The early years of the 1950's were among Illinois' best in terms of athletic success, winning several Big 10 championships in sports like track, baseball, fencing and gymnastics in addition to football and basketball. So the fall from the pinnacle must have been especially frustrating. And the loss of top athletes to other programs began to take its toll as well.
Illinois tried hard to recruit Sharm Scheuerman and Bill Seaberg from the Quad Cities, McKinley "Deacon" Davis and Carl "Sugar" Cain from Freeport, Bill Schoof from Bloom and Nolden Gentry from Rockford West in the early 1950's, but all ended up at Iowa. In fact, Scheuerman, Seaberg, Schoof and Cain all had their jerseys retired after being four of the five starters on Iowa's "Fabulous Five" squad that lost to Bill Russell's San Francisco contingent for the national championship in 1954. That likely did not sit well with Illini decision-makers as they wondered, "What if?"
Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, and Notre Dame also liked to use the state of Illinois as home recruiting territory, picking off selected targets on a semi-regular basis. And no one could prevent players like Batavia's Dan Issel and Lawrenceville's Jay Shidler from following the extra opportunites to Kentucky or Roger Bohnenstiel and Norm Cook (a package deal with his coach Duncan Reid) from matriculating to Kansas.
There weren't many top black athletes available for recruitment to college back in the 1950's. After all, this was a time before Civil Rights laws took effect. Black students in general had few opportunities to get a decent education, and they were harrassed and discriminated against constantly. Many attended segregated schools that were not funded sufficiently to give them a fair start on an education. Many could not attend college on their own due to economic hardship. And few athletes who were given opportunites to play had the belief that practicing basketball could free them from their limited lives.
But those who did play quickly made a good impression on those whose love of basketball superceded their fear of a race of people they hardly knew. Davis, Cain, and Gentry were all black, and Illinois wanted them badly. The first black to attend Illinois was Walt Moore in 1951, but he transferred to Western Illinois after one semester. Chicago DuSable's Bernie Mills was a 6'-7" jumping jack who one veteran observer said was the only player he has ever seen who literally shot down at the basket. Sadly, Mills never had an interest in attending class, so no Illini fan ever got to enjoy his game. The first black athletes to play and complete their degrees were Edwardsville's Mannie Jackson and Govoner Vaughn, who attended Illinois from 1957-1960.
Harry Combes was a man of high integrity and good heart, and everyone who remembers him says he didn't have a racist bone in his body. But racial discrimination was still a frequent occurrence in communities all over the country, and there were pockets of bigoted people at the UI and all other universities. The Chicago DuSable team that made it to the Illinois state tournament finals in 1954 described some bad experiences relative to the crowds at games and during their stay in Champaign-Urbana. This information was used against the Illini among Chicago athletes.
But perhaps the biggest deterrent to recruiting top black players was a lack of academic support for them while at the university. Back then, student-athletes were required to survive academically in direct competition with their nonathletic peers without special assistance. There was no organized tutorial help or adequate counseling to help athletes find a major and obtain a degree. And there was no allowance for examination biases that favored the caucasian experience.
Since many athletes regardless of race are less prepared academically than nonathletes, some just couldn't survive. To remain eligible for sports, all athletes had to pass all their courses. Thus, if a player received three A's and one F, he flunked out. Now, overall academic averages are considered, and one failure will not necessarily end an athlete's career. But for athletes in the 50's and 60's, especially those who had inadequate preparation from their respective high schools, a lack of academic assistance made their athletic careers questionable at best.
One of the most significant stories for Illini basketball was the recruitment in 1961 of Chicago Carver stud guard Darius "Pete" Cunningham. The young man who once scored 90 points in a high school game was a whirling dervish who outshown freshman teammate Tal Brody in two freshman-varsity exhibitions in the fall of 1961 (freshmen were ineligible then). Unfortunately, Pete came up short in a Rhetoric class and flunked out before he could play any varsity ball. He subsequently entered the military and represented the United States in basketball in the Olympics.
Pete was poorly prepared for the academic rigors of college, in large part due to the political intrigue that governed all affairs in the city of Chicago. Some estimated back in the early 1970's that Chicago Public League students were 2-3 years behind others of same age in their academic development. The needs of CPL athletes, an increasingly large number being black as whites migrated to the suburbs, were ignored as monies designated for their education were diverted for political kickbacks. Pete Cunningham may have been able to overcome these obstacles if he were in school in 2005, but not in 1961.
Unfortunately, Cunningham's high school coach was not accepting or understanding of Pete's failure. Carver High School's Larry Hawkins was extremely upset with the Illini for not doing enough to keep Pete eligible. Whether or not his complaints were justified at the time, Hawkins proceeded to become a severe thorn in Illinois' side from then on. Anyone who knew and respected Larry Hawkins pushed top athletes away from Illinois, and the long-term impact of this negative campaign has never been fully overcome. If Illinois was in any way remiss for losing Cunningham, they learned their lesson the hardest way possible.
It was Larry Hawkins who just happened to have one of the state of Illinois' all-time best high school teams in 1961-1962. Lead by the wonderfully talented Cazzie Russell and bulky center Joe Allen (a Bradley recruit), Carver rolled through the state tournament before a heartbreaking last-second loss to Stephen Decatur and Kenny Barnes in the championship game. Illini fans dreamed of a future day when Russell and possible classmate Don Freeman could lead the Illini to a national championship. Of course, they were not aware of Hawkins' feelings on the subject.
Observers close to the situation say the Illini came in a close second to Michigan in the recruitment of Cazzie Russell. But if so, this was in spite of the treachery of his coach. Interestingly, Michigan had never before been significant competition for the Illini in basketball. Thus, some Illini leaders believed Michigan provided illegal inducements to attract Cazzie to Ann Arbor. Whether true or not, by at least 1968 those visiting the Wolverines' new Crisler Arena were greeted by a life-size cutout of Cazzie Russell with a sign saying, "Welcome to the house that Cazzie built."
Again, "What if?" Whatever idyllic life Illinois had enjoyed by existing within a highly populated state full of top basketball players was being eroded right and left. These are not excuses for failure but merely statements of fact. If there was still some doubt about Illinois' need to upgrade recruiting, the loss of Chicago Marshall's 6'-8" superstar George Wilson to Cincinnati in 1960 and especially Cazzie Russell's departure for hated Big 10 foe Michigan in 1962 certainly woke Illini leaders to the true scope of the problem.
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