Former Illini captain Harv Schmidt was hired to replace Harry Combes in 1967. Harv was a talented teacher who had a strong personality and was highly ambitious. And he knew the value of aggressive recruiting. But he was also the victim of the times in which he lived. Few people have had such a meteoric rise and equally rapid fall to extreme depths as that experienced by Harv Schmidt.
Harv taught an aggressive, overplaying man-to-man defense that was a major departure from the looser, switching defenses of his predecessor. When all five players performed as taught, the Illini could destroy most teams they faced. Unfortunately, the late sixties and early seventies saw the rebellion of young people against authority figures of all kinds, the reaction to years of censorship and restrictiveness. Harv was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. His stern, disciplined approach might have been ideal for the 1950's, but it became difficult for some players to accept in the early 1970's. Without 100% cooperation from his players, Schmidt's defense had major holes.
Initially, Schmidt recruited both white and black players equally well, and it seemed obvious that he was colorblind. Among the blacks were high school stars Greg Jackson, Nick Weatherspoon, Nick Connor, Chicago's Kris Berymon, Alvin O'Neal, and Billy Morris. Schmidt's recruiting classes were rated among the best in the country during his first few years as head coach. The Illini appeared on the verge of elite status, and their coach was the charismatic center of much fan adulation.
Morris was a star in St. Louis who was also a popular leader in his high school. While we may never know everything that happened, Morris seemed negatively impacted by the times and became rebellious and difficult to coach. Had he been at Illinois ten years earlier or later, he might have enjoyed a great career. But his abbreviated tenure at Illinois was less than satisfying to all involved. He was just one of several players who balked at Harv's disciplined approach.
Rebellious youths were not Schmidt's only problem. Perhaps the player Harv desired most in his great recruiting class that included Weatherspoon, Conner and 6'-10" Jim DeDecker was Proviso East star Jim Brewer. But while some said Brewer later regretted his decision to attend Minnesota, his loss was devastating to Illinois because Brewer was the kind of leader who could have kept the other players unified. Minnesota needed to recruit out-of-state, and they were bringing in many top athletes from the South and other distant locales. Questions of illegality were inevitable.
When Kris Berymon flunked out, it reminded Chicagoans of Illinois' previous problems in keeping players eligible. This was before the Bridge Program was established to help disadvantaged students prepare for the rigors of college academics. Little by little, Harv Schmidt and the UI were labeled with the status of "racist", in part as a means of negative recruiting by competitors. And it worked to the point that Harv became unable to recruit any black players. By the time Schmidt was fired in 1974, there were no blacks with basketball scholarships on the team.
Schmidt also ended up losing out on the recruitment of two outstanding small school athletes in Benton's Doug Collins and St. Anne's Jack Sikma, both long-term pros. Schmidt did everything possible to recruit them, but they doubted their ability to compete at a large university and selected smaller programs. Harv was losing some inner city kids because they preferred the big city to the smaller Champaign-Urbana community, but he was also losing kids who thought the UI was too big for them. Whatever early good fortune Harv might have enjoyed, his destiny did an abrupt about-face.
Illinois was also hurt by the negative reaction of some Illinois high school basketball coaches to Harv Schmidt's hiring. The Illinois high school coaches association had some strong leaders who were upset the UI had ignored their qualifications when searching for Harry Combes' replacement. Schmidt was wise enough to hire Dick Campbell, formerly head coach at Elmhurst York High School, to be his top assistant, in part as a means of ameliorating the concerns of the state's coaches. But some were still less than cooperative when Harv needed help with recruiting.
Besides these problems, Illinois was also hit with another NCAA investigation. Some of the same alumni/friends who had financed the Slush Fund pushed hard to help Harv build his program, and it is likely Harv had the same difficulty denying them as did his predecessor.
As was typical of NCAA investigations at the time, it was the extremely long investigation period that did as much damage as any actual sanctions in destroying Illinois' reputation and complicating their recruiting efforts. After all, what recruits would consider Illinois seriously if they feared major NCAA penalties? When the penalties, which included loss of scholarships, no post season opportunities, and lengthy probation were finally formalized, Harv Schmidt was already long gone.
A Partial History of Illini Hoops Recruiting
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