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 VI of a VII part series.

Gene Bartow was hired to replace Harv Schmidt for the 1974-1975 season. He was faced with an open boycott of blacks toward Illinois and needed to sign a top black player ASAP. Bartow's top recruiter Tony Yates literally lived periodically with Bloom's Audie Matthews and his coach Wes Mason in a successful effort to recruit the All-American to Illinois. This was before the NCAA restricted the number and type of contacts a coach could make with recruits. Bartow also recruited junior college transfers Nate Williams and Mike Washington, both from Chicago.

These three recruits were a major breakthrough at the time, although it would still be many years before Illinois could reclaim its familiar place among the nation's best programs. Unfortunately, Bartow was accustomed to coaching top athletes and had much difficulty adapting to Illinois' dire situation. And he knew upcoming NCAA sanctions would hamper his immediate future. After winning only eight games that year, Bartow flew happily into the arms of UCLA, preferring to replace the legend John Wooden over trying to rebuild the Illini program.

When Lou Henson was hired by Cecil Coleman to replace Bartow, few had heard of him. But he was the man needed for the job as he had the perseverence and long-term patience to rebuild the Illini program from scratch. And he was willing to endure NCAA punishments in order to create long-term success. Unfortunately, Henson was a better coach than recruiter, and it would still be several more years before he could begin to recruit on par with his Big 10 competitors.

While Bartow had made a breakthrough in the recruitment of blacks, Illinois still had much difficulty recruiting top Chicago athletes. Even with the addition of the two junior college transfers from Chicago, Illinois still lacked credibility. It wasn't until the recruitment of Levi Cobb from Morgan Park that recruiting finally began to improve. Cobb wasn't a college superstar, but he was a well-respected high school baller who served an important leadership role with the Illini. And he earned his degree. His recruitment led the way for the later addition of All-American Eddie Johnson of Chicago Westinghouse and others.

But in the meantime, Henson struggled just to get Illinois back into contention for postseason play. When Harv Schmidt led his 1968-1969 team to second in the Big Ten, only the conference champion was permitted into the NCAA tournament. And that tournament had little of the hype or money-making potential it enjoys today.

Eventually, the NCAA expanded its tournament, first to 32 teams and ultimately to 64 (actually 65) as it exists today. And Big Ten teams were finally qualified for the National Invitation Tournament, which allowed even more teams a chance to gain notoriety and make additional income for their programs. Henson was able to secure his Illini a place in the NIT tournament to conclude the 1979-1980 season, and a string of NCAA tournament bids followed. But getting there was a severe struggle.

Besides the NCAA sanctions, Illinois' general lack of credibility and Lou Henson's anonymity, a major recruiting detriment for the Illini was the continued rants of some Illinois high school coaches. If they wanted one of their own to replace Harry Combes, they certainly wanted to replace Gene Bartow. When both Bartow and Henson were hired, some coaches became fairly rabid at the perceived insult.

Chief among them was Quincy's Sherrill Hanks. While not an Illinois alum, Hanks was head of the IHSA coaches association and had strong, unbending views on the subject. We are told he and his compatriots put obstacles in Henson's way at every turn and tried to convince others to steer top athletes to programs other than the UI. Of course, some wondered how a person so hateful, petty and backstabbing toward the UI could have led an Illini revival. But it appears Hanks and others saw no incongruity in their stance.

Indiana was cherry-picking top players from Illinois with no real competition from the Illini. Quinn Buckner, Isaiah Thomas, Jim Wisman, Jim Crews, Glen Grunwald, Derek Holcomb (who later transferred back to Illinois), Tony Freeman and others migrated across the border to play for Bobby Knight. Coach Knight was so convinced he could recruit anyone he wanted in Illinois that he could not accept the loss of Providence St. Mel All-American Lowell Hamilton when Lowell signed an Illini scholarship tender in 1985.

Knight asked the NCAA to investigate Illinois' recruitment of Hamilton. When no illegality could be uncovered, Knight began a not so quite whisper campaign to backstab Henson and his Illini. This campaign had a profound effect on some of Knight's more gullible and/or opportunistic coaching brethren, who subsequently maintained an assumption that Illinois was a dirty program. This negative reputation, likely undeserved, was the foundation for the later investigation of Deon Thomas' recruitment.

Henson eventually recruited enough good players to regain Illini respectability. And he led his charges far into several NCAA post season tournaments, including his fabled 1988-1989 "Flying Illini" who made the Final Four before being upset by conference rival Michigan. But he needed to discover new ways of recruiting to counter all the negative campaigning and perhaps illicit payouts that constantly frustrated his efforts.

One way he accomplished this was a creative and legal recruiting decision to offer scholarships to teammates of top prospects. He perhaps needed to recruit Cletis Hubbard to attract All-American James Griffin out of Fort Worth, Texas. He also brought in Chicagoans Reggie Woodward with Efrem Winters, Ervin Small with Nick Anderson, and Kevin Turner with Bryant Notree. This demonstrated to his Chicago innercity coaching contacts that he cared about helping Public League student/athletes obtain degrees while playing college basketball.

But he could never overcome totally all that had preceeded him. Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin and others continued to raid the state for players. DePaul became a national player for several years before limited by recruiting sanctions, corraling several Chicago athletes that would have looked great in Illini uniforms like Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings and Teddy Grubbs. Competition all over the country was improving as more quality athletes were being developed and the fight to recruit them intensified. Henson remained convinced that he could not recruit out-of-state except for a few rare exceptions. And Illinois remained in a vulnerable position because of its previous NCAA run-ins.

Most people blame Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl for his highly unethical if not illegal attempt to steal Chicagoan Deon Thomas away from Illinois after he had already signed a scholarship tender in 1989. The details of this devastating and highly questionable investigation are beyond the scope of this article, but the real blame must rest with the NCAA.

Since Illinois had been labeled as a pariah school due to its past troubles with recruiting violations, almost anyone complaining to the NCAA (true or false) was met with trusting ears. And in the case of Bruce Pearl, the NCAA reportedly helped him set up his sting operation to expose illegality (actually, just the appearance of illegality). Iowa had always been treated with partiality by demagogue NCAA leader Walter Byers, and NCAA investigator Rich Hilliard was a college chum of Pearl. Thus, the NCAA cooperated with Iowa, helped Pearl with his sting operation and refused to believe the Illini's claims of innocence.

Even though Illinois was found innocent of all major charges, they were punished severely with a charge of "lack of institutional control." Those who study the NCAA realize some penalty was guaranteed, regardless of the findings, because their power rests from using some schools as examples to scare all others into compliance. So again, Illinois had to dig itself out of a recruiting nightmare. Henson never fully recovered before having to retire in 1996, when competitors were then using the excuse of Henson's advancing age as a reason to outrecruit Illinois for top talent.

Lon Kruger followed Henson, and Bill Self and now Bruce Weber have followed Kruger as Illini head basketball coaches. Each has brought Illinois at least one Big Ten Championship with players believed to have been recruited legally. So perhaps with all the problems the UI has faced over the years, methods have been developed to guarantee both NCAA compliance and quality teams. But competition is still ferocious, and the complexities of NCAA rules are now highly complex and difficult to interpret let alone follow. The system is increasingly rife with the potential for corruption.

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