Missouri's Frank Haith and Illinois' John Groce know what is on the line Saturday.
Illinois-Missouri is an attractive pre-Christmas event evoking assorted feelings depending on your perspective.
Since the days of Lou Henson and Norm Stewart, it has always been a duel of coaches. After he retired, Stewart said he declined to do pregame radio interviews with rival broadcasters, except for this contest. Excitement was such that he forgot to say no.
At one point, frustrated by Henson’s 8-1 run in the 1980s, Stewart even tried to ditch the series ... only to discover, for all his influence, that it was “too big to fail (cancel).”
Henson and Stewart made this event. Now it is been handed down to John Groce and Frank Haith. And Haith remains in great part because of NCAA failures to appropriately handle and fully punish the outright cheating that took place when he was head coach at Miami.
That story deserves retelling today.
Haith got off lightly because of the extraordinary length of the Miami investigation and the fact that the NCAA actually had to start over after the case was tainted by its own inappropriate actions. It’s not easy to try a wrongdoer when you’re investigating yourself.
The troublemaker was big fan Nevin Shapiro, convicted of a $930 million Ponzi scheme and currently in prison. His illegal contributions to the Hurricanes’ program will never be fully calculated. But he became unhappy when his college buddies withdrew from him, and he specifically demanded that an assistant coach return $10,000 that he had provided to help recruit a prospect.
Records show that Haith wrote checks to three assistants for $3,200 each, and all four produced untruthful stories as to the reason. Haith said the three had “financial difficulties” but, in fact, these checks weren’t deposited in their accounts. Instead, assistant Jake Morton pooled the sums and provided the $10,000 payback to silence Shapiro.
In various interviews with the NCAA, Haith told ever-changing stories before finally admitting that Morton needed the money to repay Shapiro. Haith’s earlier denials were implausible and later in clear contradiction.
Without detailing further — and this was just one event — it’s clear the Miami coaches cheated by using Shapiro’s money for a recruit and later lied about the necessity of paying it back. They sought to cover up the original payment and Shapiro’s blackmail.
To conclude the case, the NCAA required Haith to sit out five games at Missouri, Haith saying later this “wasn’t an admission of guilt.”
Merry Christmas, Frank. You remain a winner at Missouri, a school that would never have made the hire if the truth had been known at the time. Haith is working on a multiyear contract starting at $1.6 million in 2011-12 and including annual raises and deferred payments.
That’s just one more story in the lurid business of college basketball. Oh, almost forgot, one of Haith’s lasting comments in the NCAA probe was, “Basketball is corrupt.” Really?
What does it all mean?
Back to the fun and games. Didn’t we start today with the statement that the Mizzou-Illini games mean different things to different folks?
— For Illini Nation, it can be viewed as the annual bowl game because the Illini have made just 14 postseason football trips since the basketball series began in St. Louis in 1980 (no game in 1982).
— For fans with uncompleted Christmas shopping, the visit to the Scottrade Center can be combined with a weekend trooping through Macy’s, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.
— There’s history here ... each individual with his own special memory. The Mizzou favorite is a 108-107 triple-OT win in 1993 when then-freshman Kiwane Garris (who shot 80 percent on free throws that season) missed two charities with no time left in the second overtime. Illinoisans prefer 1988 when, in a showdown of superb teams, Kenny Battle sparked a huge UI rally that began before halftime and resulted in an 87-84 triumph.
— Illini players embark with an open mind and a deep breath, having just completed final exams. They must have a feeling of freedom with nothing on their plate except basketball.
— For those with an eye toward Big Ten play, Missouri provides a jump-start for the kind of pressurized games Illinois can expect on the road. The UI’s first conference road game is at Wisconsin’s Kohl Center, where the Badgers broke ahead 14-0 and 31-7 last season in winning 74-51.
— With the Kentucky-Indiana series canceled — held every year from 1969 to 2011 — the long-standing UI-Missouri series stands No. 1 between teams from rival conferences. Missouri’s emotions are heightened by the fact the Big Ten overlooked the school during expansion, bringing about the move to the SEC.
— It has become a battle of transfers with four of Missouri’s top six players originally enrolling at Tulsa, Auburn, Oregon and UAB, and the Illini countering with Rayvonte Rice (Drake) and Jon Ekey (Illinois State). The early departure of Paul Pressey, who had 11 assists in an 82-73 Tigers win last year, is more than filled by the stunning development of Tulsa’s 6-5 Jordan Clarkson, a projected first-round NBA draft choice.
— Intensity is unmatched because, unlike Big Ten games, the rival fans are virtually equal in numbers, wear clashing colors and drive each other to ear-splitting vocal levels. As Groce said: “It’s a heavyweight match. Last year was my first, and it’s more emotional than what I thought.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.