Tate: Facts and fiction

Tate: Facts and fiction

Talk about your worst nightmare!

Here is slap-happy Illini Nation, floating alongside the most enjoyable basketball season in a lifetime, suddenly consumed in the darkest and most bitter memories.

For old-timers in the orange throng, being in the same building with Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl on Thursday is like mud-wrestling with Tonya Harding, sharing lunch with Charles Manson or playing a round of golf with O.J. Simpson.

Deon Thomas said it best, telling the Chicago Tribune: "(Pearl) is evil. What else can you say he is?"

Commented Dave Dorr, who covered the 15-year-old story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "It was the most underhanded thing I ever encountered."

The oversimplified nutshell is that Pearl, as an Iowa recruiter in 1988-89, brought down a Final Four program by surreptitiously taping Thomas in an admission that he received an offer of $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer from then-assistant UI coach Jimmy Collins.

This was one of 12 allegations brought against Collins in a multi-year ordeal that cut the Lou Henson program in half, cost the UI millions to defend and sullied the reputation of Collins. So convinced were NCAA investigators of Illinois'' guilt that Chuck Smrt, in announcing that all 12 allegations were dropped, shocked the UI clan by opining that "just because they weren''t found guilty doesn''t mean they didn''t do it."

It was all so complicated. There is no understanding without returning to the beginning.

This occurred in a period when the UI reputation was mud, Mike White resigning in the wake of football infractions and Neale Stoner forced to step down as athletic director for a series of misdemeanors. Then too, Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke was obliged to investigate a complaint from Indiana University that the mother of Illini center Lowell Hamilton had received a job with a University of Illinois alumnus.

Duke found no infraction, but the whispering campaign emanating from Bloomington, Ind., became increasingly audible. A lot of schools, and particularly Indiana, Iowa and Notre Dame, were determined to detour Collins'' popular status with Chicago-area athletes in the late 1980s.

That was the atmosphere when Thomas came along as a superstar at Chicago Simeon. And he had given Pearl reason to believe he might sign with Iowa.

A thorough recruiter, Pearl tried to build an Iowa-leaning network around Thomas. Most prominent in this regard was a chubby student, Renaldo Kyles, who had a relationship with Thomas. Telephone records show Pearl spoke with Kyles 118 times between October 1988 and May 1989, and actually brought Kyles to the Iowa campus with the apparent promise of giving him scholarship aid to serve as a basketball manager.

But Kyles'' real job was to serve as broker. He was to deliver Thomas and probably was paid to do so. Pearl called nearly every other day for an update.

Rumor mill

Now comes the element of "street talk." In the inner city, where high school basketball digs deep into the culture, there are always scurrilous rumors and exaggerations about how much the nation''s No. 1 prep, Marcus Liberty, might receive under the table, or whether Chris Webber received a bigger payoff than Juwan Howard (he certainly did).

As with rap, it winds around like a grapevine. Proud, targeted athletes never deny such flattery. Cheating is a compliment in the parlance of inner city basketball.

When Pearl saw his recruitment of Thomas slipping, the "street talk" began to proliferate. Kyles, in constant touch with Pearl, is known to have spread the rumor of a huge Illini payoff in discussions with Thomas'' girlfriend, his teammates and others at the school. Kyles proudly stated that Thomas was getting $5,000 more than Liberty received.

Thomas'' teammate Avery Stalling, mother Joanna Johnson, grandmother Bernice McGary and all those who testified said they had no direct knowledge in the so-called deal until Kyles told them.

Pearl frequently made mention of the alleged Illini offer in his telephone conversations with Thomas, and Deon lazily went along. All this was background for Pearl''s calculated decision to obtain taping equipment from the university. And the setup was in collusion with his friend from Boston College, NCAA director of enforcement Richard Hilliard, whose telephone record shows 49 calls from Pearl in an eight-month period ... including late-night calls at the Hilliard home.

Thomas, passive to the point of almost seeming disinterested, was an easy target for Pearl''s manipulative efforts when the critical call was made on the evening of April 9, 1989 ... just a few days after the UI''s Final Four run and just as Thomas settled on Illinois as his school.

Pearl carefully led Thomas into grunted admissions, and then the zinger: "Jimmy offered you $80,000 and the Blazer, that upset you didn''t it?"

Thomas: "Yeah, somewhat."

Later, Pearl: "When they offered you the money, didn''t that turn you off a little bit?"

Thomas: "No, not really."

With this going on the record, even if the covert taping was arguably illegal, the trap was sprung. And it would take months to undo it.

For his part, Thomas explained it was evening, he had homework to do, he was tired from the badgering and he would have said almost anything to get rid of the persistent Pearl.

Pearl also taped other conversations, including one with Kyles in which it was stated that Thomas wanted $80,000 because Liberty received $75,000. It was clearly staged. Pearl wanted to get the innuendoes on the record. Segments of the various tapes were edited. For example, the 14-minute conversation on April 9 had six minutes missing.

One last go-round

Later, in a last-ditch effort, Pearl set up a strategy to prevent Thomas from enrolling at the UI. Here are the highlights of his memo:

– Notify the NCAA prior to mid-June. Chances are better if the investigation takes place in Chicago.

– Work with someone in enforcement we know personally.

– Discuss some "conditions," such as Iowa remaining nameless and Kyles not being named.

– Punish the UI and prevent the program from doing it again.

– If possible, do this without destroying Thomas.

At this juncture, Pearl hadn''t entirely given up on getting Thomas at Iowa if the flying shrapnel became too heavy for him to stand it at Illinois. With longtime friend and phone-pal Hilliard working from the inside, he was able to pull off the first two items in his strategy to bring down Illinois.

Collins in the clear

About this time, Notre Dame sophomore LaPhonso Ellis lost eligibility for the first semester, and wasn''t happy in South Bend. Digger Phelps became furious when it was rumored the East St. Louis product might transfer to Illinois. Phelps did not disguise his feelings about Illinois and Lou Henson, and filed a formal complaint against Collins for contacting Ellis'' mother, even though the two later testified they hadn''t spoken for two years.

So imagine the reaction of Mort Weir, the UI chancellor, when he discovered that the UI basketball program was under attack from two sides. Nineteen months after Ellis told Operation Intercept he had received no improper offers from Illinois, he said Collins gave him shoes and clothing and an offer of $5,000. Or was it $10,000? Or did the shoes come from someone else? Oh, yeah, that''s right. It wasn''t Collins. Nor the clothing.

Ultimately, under questioning, Ellis recanted. Thus disappeared the first five allegations in the official inquiry. And, after study, the NCAA committee on infractions also threw out the other seven allegations against Collins. He was exonerated.

But the NCAA wasn''t done. Hilliard, Smrt, Randy Rueckert and the gang had egg on their face. They were embarrassed. They didn''t appreciate being challenged. They didn''t like it when the UI, in an overdue burst of sanity, dumped its chief investigator, Mike Slive, who was prepared to admit to phony charges and throw the university on the mercy of the court.

Illinois fought back, stuck with the coaches and paid a heavy price when the NCAA, serving sanctions for which the UI hadn''t been allowed to challenge, put the school on probation for "lack of institutional control." Henson was limited to two scholarships for each of the next two years, and a 21-win team that finished 11-7 in the Big Ten was banned from the 1991 NCAA tournament. More than that, Henson was served a recruiting blow that foiled his later UI years and probably cost him Hall of Fame status.

Squeaky clean?

Why, in the aftermath, was Pearl able to avoid investigation for his own alleged misdeeds and the incidents on a spring trip to Amsterdam to follow the Simeon team – Thomas said Pearl gave him $100 and bought lunch for him and three teammates after Simeon coach Bob Hambric asked Pearl not to be there?

That should be obvious. Pearl had what amounted to immunity because of his relationship with Hilliard, who encouraged his efforts to sink the UI.

But consider:

Whereas Pearl claimed Collins agreed to "fix up" McGary''s house, the grandmother said it was Pearl who made that offer, and Deon''s mother, Joanna Johnson, confirmed it.

Thomas told the Chicago Sun-Times that Pearl had offered to double any offer from any other school, but that Illinois had made no offer.

Pearl clearly made a deal with Kyles to influence Thomas, and is believed to have paid Kyles in some fashion.

Worse yet, if true – and nobody really knows what''s true in this mess – the Sun-Times reported Pearl threatened to expose the drug dependency of Deon''s mother if Thomas didn''t go to Iowa.

It boils down to a conniving adult tricking an immature 17-year-old, who claimed he would have agreed to anything to get off the telephone. Thomas made the mistake of telling Pearl what he wanted to hear. And it went from there, with Pearl using all his wits and a pre-existing relationship with Hilliard to destroy the Illini basketball program.

It is wonderful to forgive. Most Illini fans won''t be wonderful Thursday in Chicago.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at late@news-gazette.com.