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 IV of a VII part series.

While some of the dates and details are now fuzzy in peoples' recollections, Doug Mills, Harry Combes and football coach Pete Elliott became increasingly concerned about the talent drain that was preventing the Illini from maintaining their nationally prominent status. And they wanted to recruit top black players, most of whom had little if any spending money. Without being privy to their conversations, we can only speculate as to what went on. But we do know the end result.

Elliott had been introduced to a system for providing for athletes' needs beyond that allowed by the NCAA while he was an assistant coach at Nebraska. In addition, Mills held discussions with Purdue athletic director Guy "Red" Mackey since Mackey was a friend who had already established a program for assisting athletes at Purdue. And not to be overlooked was the role of prominent business and community leaders, especially those who belonged to Champaign Country Club. They were eager to assist the program and were a major force in the process.

The result of these discussions was the assigning of each of the most needy athletes to a wealthy member of the Champaign-Urbana community, who would be responsible for that athlete's welfare while in school. Providing jobs, offering monthly stipends of at least $15.00 per month for laundry and other essentials, and generally assisting when health or family problems occurred, these businessmen gave Illinois the chance to equal the benefits provided by recruiting competitors.

By the way, this idea of assigning each athlete to a family was certainly not unique to Illinois. In the 1980's murder trial of Harry Gozier, a reserve defensive back from Florida who attended Michigan and later transferred to Illinois, the representative assigned to taking care of Gozier at Michigan took the stand as a character witness. He proceeded to describe how Gozier was assigned to him and how his family and treated Gozier as one of its own, inviting him to numerous meals and other family gatherings. He spoke as if his actions were perfectly legal and above board. Judge Robert Steigmann sent transcripts of the trial to the NCAA, who ruled the statute of limitations had expired and ignored the evidence.

So while some schools appear to thrive with this system and trust their financial benefactors to keep their secrets, such was not true at Illinois. Jealousies arose as some athletes became more prominent than others. Some benefactors became upset about having to support athletes of lesser ability or success rate. And the bragging by some who were providing for top athletes created animosities within the ranks.

To prevent all the petty bickering and antagonism, Illini officials decided to place all donated monies into three central funds, one for football, one for basketball, and one for the athletic director to use as he saw fit. This prevented the competition between donors, but it began the process of keeping ledgers of what moneys were paid to whom. And it was these ledgers that Assistant Athletic Director and former Illini football hero Mel Brewer took to university president David Dodds Henry to begin the collapse of Illini football and basketball that became known as "The Slush Fund".

Those who knew Harry Combes say he was reluctant to engage in illegality to recruit. But he found it especially difficult to refuse the offers from long-term friends from Champaign Country Club, some of whom he had known most of his life. Even if others pushed him against his will, he did eventually agree to the fund. One report said Combes insisted on the ledgers to make sure there was some control over the process.

The athletes interviewed who received extra funds swear they were not offered illegal inducements to attend Illinois. They say other schools offered them and their families all sorts of money, cars, housing and other perks. But the fund would have been especially useful as a recruiting tool and likely was in some cases. Only Howie Braun or Harry Combes know for sure, and they can no longer defend themselves.

Regardless, the Big 10 worked jointly with the NCAA to investigate the Illini's Slush Fund. And the methods used by the investigators were highly questionable at best. The athletes were told they would not be punished for answering questions for the investigators, that only the school would be punished. They were told they would not need legal representation for an informal meeting.

But after the athletes opened up and confirmed their involvement, they were made permanently ineligible at Illinois. Only Randy Crews, who was smart enough to insist that an adult representative accompany him, was able to escape with his eligibility. The Illinois case helped teach other schools accused of illegality the value of stonewalling and denying all accusations to prevent the self-incrimination that damaged the Illini.

When the Big 10 representatives voted on Illinois' fate (the NCAA tried to distance itself from the proceedings by stating they were merely accepting the findings of the Big 10 when in fact they helped control the investigation), only Michigan Athletic Director Fritz Crisler voted for Illinois because of Crisler's friendship with Doug Mills. Interestingly, supposed friend Red Mackey voted against Illinois after helping start their fund.

Among those basketball players lost to the Slush Fund were Richard Jones and Ron Dunlap. Jones was one of the rare out-of-state athletes attracted to Illinois, and he was a first-five high school All-American from Memphis. His interest in Illinois stemmed in large part to a pre-existing connection with the Peacock family in Urbana. He also loved Illinois' fast break attack. It was a rarity in those days to discover an agile and talented 6'-7" forward who loved to run the floor.

Ron Dunlap was a 6'-9" postman from Chicago Farragut. Ron was a project who was improving rapidly when the Slush Fund hit. Jones and Dunlap helped the 1966-67 Illini team to a national ranking after beating an outstanding team at Kentucky, but their resulting ineligibility in midseason was a devastating blow. Jones and Dunlap both say they chose Illinois without illegal inducements, but they did receive benefits while at school. Dunlap remained in school, received his degree and became an outstanding educator. But it is likely his loss also hurt Illinois' future Chicago recruiting.

The Slush Fund revelations became the darkest period in Illinois sports. Not only were Jones, Dunlap, Steve Kuberski and Steve Spanich banned permanently from Illinois, but Combes and Braun were both fired as well. Combes and Braun were permitted to finish out the season, but they were so distraught they didn't always make it to practices. In addition, some boosters were banned from attending games or providing any support to Illini sports programs.

Thus began a truly dark period in Illinois basketball history.

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