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Bruce Pearl: Get ready, rat, because the Illini are comin’

Have you been following March Madness this weekend? If you haven’t, you’ve been missing out. And maybe you think UW-Milwaukee, a 12-seed that’s beaten Alabama and Boston College to reach the Sweet 16, is a beautiful Cinderella story. Well, it is, except for the rat at the helm of UWM: Bruce Pearl. He’s going to learn a hard lesson next outing: the Illini Nation has a loooong memory.

[Pearl vs. Illini Nation]

Background: What happened 15 years ago

Fifteen years ago, Deon Thomas of Chicago Simeon was a prized high school recruit. He was courted by both Illinois and Iowa. Ultimately, he chose Illinois and went on to be one of the best players in the ’90s for the Illini. But the Iowa Hawkeyes, particularly Tom Davis assistant Bruce Pearl, weren’t eager to see him in Champaign-Urbana. They framed Illinois in a recruiting “scandal” with the NCAA. A summary from

[Bruce] Pearl contends at one point, [Deon] Thomas told him Illinois was offering $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer. Pearl, then a 29-year-old assistant, huddled with his bosses, who decided to buy audio equipment and have Pearl tape subsequent conversations with Thomas.

When an NCAA investigator inquired, Iowa officials decided to turn over the tapes, which appeared to back Pearl’s claim. Thomas later said he was just trying to get Pearl off the phone.

The NCAA cleared Collins and Illinois in Thomas’ recruitment but sanctioned the Illini for other violations.

An updated story from March 20, 2005 also provides good background. And what does Deon Thomas think these days, 15 years later? The same thing he thought back then: “It’s kind of hard to forgive a snake.”

How Digger Phelps fits in (and why he still hates Illinois)

The situation was further compounded when everyone’s favorite ESPN idiot (well, after Dick Vitale), then-Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, attempted to buttress Iowa’s claims. This is how the Digger Phelps-LaPhonso Ellis angle fits into the Deon Thomas-Bruce Pearl-Jimmy Collins episode. (Just as Iowa and Illinois were competing at the time over Deon Thomas, Notre Dame and Illinois were competing over LaPhonso Ellis. Both Iowa and Notre Dame had an interest in seeing Illinois suffer.) Complicated, I know, but it’s explained well in an article about Illinois recruiting issues. This is a long quote, but necessary to understand the context.

It is beyond the scope of this column to provide total detail of the whole sorry episode, but a few facts need to be mentioned. At first, Illinois behaved like the dutiful son by hiring NCAA lawyer Mike Slive to defend them. It had become the NCAA’s pattern to use Slive to go into an accused school, find evidence to incriminate that school, and then negotiate with their representatives on how they could penalize themselves (usually including the firing of the coaches involved). The idea was that the NCAA would become much more punative and accuse the offending school of “lack of institutional control” if it showed an unwillingness to submit to self-imposed sanctions. It was Slive’s job to save them from this terrible fate.

And when Slive, now commissioner of the SEC, read the transcript of the Thomas tape, he was convinced of Illinois’ guilt and recommended severe penalties. He became even more certain of the veracity of Iowa’s claims when coach Digger Phelps and star center LaPhonso Ellis of Notre Dame accused Illinois of illegalities in Ellis’ recruitment. But as Illinois Chancellor Morton Weir and Athletic Director John Mackovic continued to study the case, doubt crept into their minds.

Here is some of what they discovered:

  1. While the transcript appeared to incriminate Thomas, there was evidence of gaps in the tape, indicating the possibility of deletions or creative splicing.
  2. The tape recording itself was vague. It showed an obvious attempt by Pearl to lead Thomas to agree with a predetermined conclusion, and Thomas’ assertion that he was just agreeing with Pearl as if it were a joke could not be disproved. Certainly, Thomas never volunteered nor directly stated that he was offered or given anything on the tape.
  3. An investigation of LaPhonso Ellis’ claims proved to be totally incorrect. Even a member of his own family said the claims were untrue. Eventually, Ellis publicly admitted to lying about the episode. One must wonder why he made the claims in the first place and whether his coach or anyone else made Ellis lie. Was there a conspiracy to incriminate Illinois for some self-serving reason? Did Bobby Knight’s earlier “whisper campaign” against Illinois influence Digger Phelps’ attitude toward Illinois, or did Phelps wish to damage Illinois for some personal reason?
  4. Iowa paid for a friend of Deon Thomas to visit the Iowa campus for the purpose of getting him to help recruit Thomas to Iowa. Was this student, Reynoldo Kyles, thus a representative of Iowa’s athletic interest and therefore ineligible to be involved in recruiting?
  5. Deon Thomas’ grandmother said it was Iowa who offered her a new residence if Deon would attend Iowa, and that Illinois made no illegal offers. By the way, at no time did the NCAA follow up on recommendations to investigate either Iowa or Notre Dame for possible violations.

These and other contradictory findings caused Weir and Mackovic to fire Mike Slive and hire their own lawyers instead. They knew they were on shaky ground with the NCAA, so they ran the risk of penalties approaching a “Death Penalty” if they could not prove Illinois’ innocence to the NCAA’s satisfation. Given the lessons learned by Illinois from earlier run-ins with the NCAA and their diligent efforts to comply with NCAA guidelines, including the hiring of people of integrity like Weir and Mackovic, Illinois would never have gone to the extreme of firing Slive unless they were 100% sure of their findings.

I suggest you read the full account, as it contains much more information about the “scandal” and other background information.

You may also be interested in the text of Bruce Pearl’s memo to the NCAA regarding Illinois’ recruiting of Deon Thomas. It’s filled with lies, hypocries, and half-truths. It’s classic Bruce Pearl.

After the allegation, Deon Thomas took a lie detector test in which he was asked a variety of questions about Illinois’ recruiting. He passed the test without a problem. For more information, see the 2/24/1990 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sports section page 1C. The examiner concluded that “[a]fter a thorough analysis of the polygraph record, it is the opinion of this examiner that (Thomas) told the truth through his examination and is not now intentionally withholding pertinent information.”

The NCAA issued a report on 11/7/1990, punishing the University of Illinois for infractions it found during its investigation (also see the easier-to-read, backup local archive of report). The university was cited for “lack of institutional control”; you will note that nowhere in the report is Bruce Pearl’s name mentioned, nor is any mention made of a recording. The NCAA simply used his libelous accusations as a shoehorn to conduct a laughable investigation that turned up very little. The rest is history.

The aftermath

Pearl specifically accused Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins, now the head coach of UIC’s program, of doing the bribing. In the immediate aftermath, Iowa’s coach, Tom Davis, prohibited Bruce Pearl from making the trip with the Hawkeyes to the Assembly Hall for the “Deon Bowl”—the Illini Nation was ready to tear him limb from limb.

Of course, a few Pearl apologists still linger. (Hell, some even claim to cover sports.) Some think that only a biased Illini fan can harbor hatred for Pearl these days. Some think he qualifies as a whistle-blower. The Washington Post would have you believe that Pearl turned in Jimmy Collins because of his own principles. That’s bullshit. Bruce Pearl is a rat, through and through. The NCAA found nothing to back up the surreptitiously tape-recorded allegations of Pearl and his scum Iowa ilk. All of the sanctions placed upon Illinois in the ’90s stemmed from the ensuing NCAA investigation, which cleared the university of Pearl’s allegation and uncovered minor infractions for which NCAA darlings such as Notre Dame and UCLA never would have been punished. In short, Pearl’s allegation didn’t hold up. He lied, and the NCAA’s investigation proved his allegation was a lie.

Of course, to hear Pearl tell it, he’s just a paragon of truth and virtue.

“First of all, Illinois’ defense was to discredit a witness, that’s a classic defense, so you take some hits on that end. But the one thing that I underestimated was … I’m an idealist. I thought everybody wanted to know the truth and it’s just not that way. Fans are going to be fans, and they should support their teams and they should be loyal even to a fault. And so I thought I was doing the right thing by everybody to try to right a wrong.”

That would be an awesome defense, if:

  1. Iowa hadn’t desperately wanted to lure Deon Thomas away from Illinois. In fact, Iowa spent over $10,000 while Thomas was in high school so Bruce Pearl could follow Deon Thomas’ team to Europe while they toured there. From a 2/12/1990 Sporting News story (pg. 14):

    Iowa wanted Thomas so much that Pearl followed him to Amsterdam, Holland, while Thomas’ high school team played there last spring. Vouchers show that Iowa spent more than $10,000 on seven trips related to the recruitment of Thomas.

  2. The NCAA had found something to back up Pearl’s specific allegations.
  3. The coaching fraternity hadn’t rendered its judgment on Pearl by relegating him to D-II Southern Indiana for nine years.

Ultimately, the Deon Thomas episode hurt both Bruce Pearl and Jimmy Collins. It certainly hurt Deon Thomas, but some people just blame Deon. But as Illinitalk points out, now is time for the Illinois athletic department to win the PR war leading up to the game. Pearl will paint himself as a whistleblower. In reality, he’s a fraud, a liar, and college basketball’s closest thing to a used car salesman.

Furthermore, since UIC and UWM both play in the Horizon League, the bad blood has created quite a rivalry between the two teams rooted in the animosity between the coaches. (I’ve watched some of the games—they’re brutal.)

Time for revenge

Fourteen years ago, Bruce Pearl said after visiting the Assembly Hall for the first time since the “scandal” that he thought the controversy would quickly die down (USA Today, 1/30/1991, Sports 5C). He was wrong. The man is still Illini fan Public Enemy No. 1. As one fan puts it, it’s time to kill Cinderella.

Now, we settle it: the Illini basketball team gets to tear the Panthers limb from limb, metaphorically, in the 2005 NCAA tournament. 20,000 orange-clad Illini fans will be reigning jeers down on Bruce Pearl. The Panthers will be wondering why they bothered to full-court press Illinois in the first place. And ol’ Brucie’s Cinderella slipper will shatter into a million fabricated pieces in the United Center Allstate Arena.

The News-Gazette’s Loren Tate, who’s covered Illinois for 39 years, predicts the reception Illinois fans will give Pearl will be “[t]he most horrible you’ve ever seen. It will be beyond your wildest imagination.” Stephen Bardo, who played on the ’89 Flyin’ Illini squad, says, “He’s going to need some secret service guys to protect him.” If you don’t believe them, see what they’re saying on IlliniBoard.

Jay Mariotti, punching bag for Around the Horn and columnist-du-jour of week-old memes, offers a few warnings for the U of I in the lead-up to the game. Bruce Pearl, Bruce Weber, and the players want to put the focus on the game. Big Ten Wonk think it’s old news. Even the legendary and highly respected Illini coach Lou Henson is telling fans to get over it. Guess what? It’s not going away.

Dee-licious. I can’t wait.

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