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 X of XIV parts.

Out of fairness, it is necessary to include the text of a message posted on IlliniBoard ( on February 21, 2006. If it wasn't written by Bruce Pearl, it was done by someone wishing to exonerate him and Iowa from charges of suspicious recruiting practices. Our responses are in italics:

"There was a widespread feeling among Big Ten & Midwest coaches that the Illini were paying off Chicago public league coaches and arranging booster money to the families of recruits. Knight at Indiana, Keady at Purdue, Digger Phelps at Notre Dame all had similar experiences to Iowa's dealings with a kid from Quincy named Douglas who actually confided in the father of a HS teammate that he couldn't turn down what Illini boosters were giving his mother.

(This is heresay evidence without proof. Is this part of the "whisper campaign"? We know nothing of any illegality involving Bruce Douglas. We do know he and Lou Henson had an immediate repore that would give any recruit a good reason to attend a school. We also know Illinois officials have suspected Iowa of illegal tactics in the recruitment of Illinois players at least since the early 1950's. Who is telling the truth?)

"So when Deon Thomas began to back off his verbal commitment to Iowa after a visit from Jimmy Collins, the Illini asst coach who ran their recruiting, the long time Iowa Athletic Director, Bump Elliott, decided that further phone conversations with Thomas should be taped.

"Elliott authorized the phone tap, requisitioned the equipment and arranged for technicians on the U of Iowa maintenance staff to install it; and directed Pearl to record his conversation with Thomas.

(To our knowledge, Bump Elliott has never before admitted publicly that Pearl was acting on his orders. Initially, it was hard to get Dr. Tom Davis to admit prior knowledge of the taping, let alone Elliott.)

"Pearl immediately turned the incriminating tape over to Elliott as directed. That, essentially, was the extent of Pearl's involvement--he taped a conversation as he was told to do by his superiors.

(This is completely self-serving to protect Pearl. Phone records showing multiple conversations between Pearl and Rich Hilliard at the NCAA prove much more culpability than stated. So did his position paper on the motives for the taping. And we mustn't forget the doctoring of the tape!)

"Neither Elliott nor Iowa coach Dr Tom Davis nor Pearl nor anyone else on the Iowa staff informed the NCAA of the existence of the tape or its contents. NCAA Enforcement Director David Berst stated very explicitly that the NCAA was tipped off by athletic dept staff at another Big Ten school, in a context which seemed to make clear that it was either Indiana or Purdue that did the snitching.

(Is there a difference between telling the NCAA directly or asking someone else, say Walter Byers' friend Bobby Knight, to do it? How would anyone else have known about it? If Iowa had no plans to share the tape with the NCAA, why bother to create it? If Berst "stated explicitly" Iowa did not snitch on Illinois, then he was motivated to protect Iowa. This might be proof of selective enforcement.)

"The details provided by Thomas in the taped conversation--that he was getting an automobile and his family $80,000--were confirmed by Thomas' closest high school buddy, who admitted that Thomas had confided those same details to him earlier.

(Reynaldo Kyles was proven to have no credibility whatsoever. He lied repeatedly and often in contradictory fashion when questioned. He was asked to influence Deon Thomas' perspective all along, and he was being paid off for his efforts to help Iowa recruit Thomas. He may have even been the one to plant the idea in Deon's head of "street talk" saying he had been offered $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer. Then, Deon might have thought he was agreeing with Pearl about the "street talk" rather than the truth of actual illegal inducements. Deon's "good buddy" Kyles was his Brutus, and his testimony cannot be trusted.)

"The NCAA inquiry ended up being stymied, and the matter was dropped with an NCAA statement that there was not enough evidence for a finding in the case. The NCAA, of course, as a private organization, has no power to subpoena records or compel testimony; Illinois essentially stonewalled the NCAA, refusing to produce its internal records. Berst made an angry public statement that in essence expressed his frustration that he couldn't nail the Illini though he was certain they were dirty.

(Illinois did an exhaustive investigation and shared everything with the NCAA. The only "stonewalling" was by the NCAA. They refused to let Illinois interview Bruce Pearl or let Deon Thomas face his accuser in a fair public forum. As we discussed previously, the NCAA had its mind made up before the process began, and they would use any excuse to blame the institution or individual rather than attack the merits of Illinois' arguments. The NCAA had more advantages in the investigation than Illinois, and they still couldn't come up with the proof necessary to convict.)

"The NCAA did find Illinois guilty of numerous recruiting violations, and sanctioned the basketball program. In the aftermath, the U of Illinois administration cleaned house, forcing coach Henson into early retirement and firing Collins.

(Illinois did not "clean house" afterward. Henson and Collins stayed through the 1994 season and left only because rival recruiters were scaring recruits with the fear Henson would soon retire. Collins was never fired. The UI administration did react positively by putting much more money into their compliance program and improve their reporting methods. They now have one of the best and most copied programs in the country.)

"Henson, Collins & Illinois were successful in portraying Bruce Pearl as the "heavy" in the incident, even though he was a lowly assistant coach who followed the orders of his boss.

They understood it made them look better to make Pearl the fall guy rather than to get into a he said, she said verbal war with the highly respected Iowa AD Elliott.

(Illinois didn't need to incriminate Pearl, he incriminated himself with his actions. And his self-serving reasons for continuing to pursue Deon Thomas after losing him to Illinois demonstrate non-altruistic motives. Pearl might wish to blame his bosses for the position in which he found himself, but it was probably his greed that was his undoing.)

"They knew better than to match their reputations with that of Elliott where truthfulness and honesty were involved. So much easier to target a brash young Jewish guy only a few years removed from his urban Eastern origins.

(There are two amazing statements here. We have no doubt Bumb Elliott is an honorable man. His brother Pete Elliott, former Illinois football coach, is an honorable man also, and one of the finest people this writer has ever met. But Pete lost his job due to the Slush Fund he helped organize to help Illinois gain an even footing with their Big Ten competitors who had been cheating with impunity for many years. Does an honest, honorable man set up a secret tape recording that is illegal?

All humans are fallible, all have lied at one time or another, and all have cheated someone somewhere. However honest Bump Elliott is, he was still a former head football coach at the University of Michigan and athetic director at the University of Iowa, both seemingly protected programs within the NCAA. Was he a "made man?" Who knows. Is being believable to the NCAA the same as being truthful? As for human beings, knowledgeable Illinois people swear by the integrity of Chancellor Mort Weir and Athletic Director John Mackovic as much as Iowa might revere Bump Elliott.

The second statement borders on a racial slur designed to gain sympathy for Bruce Pearl. His racial background or religious preference was of no concern to Illinois, and it shouldn't be important to anyone else. This "lowly" coach was a flamboyant, highly ambitious assistant coach who wanted to make a big splash by recruiting superstar Deon Thomas. This motive alone calls his credibility into question as he stood to gain so much personally by destroying Illinois and paving the way for Deon Thomas and other future Illinois stars to attend Iowa. Using racism as a tool to attack Illinois is below-the-belt and would never be used by someone confident of his position.)

"The U of Illinois moved quickly to clean up its basketball program by bringing in squeaky clean Lon Kruger while moving to initiate reforms and establish control over all the athletic programs. And Illinois has been largely scandal-free ever since.

(This has elements of truth, although those who know Lou Henson guarantee he is just as "squeaky clean." Lou won't even swear when mad. Ever. Lon Kruger was brought in four years later to continue Illinois' efforts at maintaining a high level of integrity and honesty started much earlier, a result of problems in 1967 and 1974. This was not begun under Kruger but has been a long-term continuing process.)

"The matter ought to have been consigned to old history long ago. The problem is that far too many Illini fans are unwilling to do what the U of Illinois itself tacitly admitted in the aftermath of the Deon Thomas affair--that the Illini basketball program was dirty and needed to be cleaned up. Instead of admitting that their Illini coaches were at fault, they continue to try to make Bruce Pearl out as the bad guy and blame Iowa because they got caught.

(This is revisionist history. Illinois never "tacitly admitted" the basketball program was "dirty." In fact, it proved the program was much cleaner than almost every other school in the country. How many programs could withstand the intense, biased, emotionally-charged long-term investigative process and find only ten minor infractions? Even clean programs may self-report that many or more infractions each year. Illinois and its supporters continue to explain these things exactly because of posters like this. Every time one person retells the NCAA/Iowa/Bruce Pearl version of events, someone from Illinois has to correct the lies. No one else will do it for us, and they truly need correcting.

Using the excuse of "old news" or "consigned to old history" is a transparent attempt to end the story before the whole truth is known. Only liars fear long-term discussion. The past, present and future are all connected, so only liars benefit from forgetting the past. The past helps us understand the present and deal with the future.)

"Footnote: One of the delightful ironies of the Illini cheating scandals is that one of the incidents that led to the Deon Thomas affair was an occasion when Landon King, one of the more prominent Chicago public league coaches, told a young Purdue assistant that delivering a recruit to Purdue would require a $15,000 gratuity to him.

"The young Purdue assistant was named Bruce Weber."

(The use of the term "delightful" certainly calls into question the motives of the poster. Landon "Sonny" Cox, coach of Chicago King high school at the time, was a flamboyant attention-getter who recruited several superstars to his high school and became a national power for awhile. He was known for saying all sorts of outrageous things, not all of which could be confirmed. Even if he did make that statement to Bruce Weber, this is no proof Illinois had to pay a stipend to Cox to recruit his players. He could just as easily have been testing Purdue's integrity or trying to discourage them from becoming involved.

Illinois did recruit All-American Efrem Winters out of King, and they later recruited All-American Marcus Liberty from there. Stars Jamie Brandon and Thomas Hamilton committed but never attended Illinois due to academic deficiencies.

It is easy to imagine Illinois did something illegal to recruit these players, but we know of nothing. Lou Henson did develop a relationship with Cox, a man who wanted his players to be treated properly at their colleges and steered them to head coaches he trusted. Henson proved his concern for the needs of academically and financially troubled innercity kids by recruiting Winters' teammate Reggie Woodward and then seeing to it that university academic support staff helped him secure his diploma.

This may have been a legal way to assist Cox and his program without resorting to extra stipends or other illegality. It is reported Cox sent his players to Illinois because he knew they would be safe there. There is no evidence any of the Chicago Public League players who enrolled at Illinois during the Henson years ever received any extra benefits before, during or after their stay at Illinois. And no charges were ever filed at the NCAA against Illinois for their recruitment of Chicago King athletes.)

* * * * * * *

Basketball recruiting is sometimes a seedy business. Many people have their hands out, and many others are tempted to fill those hands with goodies in return for their services. We cannot state that Illinois never did anything illegal in the recruitment of some players, but we also cannot prove that Iowa, Indiana, Notre Dame or any other school never did anything illegal either. Without proof, and most proofs are well hidden intentionally, we are left to resort to rumor and speculation. Rumor should never indict anyone, and those who believe rumors without foundation are just as wrong as those spreading the false message.

Some will always believe the NCAA knew Illinois was cheating and was prevented from proving it by Illinois stonewalling. This is especially true for those who wish to believe only the simplistic "consensus" reported in the media or to side with the accusing parties due to emotional attachment or dependency. But there are others who will always know in their hearts that this time, unlike its three previous encounters with NCAA enforcement, Illinois was an innocent victim.

There have been many rumors of conspiratorial behavior in the past throughout all walks of life, some of which were true and some that weren't. Those with something to hide have ridiculed study of these behaviors as being "conspiracy theories" or "urban myths", phrases that through constant repetition and misuse have come to discredit anyone who doubts the spin of authority figures under question.

But conspiracies do exist and are actually quite common. There are good conspiracies and bad conspiracies, and the bad conspirators are always masters of clever rhetoric designed to hide the truth of their involvement. Few people operate independently. Most need support from one or more additional people to see their agendas fulfilled. It is usually easy to find people of like mind with the same motives and drive, so these people work together for the common cause. Sweeping all notion of conspiracies into the dust bin aids the true conspirators and would be foolish at best.

Some will say a good conspiracy occurred when the NCAA worked in conjunction with the Universities of Iowa, Notre Dame and possibly Indiana and others to shine light on a corrupt, vile program at the University of Illinois. Others will take into consideration the material described here and conclude a bad conspiracy borne out of greed and hate tried to destroy Illinois unjustly. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide for himself which of the two actually occurred. But make no mistake, it was a conspiracy one way or the other.

One final note on the Deon Thomas case. Most athletes when caught red-handed by the NCAA have been permitted or forced to transfer without penalty to other schools and were sometimes eager to depart from the school they helped bring down as life would be much easier for them elsewhere. Plus, if they had wanted or needed cars and/or money, there were plenty other places willing to provide them, some with probable immunity from NCAA prosecution.

Not Deon Thomas. After enduring a required redshirt year Illinois self-imposed to prevent the possibility of playing an ineligible player, Deon remained in school and earned his degree. In addition, he became the all-time leading scorer in Illinois history. All this without a single extra benefit, for everyone was watching to guarantee none were provided. Deon Thomas is one of the finest people ever to graduate from Illinois, as he evolved beyond the pettiness and destructiveness of his enemies.

To this day, Deon Thomas maintains his innocence and repeats his story of Iowa illegality. Would Deon have stayed at Illinois if he was guilty of the charges?
Parts XI 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.
Part VIII for this series is available here.
Part IX for this series is available here.

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