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 IX of XIV parts.

Hiring their own lawyers to represent them, Illinois set about to discover the truth of the Deon Thomas case, one way or the other. And they hired J. Steven Beckett to represent Deon Thomas. Beckett soon concluded Thomas' rights were violated and set about to aid his client's defense. One thing he did was have a lie detector test performed on Deon.

Lie detectors (polygraphs) cannot be used as evidence in a court of law, but they have proven highly reliable for many purposes and are used routinely by law enforcement as guidelines for investigations. Lies and liars can be detected this way with consistency. The polygraph on Deon was performed by Harry M. Lockhard of Secur-Tech in Champaign, Illinois. Lockhard knew nothing about the case and had no connection with the University of Illinois or owned basketball tickets.

The hour-long test, performed sometime after midterm exams of Thomas' first semester on campus, asked all the pertinent questions, and Lockhard concluded that Deon Thomas was answering all questions truthfully. It is assumed these questions concerned not only the accusations of illegal offers from Illinois but also those claimed by Thomas to have come from Iowa. Thomas did volunteer that on one hungry and depressing late-night occasion, he called Jimmy Collins to request a loan of $10.00 for pizza, which he later repaid. He stated the only financial benefit he received from Illinois besides his scholarship was a $12.00/hour summer job with Illinois Power Company, a job that was perfectly legal and permissable under NCAA rules.

Besides these findings, tape recording a person without his knowledge and consent is illegal in Illinois. The recording provided by Pearl did not begin at the beginning of the conversation between him and Thomas. Theoretically, Deon could have been fed information about which he would later agree when repeated for the recording. It is common knowledge among investigators for the CIA, FBI, etc. that the first person to interview a person is most capable of influencing the perspective of the interviewee toward the response he wishes to obtain.

It was also reported there was evidence of tape cutting and splicing. Any tape that is missing sections must be considered suspect. There is no need to doctor the tape unless removed material reverses the value of the rest of the tape.

This called the whole tape into question, especially since it was created after Thomas had already signed with Illinois. Thomas testified he was merely agreeing with whatever Bruce Pearl said to end the conversation and the entire relationship quicker, so his version of the story gained some credibility. Thomas said it was common "street language" to joke about all sorts of things, and he thought Pearl was just engaging in friendly banter that required no veracity. Thomas never said he was offered anything by Illinois on the tape. He just appeared to agree with simple "yeah" responses whenever Pearl mentioned offers. In what context were these agreements being made?

In addition, it was discovered a high school classmate of Thomas named Reynaldo Kyles was entertained on a weekend "recruiting trip" normally limited to recruitable athletes. Kyles was not an athlete but had been recruited by Pearl the same as Thomas. Kyles was supposedly promised an academic scholarship to attend Iowa and become a student manager for the basketball team in return for securing Deon Thomas' signature on a basketball scholarship tender. If Iowa gave any financial benefits to Kyles unavailable to other normal students, any activity by Kyles to help Thomas choose Iowa broke an NCAA rule.

Also, it was discovered Bruce Pearl had followed Deon Thomas to Amsterdam the spring of his senior year as he played for a travelling U. S. All-Star team and had given him an Iowa jacket, one that would not be permissible under NCAA regulations.

Thomas' grandmother and Deon both insisted it was Iowa and not Illinois that had offered illegal inducements. The grandmother said Iowa had promised her new and better living arrangements if Deon would attend Iowa. This might seem self-serving to protect her grandson, but she repeated her same story in the exact same way numerous times.

During Illinois' more intensive investigation post Slive, it was discovered Bruce Pearl had written a talking points memo for his head coach Dr. Tom Davis outlining the possibility Deon Thomas might leave Illinois and attend Iowa if they could get Illinois in trouble over Thomas' recruitment. If memory serves, this memo encouraged the use of a phone recording to begin the NCAA investigative process and help ensure the desired results.

While it is true the NCAA sometimes lets athletes change schools when the school they plan to attend is hit with NCAA penalties prior to their enrollment, Pearl sounded quite confident. An analysis of phone records proved the existence of frequent phone calls between Bruce Pearl and the NCAA office of investigator Rich Hilliard prior to the Thomas taping.

Hilliard had been a student announcer at Boston College while Pearl was the student manager of the BC basketball team, and they became lasting friends. While we do not possess recordings of their conversations, it appears likely Hilliard was helping Pearl prepare his case, perhaps also giving pointers on how best to tape record and guide a phone conversation to a desired conclusion. It is also possible Hilliard confirmed the NCAA's blessing on Thomas transferring away from Illinois in return for his cooperation in the investigation. Such support by the NCAA would be extra motivation for Pearl to proceed with his plan. Of course, Pearl was also probably convincing Hilliard of Illinois' illegality, right or wrong.

The LaPhonso Ellis/Notre Dame involvement proved to damage the NCAA's case more than Illinois. LaPhonso had given his testimony in a meeting with NCAA investigator Bob Minnix, the Notre Dame grad, and Missy Conboy, a former NCAA investigator later hired by ND who represented the university at the meeting. Whether Ellis' testimony was directed toward a preconceived goal of incriminating Illinois, it was certainly true the people present in the room favored the NCAA's agenda and made little or no effort to disprove Ellis' charges. He was among friends, in contrast to Deon Thomas' Chicago interrogation.

Encouraged to speak up by his coach Digger Phelps, Ellis said what investigators wanted to hear. As background, Ellis had secretly committed to attend Illinois before making a last-minute switch to Notre Dame. There were rumors at the time of illegal inducements by ND, so a public proclamation by LaPhonso that Illinois was the cheater would certainly help Notre Dame dispel those early rumors.

Sadly for LaPhonso, his testimony had more holes than a sieve. Even his high school coaches and several of his close family members admitted Ellis was lying. Provable events and circumstances verified Ellis could not have benefitted as he described. Eventually, all his charges were dropped. There were no punishments for Ellis, Phelps or Notre Dame for lying intentionally to the NCAA, but one must wonder about their motivations for fabricating such an erroneous tale.

The NCAA's case lost significant credibility by the ND revelations, and it lost even more as Illinois was able to counter all of Iowa's charges as well. When Chancellor Mort Weir and Athletic Director John Mackovic went before the NCAA Infractions Committee, they were at least moderately hopeful that reasonable people could put aside their differences and work toward a compromise that would reflect the truth of the situation.

During the course of their investigation, the UI discovered several procedural violations they subsequently reported to the NCAA, and these were called "minor" by the NCAA. Most could have been resolved with better paperwork. One of the ten charges the NCAA eventually sited against the UI was the $10 loan Deon Thomas admitted receiving from Jimmy Collins for pizza. So even though the NCAA refused to accept the overall conclusions of the polygraph test, they accepted the loan admission by Deon.

All the major charges against Illinois, the $80,000, the Chevy Blazer, and the illegal inducements for LaPhonso Ellis, were dropped by the NCAA. Lou Henson and Jimmy Collins were permitted to keep their jobs. While not admitting it publicly, the NCAA found the University of Illinois innocent. However, in a tactic they can use arbitrarily to provide extra punishments, the NCAA said Illinois "lacked institutional control." This IS considered a major charge, so Illinois was punished anyway. They lacked institutional control because they didn't submit to the NCAA power elite or accept charges that proved completely false.

In a public statement at the conclusion of this lengthy and expensive case, the NCAA said that, although they could find no evidence of major recruiting violations, Illinois was a cheater school. They had no power to level major penalties for the Bruce Pearl/LaPhonso Ellis charges, so they convicted Illinois in the press. They reconfirmed what they have long wanted the nation to believe, that Illinois is a renegade program that cannot be trusted to obey the law. No proof, but loud and repeated prose.

Illinois was shocked at these findings, but they had no further recourse. They had recently lost star center prospect Juwan Howard to Michigan due to concerns of possible major violations, and future recruiting was devastated as well. Henson continued coaching at Illinois, but he could never again produce championship level teams. He left Illinois in 1994 and later coached several years at New Mexico State.

Henson's overall record is one of the best in NCAA history, but don't expect him to ever become a member of the Hall of Fame. The NCAA's attacks on him likely convicted him permanently in the public mind. If not, his willingness to stand up to Bobby Knight after one game and call him a "classic bully" likely sealed his fate. After all, Knight would never accept that sitting down, and he has powerful friends.

Jimmy Collins was never considered a viable replacement for Lou Henson. Most likely, the UI wished to prevent further animosity by the NCAA, who will forever assume he is guilty regardless. Collins has had periodic success as head coach of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Bruce Pearl became a pariah for awhile, as many school administrators distrust someone who resorts to his tactics. To his credit, he persevered. He was eventually successful at some lower-level head coaching stops along the way, lost a close game to the tremendous 2004-2005 Illini basketball team in the NCAA tournament during Illinois' National Championship game run as head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and he is now entering his second year as head coach at Tennessee.

The University of Illinois submitted all its evidence supporting the illegal recruitment of Deon Thomas by Bruce Pearl and the University of Iowa to the NCAA. The NCAA never investigated the charges. Was this due to a lack of evidence or selective enforcement?


Parts X through XIV will appear on IlliniBoard.com 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.
Part VIII for this series is available here.


Illini Inquirer Top Stories