A Partial History of Illini Hoops Recruiting

Illinisports held discussions with several people who have been on the inside of UI basketball for many years and presents his findings. Today is part I of a VII part series.

The Illini basketball team just recently grabbed a commitment from outstanding guard Eric Gordon out of Indianapolis, and the Illini faithful are celebrating. If there was any doubt before, the fans can now relax knowing Coach Bruce Weber is capable of landing outstanding recruits who can keep us in the hunt for a National Championship into the foreseeable future.

College basketball recruiting is big business. Internet websites have sprung up all over the country to help fans learn more about their favorite teams and the players they are recruiting. Those who study recruiting closely know that a poor recruiting class or two can lead to mediocrity in season won-lost records, so they are on pins and needles yearly as concern over the welfare and future plans of a few basketball prima donnas dominates their daily lives.

Great recruiting is not always a guarantee of future success. But most National Champions have had at least one superstar who later was a first round draft choice of the National Basketball Association. Great coaching can overcome many recruiting liabilities, but great coaching and great recruiting are necessary for a team to develop a consistent elite status. Every college with a Division 1-A basketball program hopes to create prestige and earn the large sums of money available for those who excel.

Unfortunately, the bigger the business, the greater the chance for corruption and cheating among those trying to compete for elite status. Vague hints of illegal inducements are common anymore, with most fans wondering if their competitors are cheating to corral top players. When a top player like Chicago's Sherron Collins shuns his state school, some wonder if he was bribed or cajoled into the decision. Sometimes, it seems like everyone must be cheating, considering all the pressure to succeed and the numerous opportunities available.

Of course, it is almost impossible to prove cheating, in part because the NCAA does not have subpoena power to force accused parties to tell the truth. Without this power, only those who admit guilt or are caught offering illegal recruiting inducements are punished. Those adept at lieing and disguising their transactions have little or no fear of being caught and punished. If cheating appears to help a program get top recruits, then other programs consider using cheating just to survive.

Recruiting was not always this volatile and potentially corrupt. Talks with long-time observers and participants in recruiting past and present have confirmed that Illinois recruited much differently in the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's than today. Perhaps the best way to understand how recruiting has become so important in the 21st century is to view it from its infancy and examine how it has changed over time.

It must be stated that studies of recruiting, especially cheating in recruiting, must be based more on perceptions than facts. Athletes are often willing to discuss illegal offers presented them by other schools, but not the school they attended. Schools sometimes accuse others of cheating without having enough proof to convict them. So we must talk more about how recruiting perceptions affect future recruiting decisions. We may never know how widespread cheating might be because the subject is hidden from view intentionally.

The University of Illinois was once internationally acclaimed for its physical education and sports programs. Placing heavy emphasis on physical training, the UI developed a strong coaching curriculum that trained future coaches in all major sports. As a major land grant institution in the middle of America's heartland, Illinois offered opportunities to top athletes that were second to none. And its many outstanding coaches had split appointments between the Athletic Association and the UI (the two used to be separate entities) so they could teach within the coaching curriculum.

The U of I was accustomed to enjoying the fruits of this reputation by seeing top athletes from the state of Illinois and around the country matriculate to campus with minimal recruiting effort. And this was a self-perpetuating system as those who graduated as coaches took jobs in the state or nearby and encouraged their own top athletes to follow their footsteps.

Multiple successes in football, basketball, track, baseball, gymnastics, fencing, and other sports also attracted top athletes. Nationally respected coaches such as Bob Zuppke, George Huff, Doug Mills, Harry Gill, Craig Ruby, Leo Johnson, Charlie Pond, Max Garrett and numerous others attracted athletes from their reputations alone. Indeed, Illinois had no need to recruit to succeed in sports.

But as is true in all aspects of life, success is cyclic. Sometimes, great success can become a problem rather than an asset. For one thing, less prominent programs work harder to build themselves up and knock you down. There is no greater satisfaction than for an underdog to conquer a superior foe. And for another, people become set in their ways and fail to adapt at the first signs of threat to their position of dominance. By the time they notice the changes taking place, they are suddenly the underdog and have to make major attitude adjustments they are reluctant to make.

From all indications, this happened at Illinois. There was a general attitude that recruiting was evil, that Illinois was above the fray and shouldn't have to recruit. Perhaps opinion leaders at Illinois felt that schmoozing a high schooler in an effort to sway him to the school was a form of submission to a child, and their egos wouldn't permit them to succumb to that temptation. Certainly, they likely felt they couldn't control or teach athletes who they had to beg to attend their school since begging gives the recruit initial dominance over his coach. Whatever, they were naive at best regarding what extremes opponents would reach to compete.

Oldtimers claim there wasn't much illegal recruiting back in the mid 20th century. However, athletes who sign a scholarship tender to attend a Big 10 school are restricted from ever receiving a scholarship from another Big 10 school should they desire to transfer within the conference. And they lose a year of eligibility. This rule has been in place for as long as this writer can remember. What this means is that, whenever this rule was enacted, there was concern within the conference about schools stealing players from fellow conference members. Thus, cheating is nothing new.

In fact, cheating has probably been a part of college athletics for many years before the 1940's, the starting point for this article. Just like fraternities used to steal opponents' mascots before big games, some athletes were redirected to different schools than originally planned. Even Johnny "Red" Kerr describes how a friend with Illini connections diverted his travel to Champaign-Urbana when he had planned to attend Bradley.

These activities may not have been illegal but simply "dirty tricks" as some politicians like to describe and use. But any successful effort to corral a top player encouraged other schools to adopt similar strategies.

There are stories of extreme dirty tricks from long ago as well. Great Indiana running back George Taliaferro stated he always believed that Michigan's football coach Fritz Crisler used political clout to get him drafted into the Army so he couldn't play against the Wolverines. And those who discuss Kentucky's fabled past under Adolph Rupp brag about how he controlled the movement of top athletes in a several state area. It is likely that Rupp created a competitive advantage for his teams, but Kentuckians rarely complain about it.

Of course, recruiting wasn't the only problem facing Illlinois as it progressed into the latter half of the 20th century. Little by little, the Physical Education department became controlled by theoreticians who had no interest in practical application. Competition rather than cooperation between PhD researchers and those who taught the coaching curriculum (mostly our own coaches) resulted. Some professors of Physical Education despised the coaching curriculum and did what they could to discourage students interested in coaching. And those athletes who signed up for Physical Education as a major were flunked out at a significant rate, especially by means of a certain Kinesiology class that was notorious as an athlete trap.

Also, in a sign of arrogance and pretense of superiority, the Big Ten frequently chose as a conference to separate itself from the rest of the country. Since the Big 10 was second only to the Ivy League for academic reputation, it tried to discourage anyone who wasn't at the top of his class from attending a Big 10 school. The Big 10 Faculty Representatives set academic minimums higher than required by the NCAA, creating a pool of top athletes who could not be accepted by Big 10 schools. They also refused to pay athletes the $15.00 "laundry money" approved for athletes within the NCAA. Of course, this arrogant attitude manifests itself periodically even today from administrators who want to win while maintaining the phony facade of academic and financial superiority. Recruiting difficulties result.

Some long-time Illini followers blame the increasing safety and comfort of airplane travel as a hindrance to Illinois because it gave athletes more freedom to travel longer distances to school. It also gave greater freedom for coach/recruiters to travel far and wide to find top players. And since Chicago is the biggest airline hub in the nation, Illinois high school athletes became accessible to universities all over the country. Development of an expansive interstate road system also made travel much easier.

The increased exposure granted by televised games and improved newspaper and television reportage of top athletes around the country also allowed greater exposure for every potential star. No longer could Illinois pick and choose within the state for players unknown to other programs.

And some complain that top athletes in central and southern Illinois saw an improvement in their living standards and opportunities to choose life paths apart from the hard work of excelling in basketball. This reduced the number of good players who might otherwise have starred in basketball and chosen their state school. Eventually, when the state of Illinois expanded to a two-class high school basketball championship, most quality basketball players in central and southern Illinois found themselves playing on small high school Class A teams and lacked the competition necessary to prepare them properly for life at large universities.

Still another important tool for attracting top athletes to Illinois were All-State banquets for the best Illinois high school stars each year for both football and basketball. Sponsored by the News-Gazette and held initially at the Champaign Country Club, the top athletes in Illinois could visit campus and get the royal treatment from coaches and townspeople. This proved an outstanding aid in recruiting.

Illinois had a definite advantage by having this All-State banquet on campus each year, especially in basketball. Since no official campus visits occurred until after an athlete's senior season, there were only about three weeks between the end of the state basketball tournament and signing day. The All-State banquet was the only campus visit for some of the athletes before they had to decide on a college.

But predictably, some schools objected to what they considered an unfair advantage. Initially, in response to these objections, the NCAA required Illinois to make the banquets open to all who wished to attend, including rival recruiters. Subsequently, this writer had a chance to visit with Lute Olson at one such banquet. Recruiting for Iowa, Olson was there to recruit Chicago Public League guard Ronnie Lester. Watching Olson dancing with Lester's mom on Illinois time was difficult for Illini supporters. Eventually, the NCAA banned all similar banquets held by individual schools.

By far the biggest concern to the University of Illinois as it strode bravely into the late 20th and early 21st century was recruiting competition. Ray Eliot retired from coaching football in 1959 because he could no longer stomach the necessities of the recruiting game. Illinois had enjoyed much football success in the late 1940's and early 1950's under Eliot, and he still had a few future pro players in 1959. But he was no longer able to lead the Illini to Big 10 championships as other schools upgraded their stable of athletes, and sometimes at our expense.

The same thing happened in basketball. Doug Mills was nationally acclaimed as a coach and later Athletic Director. He coached the fabled Whiz Kids among others. But as was typical of an age when a man's word was his bond and a handshake sufficient to finalize a contract, Mills cared as much for his players as winning. Thus, he would occasionally play only his substitutes, even during the Whiz Kids era, just to give them a chance to play. He accepted losses that would have gotten him fired today, but he was respected for his integrity back then. There just weren't all the financial pressures on winning and playing in the post season as there are now. And job security was a given.

Harry Combes was hired by Mills out of Champaign Central High School in 1947. Harry asked Howie Braun to be his assistant coach even though Braun was his top competitor for the job and had a close friendship with Mills after much success as tennis coach at Illinois. Howie thought enough of the school to accept the assistant's position even though he lost the head coaching job. And he appeared to work closely with Combes without conflict or jealousy. This was a type of loyalty and integrity that is rare now.

Harry Combes immediately used his high-powered fast break offense to lead the Illini to many great victories. Season ending rankings in 1948-1949 showed Illinois ranked fourth in the country. Between the years 1950 and 1956, Combes' troops were nationally ranked fifth, second, 13th, 19th, 18th and seventh consecutively. And they won three Big 10 championships in those years. The 1956-1957 team was beginning to explode and appeared to be a national contender until top center George BonSalle went ineligible.

But Illinois did not win another Big 10 championship until the 1962-1963 season. Undoubtedly, these down years between 1956 and 1962 began to wear on the UI athletic department. Coupled with some simultaneous down years in football, perhaps for the first time Illini leaders were faced with a need to change their ways to keep up with new levels of competition from their Big 10 bretheren and numerous other schools who began to recruit within Illinois' state boundaries.

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