate highway and pulls in behind a stream of other cars driving beyond the speed limit. Feeling safe because he is just travelling the same speed as the others, he is nonetheless caught and ticketed for speeding while the leading culprits, being harder to catch, go along their merry way.

It wasn't just the sanctions, the loss of bowl eligibility and the extended probation, that hurt the Illini. It was all the advantages gained by our competitors that extended the practical results of the punishment far beyond the probationary period. Like a flock of vultures, other universities swooped down to pick at our decomposing carcass. Bad-mouthing Illinois was easy for schools wanting to keep us down and out of the picture for top recruits, alumni donations, television opportunities and merchandising income.

Since the state of Illinois is considered a prime recruiting territory, numerous other universities took advantage of our damaged reputation to siphon off top athletes. Illini fans cringed as one athlete after another snubbed the home-state school for parts more distant. I can't begin to remember all the names, but five Purdue recruits come immediately to mind. Kankakee halfback Jimmy Smith, Chicago running backs Otis Armstrong and Darryl Stingley, Rockford linebacker Brock Spack and massive defensive tackle Dave Butz (Maine South, I think) all matriculated to Purdue. In the case of Butz, a presidential exception was made in deference to a request from Uncle Earl Butz, a former US Secretary of Agriculture and administrator at Purdue, to allow his nonqualifying nephew into school.

Notre Dame enticed a large number of Illinois natives, especially from a Chicago Catholic League that was loaded at the time. Wisconsin made several successful forays into Illinois, and I especially remember Billy Marek and Dennis Lick. Michigan consistently took 1-3 top players each year. And Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State, and even Minnesota shared in the spoils. Besides helping to beat their home state school while in college, some of these players came back to Illinois to work and coach. Thus, they were in a position to sway their students, players, and acquaintences toward their alma maters.

Illinois administrators knew they could not attract a top football coach to replace Pete Elliott because of the severe penalties and the insurmountable odds of winning facing the Illini's immediate future. And they felt a need to close ranks and return to an Illinois alum, someone who loved the school and would want to guide the school's fortunes regardless of the odds. The biggest problem with this philosophy was that there were few qualified coaches who had graduated from Illinois, in large part due to the decision by the UI Physical Education department to discriminate against athletes and forbid a coaching curriculum.

The Illini hired Jim Valek and instructed him to dissociate the program from the alumni cheaters who helped bring us down. The Joliet native and one-time LaSalle-Peru coach was a fine person and loyal Illini, but he was not up to the massive task at hand. And what made it worse was the infantile response of some of our more influential alums.

I was invited to lunch once at one of Champaign-Urbana's private country clubs, and I couldn't believe what happened. One of the alums who was banished for an extended period for paying athletes during the Slush Fund came up to me and started telling me, a total stranger, all about it. He proceeded to say we were correct for cheating and should continue to do it. And he bragged about his role and the players he helped.

I do not respect cheaters, but I respect those who brag about their own exploits even less. Who needs enemies when you have friends like this? If you must cheat, it is imperative that you at least be mature enough to remain anonymous. But some of our cheaters were apparently more interested in bragging about their wealth and the influence they have with the Illinois program than they were in helping the program. They were simply too untrustworthy to be allowed to cheat.

But that is what some of these alums wanted to do. When Valek refused to give them access, they got their feelings hurt and proceeded to stab the football program in the back. They refused to buy tickets and offer donations, they tried to encourage others to do the same, and they generally sought vengence against the football program. Again, these are not my evaluations but the unsolicited testimony told to me in a public forum by more than one fat-cat alumnus.

Jim Valek lasted four years as head coach, compiling an overall record of 8-32. Half those wins came in his first year of 1967 when his team was composed of Pete Elliott recruits. Illinois was 1-9 and 0-10 in Valek's second and third seasons, a predictable result of the myriad problems Illinois faced. We improved slightly to 3-7 for the 1970 season, but an average home attendance of 37,554 that year sealed Valek's fate.

The Illinois administration was not real sound at this time either as they tried to fire Valek before the end of the 1970 season. This caused a mini revolt of players led by co-captains Doug Dieken and Kirk McMillen. The players insisted they would not play unless Valek was permitted to complete the season. Ultimately, the administration backed down and allowed their coach to finish out the year. It was an embarrassing end to a truly hellish period.

Prospects appeared to brighten somewhat when Bob Blackman was lured from Dartmouth to replace Valek. Blackman had tremendous success out East and was known as one of the most imaginative offensive minds in the game. It was also hoped that he could expand our recruiting horizons since he and his assistants had connections with players on the East Coast and points in between.

I remember going to a spring football scrimmage in Blackman's first year. It was exciting to see all the unusual plays. It made Illini fans feel we could out-trick our opponents even if we couldn't beat them athletically. At least, it gave us something to look forward to. And every game under Blackman, there was at least one special play. As one of numerous examples, no one present will ever forget the across-the-field lateral on a kickoff from Lonnie Perrin to George Uremovich that went for a long touchdown.

To my knowledge, Blackman ran a clean program. And he had improved success over his predecessor. His main problem was a tendency to keep his distance from his players. He sometimes even forgot their names, which did nothing to make them want to follow him into battle. Blackman had a great mind, but he lacked that special extra ingredient that could help get Illinois over the hump and back to being a consistently successful program.

In Blackman's six years, we went 5-6, 3-8, 5-6, 6-4-1, 5-6, and 5-6. More significantly, our Big 10 record was 4-4 or better in five of the six years, and we finished as high as a tie for third three different years. At least, we were now respectable. But it became obvious that Coach Blackman's success was beginning to stagnate, and any hope for a Big 10 championship was diminishing rapidly. Of course, it must be remembered that there was a "Big 2 and Little 8" situation within the Big 10, with Michigan and Ohio State in the dominant positions.

Our administration then got the bright idea that, if we couldn't beat them, then we should join them. So they took Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler's word and hired Gary Moeller to replace Bob Blackman, beginning with the 1977 season. Of course, top coaches with proven records of success were still snubbing our overtures.

Moeller may have been much beloved as an assistant coach at Michigan, but he had never been a head coach. And his offensive and defensive styles were exactly opposite of that of Bob Blackman. The winds of change were strong then, but they were pushing strongly against any potential for Illini success.

Moeller was in his middle thirties and hired assistants who were all younger than him. His offensive style was to emulate Michigan, which used superior athletes to dominate the line of scrimmage. Unlike Blackman's wide open style with much passing, Moeller ran an an ultraconservative option offense and passed only when absolutely necessary. When he got significantly behind in a game, he would only run the ball in order to use more clock and keep the score close.

Unfortunately, his talent level didn't match his philosophy. For example, Kurt Steger had an arm some thought was good enough for the pros. But he was forced to run the option despite only average leg speed and no prior experience with it. Needless to say, dissention was guaranteed.

Moeller ran off a number of Blackman's players, he promised his own recruits they could start ahead of experienced veterans whether they deserved it or not, and he closed all practices, preventing fans from getting encouraged about our prospects or feeling close to the team. These are all things a dominant team like Michigan could get away with because they had superior talent and sold out their stadium. But it ran off many fine Illini fans.

In Moeller's first couple of years, he also showed signs of inexperience that haunted us repeatedly. He had no understanding of clock management and often ran us out of time while trying to decide what to do next. Moeller transformed potential victory into ignominious defeat more than once by his mismanagement and indecision. If you think Illini fans are frustrated by the 2003 season, it is nothing compared to the hair-pulling of loyal fans watching Moeller bumble his way through the painful learning process. At least, the University of Michigan could use Illinois as its "minor league team", allowing Moeller (and assistant Lloyd Carr) a chance to gain experience before succeeding Schembechler.

To his credit, Gary Moeller did finally begin to learn somewhat from his mistakes. He started to open up the offense by his third year, allowing more passing than before. And he made better decisions than before. But he still tried to jam the ball down opponents' throats without the talent to do so. Frankly, if they could be cornered privately, I bet most Michigan and Ohio State fans back then would have agreed that "three yards and a cloud of dust" is a boring offense. They could tolerate it as long as they were winning. But watching that kind of offense with an inferior team is a completely painful experience.

Gary Moeller's three year record was 6-24-3. Attendance was at low ebb, and many fans were disgusted enough to consider changing their allegiances. Given our continued failure, there was no problem believing we were in compliance with NCAA recruiting guidelines, whether true or not. If we were cheating, it certainly wasn't helping.

I won't give Bo Schembechler the credit for knowing this ahead of time because I don't think he is that smart, but his strong recommendation of Moeller to become Illini coach was like having us endure a second Slush Fund. He could not have hurt us more. However, he certainly tried to do just that when Illinois decided to fire Moeller with time left on his contract.

Illinois had no choice but to fire Moeller after the 1979 season. One more year would have completely destroyed us, to the point no self-respecting coach would wish to succeed him. Moeller had no answers, nothing to give us future hope, and his recruiting was mediocre at best. And this was before all the TV money that now supplements our budget so successfully. Illinois needed to rely on football ticket sales to operate their entire athletic association, and one more year of Moeller would have put our budget deeply into the red.

But you would have thought we had just committed treason the way Schembechler reacted. Besides hiring Gary Moeller back to be his top assistant, he proceeded to initiate a perpetual plan to damage Illinois' credibility. He even convinced his players to play at unbelievably intense levels and run up the scores when playing Illinois, to protect the honor of their injured favored son Gary Moeller. There is no doubt in my mind that Schembechler had at least an indirect influence on Big 10 policy (and NCAA perceptions) regarding subsequent charges of cheating and misbehavior by Illinois in the early 1980's.

William Gerberding was hired as UI Chancellor around 1979. Having come from the West Coast, he was not burdened by memories of years of failure. He was required to replace outgoing Athletic Director Cecil Coleman (I will describe his role more in my next column), and he needed someone to fire Coach Moeller. Borrowing on his experience on the West Coast, Gerberding hired Neil Stoner from the University of California at Fullerton. Stoner brought in his good buddy Vance Redford to be Assistant Athletic Director and proceeded to fire Moeller. Then he used his salesmanship skill to hire former Cal head man Mike White as football coach.

The only way I can describe the events that followed is to say a bright light was shown on an extremely dark place as Stoner and White started to weave their magic spell over Illini faithful. After 13 years of misery and frequent defeat, suddenly there was hope for the future. Stoner was a marketing genius. He helped create the phrase "The '80's Belong to the Illini!"; it didn't take long to believe that was a correct statement. And when Mike White ordered quarterback Dave Wilson to throw a long sideline bomb on the first play from scrimmage in his first football game with Northwestern, everyone at Memorial Stadium stood and cheered despite the pass being incomplete.

White was as charismatic as he was innovative, and he quickly transformed Illinois into one of the most feared passing offenses in the country. He had a winning 7-4 record in only his second year, and he got us to our first bowl bid in 29 years with a Liberty Bowl invitation in 1982 following another 7-4 season. By 1983, the Illini were defeating every other Big 10 team and packing their bags for the Rose Bowl. Illini fans could be proud again as the weight of the world attached to us since the Slush Fund slowly but surely fell off our backs.

Unfortunately, there were some problems that were cropping up even from the beginning of the Stoner/White era. We could have seen all the signs, but most of us ignored them in the hope that Illinois could be both a winner and honest. Football was fun again, money was pouring in, and we could once again hang our heads high with pride. Let's face it, no one wanted to consider the possibility of new NCAA sanctions. Denial was a common trait among most of us.

Just prior to the 1980 season, junior college quarterback Dave Wilson was ruled ineligible by the Big 10 for having played in part of one game of a third year of junior college. Wilson hired an attorney to represent him as he sought to regain his eligibility. They brought suit against the Big 10 and the University of Illinois in order to get his eligibility restored.

The Big 10 feared that Illinois might rise up again with White as coach, so they had a vested interest in restricting Illinois whenever possible. Teams that had been used to success didn't like the idea that Illinois was bringing in top talent from the California junior colleges because we were no longer limited to recruiting against them for Midwest players.

Their mentality was just like that of typical Capitalists. If they are at the bottom rungs of the hierarchical ladder, then of course they believe in open and fair competition. But once they rise to the top rungs, they desire to restrict their opponents' ability to compete with them. It is likely that this more than other reasons was why the Big 10 fought so hard against a Dave Wilson request that seemed reasonable to most outside observers.

In an unusual twist, the lawyer for the University of Illinois began to argue in court for Dave Wilson's position, putting him at odds with his fellow Big 10 representatives. He thought he was arguing point of law, but he was not maintaining the company line. This treasonous act has had repercussions as Big 10 leaders have long memories and short tempers. Ultimately, Dave Wilson was given one year of eligibility, and he was allowed to use it in 1980. But it should never have gotten as far as a court of law. Obviously, our reputation had preceded us, and once down, our competitors wanted to keep us down.

Bo Schembechler was one of several opinion leaders who ridiculed Illinois for its dependence on junior college players, treating us as a renegade program that deserved restriction. And over the course of a number of years, the Big 10 placed restrictions on the ability of junior college athletes to gain eligibility at Big 10 schools. Much of this was a reaction to the fear Mike White and Illinois (and coaches and teams like them) might rise up to compete for dominance in the conference.

Neil Stoner and Mike White had some great ideas and did much good for Illinois, but their aggressive ambition made them susceptible to pushing the envelope of legality. They encouraged all estranged alumni and fans to rejoin the party, and they made no concerted effort to reign in efforts to live by the strictest codes of ethics that the aftermath of the Slush Fund required of Illinois. I cannot say they ever purposely told anyone to cheat, but their lack of concern for the ramifications of cheating led to an environment where NCAA guidelines were broken.

Some of that cheating became rather obvious even to the casual observer and reminded somewhat of the naivete shown by the alumni fat-cats during the Slush Fund. We had been forced to grow up and be responsible for our actions in ways that other Big 10 schools were not required to do. We had even hired an athletic director in Cecil Coleman whose job description was to rule with an iron hand to eliminate all inpropriety and get our athletic budget back into the black. When Stoner and White came along, it was like the children had finally been set free from attentive parents and could now misbehave any way they liked. And it began to show.

Elton Veals and Delton Edwards were junior college buddies who arrived for the Spring semester during a terrible cold snap in 1982. The local newspaper described in some detail how they were helped getting a place to live and obtaining provisions in ways that seemed questionable, to say the least. And indeed, illegalities relating to the recruitment of Veals and Edwards were part of an indictment handed down by the NCAA that put us on probation in 1984. These illegalities plus a second wave of charges against us a couple years later led eventually to Mike White's firing.

Another incident related to assistant coach Rick George and a tall, talented wide receiver from Texas named Hart Lee Dykes. We will probably never really know exactly what happened. But we admitted to giving Dykes $100.00 and hiding him out in a motel room to keep rival recruiters away from him. How much more we might have offered is uncertain, but he eventually signed with Oklahoma State. It has long been felt, true or not, that Illinois didn't offer enough, and that Dykes had expected to sign with Oklahoma State even while being hid out by George. He was a great prospect, but we got carried away in our quest for national prominence with someone who was a poor risk.

Mike White's act was beginning to wear thin anyway, so it was not totally a shock when he was fired after an eight year record of 47-41-3. But we really had no choice after he got us back into the NCAA's doghouse. Just when we were confident that our Slush Fund era was over, along comes new penalties that reminded the country that Illinois was a renegade program. And when it was discovered that Neil Stoner and Vance Redfern were misusing their office for personal gain, they had to go as well.

White and Stoner gave Illinois a new lease on life, but then they took away some of what they had given. It put us under the gun again, and it forced the UI and its Athletic Association to become even more insistent on everyone running clean programs. It required us to hire a football coach with ethics.

Fortunately, there was a good one available in John Mackovic, who took over with the 1988 season and proceeded in his four years to have a 30-16-1 record, which was a better winning percentage than Bob Zuppke. Mackovic continued Mike White's pass-first philosophy, and he used White's and later his own recruits to place us in four straight bowl games. And, when Stoner was fired, John Mackovic was asked to add the dual role of Athletic Director to his resume.

Not everyone liked Mackovic. He was more aloof and distant than the people-person White. He was more wine and cheese than beer and peanuts, so some people lost their access to the program. In addition, he had worked under Bo Schembechler and felt that Illinois would benefit from putting its antagonism toward its hated enemy in the past. It is unlikely that Mackovic understood all that Schembechler and Michigan had done to hurt Illinois, but he was probably right that maintaining angst for another team does not help you win games. Still, some people never forgave him for his attempt to build a bridge between us and Michigan.

And Mackovic definitely hurt Illinois when he left his dual role to become head football coach at the University of Texas. He stated in his press conference in Austin that he came there because he thought he had a better chance to win a National Championship. This was said to excite the Texas fandom, but it cut Illini hearts like a knife. Here was one of our best coaches, a moral, ethical leader to boot, who was telling the country that he didn't think he could recruit or win at Illinois.

I am convinced he meant no animosity, but Illini feelings have always been on edge subsequent to the Slush Fund. I believe he was saying there are far more qualified athletes in Texas than in Illinois, which there are. And he was likely realizing that there is a greater chance of recruiting top players without cheating if there is a larger number of great ones from which to choose. But if you are limited in numbers, and some of the best ones you are trying to recruit are swayed by inaccurate rumors, illegal inducements or other unethical behaviors by opposing coaches, then you have a real problem. Great coaching can only go as far as the ability of the athletes allows.

Illinois quickly hired Mackovic's defensive coordinator Lou Tepper to replace him since we had only a few weeks before our John Hancock Bowl game with UCLA in December of 1991. And we hired alumnus Ron Guenther to replace Mackovic as Athletic Director. When Tepper brought recruiting to a standstill by 1996 by becoming too narrow in focus and showed every indication of becoming a perennial loser, Guenther replaced him with our present coach Ron Turner.

The act of hiring first John Mackovic and then Ron Guenther as Athletic Director began a concerted effort to bring Illinois into complete compliance with NCAA rules and regulations. Both have insisted on integrity in their coaches and administrators. It is the way one must behave if one is to correct previous mistakes and prevent future problems. It finally became the institutional goal of the University of Illinois to remain an honest program first and foremost and hope that winning can follow.

U of I basketball fortunes were ebbing and flowing during all the years after the Slush Fund as well. Some events transpired with basketball during this time that also influenced Illinois to develop a program that would guarantee NCAA compliance. We will discuss these situations in Part 3 of "Why Illinois Can't Cheat" next week.

Go Illini!
Illinisports

Correction:
In last week's column on the Slush Fund, I made a mistake I would like to correct. I have been advised that David Dodds Henry made a concerted effort to appeal the penalties being imposed by the Big 10. His efforts proved to be in vain, but he made a valiant effort to reduce the punishment.

This was not highly publicized at the time. At least, it was quickly forgotten in the memory of myself and many other fans. After all, it is usually our perception of events that proves more memorable and writes the history books rather than the actual truth of those events. Like the fictional Rennie Clemons dunk on Shaquille O'Neal, most Illini still believe that Illinois responded in a meek, submissive way to the Big 10's iron hand following the Slush Fund.

Perhaps if we had hired lawyers and taken the Big 10 to court, we could have felt more confident of our position and positive about the future. Maybe we could have retained some of our self-respect. Of course, then the Big 10 and NCAA would have treated us even worse, whether we won or lost the law suit, and we might have lost our membership in one or both of those organizations. Either way, our misdeeds doomed us to suffer mightily for many years.


Please feel free to discuss this column on the message boards with other Illini fans, or if you have a specific question for Illinisports, he can be reached via e-mail at illinisports@illiniboard.com.

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