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 II of a VII part series.

Recruiting back in the 1950's and 1960's was much different than today. First of all, few athletes received full scholarships. Most received partial scholarships based on need or academic qualifications. Only out-of-state athletes received full scholarships, and then only if they met certain criteria. Many athletes supplemented their scholarships with part-time jobs. Even Dave Downey and Bill Small from Illinois' 1963 Big Ten Championship team washed dishes in fraternities to help pay their bills.

There were few rules governing recruiting. Mainly, there was a need to guarantee amateurism in college sports, so the rules that existed talked generally about the likelihood of major punishment for offering illegal inducements to players but lacked the many pages of nuances,exceptions and qualifications that have evolved over time. Coaches could recruit anyone anytime they wanted, but most limited their activities to high school seniors. And the big but brief push to obtain an athlete's signature on a scholarship tender occurred at the end of his senior season. There was no early signing period, so there was no pressing need to evaluate or recruit underclassmen.

Each school had a head coach plus one assistant who could recruit. Illinois' freshman coach had only a partial appointment. He could travel to watch players but couldn't recruit. Howie Braun was responsible for all recruiting, and Harry Combes generally didn't become involved until an athlete made it to campus for an official visit. And since there was no AAU summer basketball as exists today, most major college coaches had the summers to themselves.

Little is known about Howie Braun's recruiting simply because he operated alone. We do know he was an intense, strong-willed man with a good heart who many former athletes still respect. But he was the bad cop to Combes' good cop during practices. His aggressive attacks on players who had messed up are legendary. It is likely his forceful nature manifest itself during recruiting, with some success.

Steve Kuberski, a 6'-8" forward from Moline who enjoyed an excellent pro career with the Boston Celtics but whose Illini career was cut short by the Slush Fund, once said he remembered Howie Braun pounding his fist on Kuberski's family dining table. Braun was extremely insistent on Kuberski attending Illinois, and it must have worked.

Braun would send letters to many top athletes, but it is likely he didn't pursue most of those who didn't show early interest. The number of letters probably increased measurably when the Assembly Hall was finally completed as he and Combes could then add a picture of the uniquely shaped Assembly Hall to their letterhead. One such letter was sent to Larry Miller, a fabled high school athlete from Pennsylvania who became Dean Smith's first real star on his many outstanding North Carolina squads. We also know he worked diligently to recruit Louisville and future pro star Wes Unseld but couldn't extricate him from his home town.

Harry Combes loved guards and centers, so he and Braun placed heavy emphasis on their recruitment. Combes ran four players through and around the post, necessitating the presence of a quality center and much quickness and ball handling on the perimeter. And he wanted a post player who could rebound and outlet pass to start a devastating fast break that Combes was legendary for using. Johnny "Red" Kerr, George BonSalle, Bill Burwell and Duane "Skip" Thoren were among the postmen secured by Braun and Combes.

The 6'-8" Burwell was one of the Illini's few top out-of-state recruits under Combes, having attended Boys High School in Brooklyn, New York. To guarantee a top center around whom others could function, it was necessary to begin branching out when quality was lacking within the state of Illinois. The same became true of the guards as well.

With minimal television coverage or ease of travel, most people knew only what was happening in their immediate vicinity. Thus, different playing styles developed in different areas of the country. Midwest athletes only rarely got the chance to observe top players from other areas of the country, so they were mostly limited to copying players in their areas. But Harry loved the way guards on the East Coast played. After all, many of those players copied the playing style of Celtic legend Bob Cousy, who was a flamboyant penetrator and passer. It was a style Combes knew would be ideal for his particular offense.

Thus, Illinois recruited Tal Brody out of New Jersey. But they tried and failed for several others. Among them was Eddie Fogler, who became well known as the head basketball coach at Wichita State, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. He was named national coach of the year once at Vanderbilt, and he was speculated as one of several possible candidates for the Illinois head job when Lou Henson retired. But the Illini could not lure Fogler away from his familiar East Coast stomping grounds for his college education.

Another top player Illinois lost was Bill Bradley. Princeton and Illinois were the finalists for the Missouri superstar, but Princeton won the battle. Bradley was a tremendous college player, had a long career with the New York Knicks, and later became a Senator in the United States Congress and ran for president. Illinois had many good players in those years, but they certainly had their share of significant losses as well.

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