Through the Trifocals

In the 16 years since our last Final Four, the Illini have witnessed the total depth of despair of a fictitious NCAA investigation and punishment followed by a new and improved Illini Phoenix rising in total glory from the ashes. Illinisports describes the transformation in this column.

Final Four! Don't you love the sound of that? For long-suffering Illini fans, it is one of our infrequent opportunities to pursue our first ever National Championship. We have had a wonderful, fun team this year, and a Final Four appearance is a fitting climax for our 100th year anniversary.

But I believe our Final Four accomplishment means much more than that. Beating Bruce Pearl along the way to St. Louis is a fitting reminder of what we have had to overcome since our last Final Four appearance in 1989. Truly, we are like the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes, and no description of our present success should exclude the travails we have endured to get here.

The whole sordid Bruce Pearl mess has no clear resolution. There will always be some who see Illinois as cheaters, who will believe Pearl's version of the story. And this will be supported by NCAA findings, no matter how bogus, that Illinois was guilty of infractions back in the late 1980's. No amount of effort on Illinois' part will shine a truthful light on those who refuse to hear truth. I will write more about the real culprit in that episode and why the truth will never be known in a column once the euphoria of the Final Four has subsided.

However, Illinois has accomplished something this year that many consider impossible, and it relates directly to the Bruce Pearl/NCAA episode. Namely, we have been the best basketball team in the country throughout most of the 2004-2005 season, proving that one can win without cheating to recruit top players. Because if there was any remaining temptation for Illinois to cheat by the time of the Flying Illini in 1989, given our frequent run-ins with the NCAA, that thought was put firmly to rest in response to the Pearl allegations.

As I discussed during my four-part series this past year entitled Why Illinois Can't Cheat, Illinois learned through repeated problems with the NCAA how to run an athletic program that was in compliance with NCAA guidelines. We chose to correct our imperfections rather than learn better how to cheat. Finally, we have an internal governor on our athletic decisions that helps prevent the temptation to cheat.

Little by little and with some reluctance at first, we chose the courageous pathway of honesty and integrity. This was no easy decision because it was clear we would have to compete directly with programs who continue to cheat and who, in some cases at least, are clearly protected by the NCAA. The fear of failure was pervasive at times within the walls of the Division of Athletics administration offices, and yet the fear of being banished from the NCAA altogether was an even stronger motivation.

We decided to experiment with the notion that winning and integrity are not mutually exclusive. We began to work diligently to hire the best coaches and do everything possible within NCAA guidelines to be competitive with our more corrupted peers. We have had success in some of the minor sports like tennis, wrestling and gymnastics, but football and basketball are the big challenges. And they are the ones most fraught with competitors willing to do whatever it takes to win, whether honest and fair or not.

Before proceeding on with the UI sports programs and basketball specifically, I must ask this question. How many of those reading this column have faced a personal crossroads in their lives where they had to decide between an honest life and one filled with deceit, manipulation, and self-delusion? How many have said with total finality, "I no longer wish to lie about myself or use deceit to get my way regardless of the consequences"? Frankly, the response will likely be small in number.

We all use deceit and trickery from the time we are infants to get our way. We see our parents run to us when we cry for food, so we cry just to get attention. It works, so we repeat the behavior. When we do something our parents tell us not to do, most of us lie and say we didn't do it. We may then create a long storyline to explain how we couldn't possibly have done it or why we should not be punished for doing it.

Some of our lies are extremely transparent and laughable, but we persist because we are afraid to change. By the time we are adults, we are so accustomed to protecting our butts we may lie about an affair even when we are President of the USA. Some people actually lie about their deceit because they are so afraid others will discover they use deceit to get their way. What is the saying, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." How true.

I once came to a crossroads in my life where I realized I would rather be honest and attract only those friends who appreciate honesty rather than pretending that I am something I am not and ending up with phony and untrustworthy friends who are equally guilty of covering up who they really are. On the day I chose honesty, after it was obvious that no other way would work for me, I felt a sense of freedom I had never experienced before.

I suddenly realized that if I always told the truth, I didn't have to keep track of what lies I had told to whom. I now had to work hard for my successes because I had to be responsible for my mistakes and failures, but I also found myself capable of more successes as I no longer was tied up in knots trying to hold onto a false self-image. Like most others in my situation, I had feared a worsening personal situation if I changed and became truthful, and yet my situation began to improve for the first time in a long time.

This is exactly the situation that Illinois has gone through. It chose long-term honesty and integrity over short-term tainted victory. Sure, we have not won as many games in basketball and football since 1989 as we would have liked, but the games we have won have been won honestly. Even though the previous football coaching staff had limitations and was ultimately fired, it did win a Big 10 Championship in 2001 while complying comletely with NCAA Guidelines. And our glorious record this year proves we can succeed in basketball without having to climb into the fetid sesspool of rich shoe company payoffs, untrustworthy street agents and corrupt AAU coaches.

We KNOW that Bruce Pearl was self-serving and used unethical and possibly illegal tactics in his attack on Illinois. We KNOW that Pearl conspired with one or more members of the NCAA to help Iowa and bring down Illinois. We KNOW that Bobby Knight, seeking vengence on Illinois for successfully recruiting Lowell Hamilton (the first Illinois basketball player he wanted to not attend Indiana), started a whisper campaign that created an environment around the country to discredit Illinois. It was Knight's influence that encouraged Digger Phelps to lie to aid Pearl's attack on Illinois, and it is Knight's influence even today that convinced national sports writer Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe to declare to declare publicly that Illinois cheated. We KNOW the NCAA was acting like a bully and chose trumped up charges of "lack of institutional control" to punish Illinois for daring to stand up to their all-powerful authority and accepting punishment it hadn't earned. However, the general public will never know this. We cannot undo the damage that was done back then. All we can do is learn from it and strive to be so great a program the NCAA will be unable to find fault. And that is what we have done. Our efforts at compliance include a special office to oversee all coaching activities. We have become a model that other schools have begun to emulate.

We have chosen honesty, and we can stand proudly even in defeat as we know we have done our best. We know our victories have come through perseverence and hard work and not through short-cuts such as buying players. Success tastes especially sweet when it is clean and not tinged with sour memories of cheating or the fear of being caught.

I don't wish to sound sanctimonious. After all, I cannot guarantee there has never once been a case of rule-breaking in the last 15 years. It is always possible some alumnus, eager to feel closer to the program, might offer a free meal to a player with no thought it might be illegal. It may be true some business man has hired an athlete for a summer job and then given a full hour's pay for a fraction of an hour of work. It could sometimes happen that a professor, empathizing with the time and energy constraints of a student-athlete, might give the benefit of the doubt when grading a paper or test. We do know there were some "minor infractions" we reported to the NCAA during the Bill Self years that were not deemed sufficient for punishment.

The UI compliance people must remain always vigilant. Not because they are dealing with untrustworthy coaches or players, but because the NCAA's rules are extremely complicated and often vague. And they have no power over alumni, students and the general fandom. They try to educate everyone on their limitations, but not everyone can or will listen. They have been given a mandate by the UI heirarchy to keep Illinois honest, and they are doing a fine job of keeping track of everything and limiting mistakes to a minimum.

That is why we should be doubly proud of this year's Illini basketball team. They have told the world that honesty can pay. They have shown that victory does not always go to those who manipulate the circumstances to their benefit. They have told everyone we are back from the depths of NCAA despair, and we are stronger and better than ever before.

Continued vigilance is mandatory. Now that we are approaching elite status in basketball, there will be a great temptation to stay on top by taking shortcuts. Fear of falling off their perch has led some great people to do some strange things. The legendary John Wooden won his first National Championship at UCLA with a center who stood only 6'-5", but he was subsequently an observer if not participant in a concerted effort to buy players to keep UCLA on top. UCLA had many national championships before being caught, but it has never again attained the same level of success once its recruiting advantages were nullified.

We cannot expect to stay on top. The competition is fierce and there is great parity in college basketball. But we can remain a special program by putting quality student athletes on the court who have an interest in academics and winning, and we can retain our newfound integrity for the whole world to admire and respect. With quality coaching and careful recruiting, we can continue to win and at least threaten for a top spot at the national level on a yearly basis.

In a way, we should thank the people like Pearl, Knight and Phelps. They were like the refiner's fire, tempering our imperfections and molding us into something stronger and better than we ever thought possible. As a saying goes, "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger." They have tried to destroy us, but they FAILED. And now people like them will have an even harder time destroying us than before.

For that, we have much to be grateful.

Go Illini!!!


Illini Inquirer Top Stories