Through the Trifocals: Illinois & the NCAA

The University of Illinois has had a frustrating long-term relationship with the NCAA that may be continuing unabated. Illinisports discusses this relationship, especially how it has affected the Deon Thomas case and the Chief Illiniwek controversy, in this article. This is part VIII of XIV parts.

What happens when the differences in perspective between two people are extreme enough to be opposites? For instance, how can a liar and an honest person understand each other and find any synthesis? The liar presumes the honest person is lying because he would lie under the same circumstance, and the honest person assumes the liar is honest because he would be honest in the same situation. The two are at a perpetual impasse and reconciliation is impossible. And how can an outside observer determine the truth?

That is the frustrating situation found in the Deon Thomas case. Deon Thomas was a long-armed 6'-8" center who graduated from Chicago Simeon high school in 1989 after being named Mr. Basketball in Illinois and a McDonald's All-American. He signed a scholarship tender in April of 1989 for the University of Illinois after a heated recruiting battle with the University of Iowa.

Illinois was coming off a Final Four success with their exciting Flying Illini basketball team, and Illini fans saw Deon joining a solid nucleus of returnees from that team. Future recruiting looked equally promising. After more than a dozen years of struggles trying to get Illinois back to respectability from the sinkhole of the 1970's, head coach Lou Henson was finally keeping top in-state players at home and demonstrating a chance for consistent success. It was rarified air that Illini loyalists hadn't experienced since before the Slush Fund in 1966.

Unfortunately for Illinois, that euphoria was short-lived. Before Deon Thomas could enroll for his first classes, the University of Illinois was informed by the NCAA it was being investigated for illegality in the recruitment of Thomas. Illinois was accused of offering Deon $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer to attend Illinois.

It was soon discovered that Bruce Pearl, an assistant coach at the University of Iowa, had brought these charges after tape recording a phone conversation with Deon Thomas that appeared to confirm this illegal offer. With supposed confirmation on tape, and with three previous major NCAA investigations already labeling them as long-term cheaters, the University of Illinois felt it necessary to show immediate submission to the NCAA.

Falling on their symbolic sword, the UI administration hired Mike Slive to represent them in the upcoming NCAA hearings. Slive was not hired to defend Illinois against the charges, and everyone knew it. Rather, Slive was a known representative of the NCAA's interests whose job it was to be a middle man and negotiate penalties that schools would self-impose.

In other words, Slive told schools how to punish themselves so the NCAA might not become more punitive. This way, the NCAA didn't have to look like the bad guy, and it could save itself a great deal of money and still get its convictions. In most such cases, one or more coaches and/or administrators are fired, and some combination of additional penalties such as reduction in scholarships, limitations on recruiting, forfeiture of games played with ineligible or illegally-paid players, bowl and/or postseason tournament bans, and fines are self-imposed.

Most agree the NCAA wanted head coach Lou Henson and assistant coach Jimmy Collins fired, at the least. Like virgins dropped into a volcano, such employment decapitations were designed to appease the gods and prevent their wrath. While Illinois was reluctant to go to this extreme, they also knew the NCAA might penalize them so severely they might never recover.

Shortly after the Iowa revelations, a second shoe dropped. Notre Dame's LaPhonso Ellis reported that he also had received illegal offers to attend Illinois. Encouraged (forced?) by his coach Digger Phelps, Ellis' statement convinced most people around the country of the veracity of Iowa's charges.

At least one additional party was possibly involved. Indiana's Bobby Knight had brought charges to the NCAA in 1985 against Illinois in the recruitment of Lowell Hamilton. Providence St. Mel's Hamilton was a high school All-American jumping jack who was the first Illinois player to resist Knight's recruiting overtures. Previously, every top Illinois player Knight wanted including superstars Quinn Buckner and Isiah Thomas had attended Indiana.

Hamilton's mother had taken a job at a business run by an Illinois alum, so Knight charged that Illinois was cheating to recruit Hamilton by giving his mom a job. And since we now know Knight and Walter Byers had a positive relationship, it is possible he contacted Byers about the situation and sought swift justice. But after an intensive investigation, the NCAA was unable to prove the job was anything but a coincidence and dropped the charges.

Lowell Hamilton and Bobby Knight have nearly opposite personalities, so one could imagine Hamilton sensing a better player-coach relationship with the equally down-to-earth Henson. And Illinois was now respectable enough to be an attractive alternative for top players from the home state. But Knight did not like seeing his once fertile recruiting territory eroded by Illinois, and he reacted with a vengence to losing Hamilton.

There are wide-spread rumors Knight began a back-stabbing "whisper campaign" to discredit Illinois. He supposedly bent the ear of anyone who would listen. Given his extremely strong will and powerful presence, it is easy to imagine Knight having many receptive audiences.

No one dared question Knight's recruiting practices and took his word he ran a clean program, so they would likely assume Illinois was an ex-con incapable of rehabilitation if Knight said so. There is no direct proof of a "whisper campaign" by Knight, possibly because those who knew feared Knight's wrath if they made a public admission. But these rumors persist nonetheless (see also part 10).

Thus, a triangulation crossfire may have been created between the Universities of Iowa, Notre Dame and possibly Indiana, with the University of Illinois the vulnerable and exposed target in the middle. With the centralized government of the NCAA providing logistical support, it seemed the "sleeping giant" Illinois would soon be put out of its misery permanently. At stake was the elimination of a potentially strong competitor and an opening to recruit unfettered in the talent-rich state of Illinois.

But that is not what happened. Principals at the University of Illinois have not discussed this publicly, but their own internal investigation began to point out discrepancies and complications that could not be reconciled with the charges against them. We don't know the order these problems were identified or their precise sources. But enough questions arose to make the UI wonder if they should fight the charges instead of submitting to them.

For instance, during the summer after high school graduation, Deon Thomas was residing on campus and playing pickup basketball games when confronted by NCAA investigators Randy Rueckert and Bob Minnix, a former Notre Dame fullback. Don Yaeger's description of events follows:

"According to his statement, Anderson (Ed. note: Jim, professor in the College of Education and Chairman of the Illinois Athletic Control Board) looked over and saw two similarly dressed men--both wearing polo shirts and blue slacks--watching Deon as he made his way up and down the court. Suddenly, one of the two men, later identified as Rueckert, began walking up and down the sidelines yelling at Deon while he was playing. Just as suddenly, Deon quit in the middle of the game and walked away. The two men followed. So did Anderson.

"The still-unenrolled Thomas made his way downstairs to the weight room with the men following. From the top of the stairs, Anderson identified himself as a university administrator and asked the two men what was going on. Rueckert told Anderson that he and Minnix were from the NCAA and were actually on their way to Chicago when they decided to stop in and see Deon. As Thomas worked out in the weight room, Rueckert and Minnix watched through a glass door. Anderson stood back and watched them. When Thomas left the building, using a service door in the rear, the two investigators hustled out to meet him. There, they ran into Craig Stenson, a member of the school's athletic staff. According to a statement from Stenson, Rueckert began yelling at Thomas. 'You're a liar,' Stenson quotes Rueckert as saying. 'You're going to talk to me. If you don't have anything to hide, you'll talk to me.'

"Minnix stepped between Rueckert and Thomas and, in classic good cop--bad cop style, told Thomas that Rueckert, a former Chicago prosecutor, 'sometimes gets angry like that' according to the memo Stenson wrote describing the incident. Minnix then asked Thomas if he could leave Rueckert behind and come by later for a little one-on-one talk. On Stenson's advice, Thomas declined, saying all interviews should be scheduled through the university."

The NCAA's notes on this encounter sound like a pleasant conversation was enjoyed by all. This is why the NCAA dislikes tape recording conversations. They can sway opinion better if any misbehavior on their part can be hidden. It is also interesting the NCAA accused Deon Thomas of being a liar despite choosing to believe his tape recorded conversation with Bruce Pearl. If Deon was a proven liar, could he ever be trusted to tell the truth?

In August of 1989, three days before the first day of fall classes, Deon was called to a meeting with NCAA investigators Randy Rueckert and Rich Hilliard. Also present were UI special counsel Mike Slive and his law partner Mike Glazier, a former member of the NCAA enforcement staff. This intelligent but highly sensitive young man from the innercity of Chicago suddenly found himself in a situation for which he was totally unprepared or protected.

While Jimmy Collins, who had escorted Thomas to the meeting that morning, sat helplessly outside the office, Deon Thomas was interrogated for 5 and 1/2 hours without the presence of any personal advocate and with no recorded transcription of the proceedings. This meeting was supposedly for the purpose of obtaining Thomas' official statement for the NCAA, but Thomas had little if any chance of creating an accurate representation of events. That is, if the truth was different than desired by the NCAA.

The University of Illinois knew the futility of fighting the NCAA, and they knew any rebellion on their part was certain to cause extreme penalties if any questioning of the charges against them failed to change the NCAA's mind. But out of concern for fairness and accuracy, circumstances now required it. So even though they also knew it would be a direct affront to the NCAA, they fired Mike Slive in mid investigation.

Parts VIII through XIV will appear on in the upcoming days.

Part I of this series is available here.
Part II of this series is available here.
Part III of this series is available here.
Part IV for this series is available here.
Part V for this series is available here.
Part VI for this series is available here.
Part VII for this series is available here.

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