Darkest of days

Darkest of days

Kentucky made Emery delivery service famous with a package full of cash meant for a player.

Northwestern, Arizona State, Boston College and Tulane endured point-shaving charges.

Minnesota played in last week's NCAA tournament under the cloud of academic fraud.

Many schools have an athletic black eye, some shinier than others.

At Illinois, it's called the slush fund scandal.

In March 1967, it cost the Illini three valued coaches – Pete Elliott, Harry Combes and Howard Braun – who were told to resign or else.

"There wasn't much you could do," Elliott said. "The school was going to be dropped from the Big Ten if they didn't comply. The school and the university are bigger than one individual."

Earlier, it ruined a possible Final Four season for the men's basketball team. And the football team lost four players.

Thirty-two years later, the slush fund still is a sore subject for most of the people involved. Ask Elliott about it and you can almost hear him wince over the phone.

"I don't want to get into detail," Elliott said from his Canton, Ohio, home. "I don't want to belabor the thing. It's bad."

In the beginning

As far as the school is concerned, the slush fund started in April 1962.

In a report to then-UI president David Henry, comptroller H.O. Farber detailed how the money was raised and spent.

"Contributions were received from individuals in the local area," Farber wrote. "Disbursements were approved by the head coach (Elliott), director of athletics (Doug Mills) or the assistant director (Mel Brewer). The fund was used to give assistance to 31 present and former students."

Three funds were set up: one for football, the second for basketball and a third for Mills.

In five documented years, the football fund raised $15,354.77 and spent $14,378.99. The basketball fund, established in February 1964, raised $10,520 and spent $7,043.96. The Mills fund, set up in March 1966, raised $600 and used $220.

In total, the slush funds doled out $21,642.95. Adjusted for inflation, today it would be worth $109,513.32.

"All I can say about it is it was against the rules," Elliott said. "It was used only for emergency reasons as far as football's concerned. As far as football goes, nothing was ever used for illegal recruiting or anything like that."

What qualified as an emergency reason? Most of the money spent in the first year of the fund, Elliott said, covered medical expenses for the wife of player Sam Price. Price's wife developed blood clots during a pregnancy.

"There were other things," Elliott said. "Most of it was to try and meet emergencies that we felt we couldn't duck. There were no such things as student loans. Somebody had to help them or what are you going to do?"

Ultimately, Elliott decided how the money was to be spent.

"I'll take the responsibility for it," Elliott said. "I knew what was happening. Because of what the purpose was, I didn't want it abused."

Breaking news

The real trouble started for Illinois when Mills resigned as athletic director in late November 1966.

Assistant athletic director Brewer wanted the job. But Elliott appeared to be the choice.

"That is what set in motion Mel Brewer's activities," said Jim Dawson, captain of the 1966-67 basketball team.

Brewer turned over slush fund documents to the school. Henry notified the Big Ten office and an investigation was opened.

"If you want to blame anybody, assistant athletic director Mel Brewer was the guy that did it all," Elliott said. "He was concerned he wasn't going to be named athletic director."

Neither Elliott nor Brewer got the AD job. Both withdrew from consideration Dec. 12. Two days later, Elliott took himself out of the running for same job at Northwestern.

During a Dec. 10 trip to West Virginia, Dawson and his teammates began to hear rumors about player suspensions. Five days after upsetting powerful Kentucky in Lexington, the Illini dropped a two-point game to the Mountaineers.

On Dec. 23, the Illini were getting ready for a game against California at Chicago Stadium. The morning of the game, standouts Rich Jones, Ron Dunlap and Steve Kuberski were ruled ineligible.

Waves of reporters showed up at the Chicago Sheraton, where the team was staying.

"It was a very emotional day," Dawson said.

The players tried to stay out of sight. They had a walkthrough practice in a banquet room and canceled their pregame meal. The players who hadn't been suspended sat in their rooms and had hamburgers delivered.

"Everything was totally up in the air," Dawson said.

Kuberski, then a sophomore, was devastated. A friend from Moline had come to Chicago for the game. When he found out he couldn't play, Kuberski and his friend jumped in the car and headed west.

"I didn't know what to do," Kuberski said.

Jones and Dunlap sat on the bench with the team. The depleted Illini beat Cal 97-87.

While most of his teammates went to Los Angeles for the Bruin Classic, Kuberski stayed home in Moline.

In Kuberski's case, a job had been arranged for him in Moline by an Illinois alum. He was paid $490 over a two-year period for working during the Christmas and summer breaks. The documents question how much Kuberski actually worked.

Kuberski said he was paid only for the work he actually performed.

"On my behalf, I was totally innocent of anything," Kuberski said.

The Big Ten didn't agree, suspending Kuberski for the rest of the 196-67 season and for 1967-68. Instead of sitting out, Kuberski transferred to Bradley.

But Kuberski didn't leave until the end of the second semester. He had to watch what was left of the Illini finish the season.

"The rest of the year was tough," Kuberski said. "I was kind of an outcast."

Spoiled season

At the start of his senior year, Dawson dreamed of a Big Ten basketball title and a long run in the NCAA tournament. Why not?

Dawson, Dunlap and Jones were returning starters. Sophomores Kuberski and Dave Scholz were expected to help plenty.

"It was a team with a lot of talent, a lot of size and a lot of depth," Dawson said.

The Illini were 4-1 at the time of the suspensions.

The suspensions ended long-term hopes. But the team temporarily survived. After beating Cal, the players went to California and took two of three.

They were 7-2 at the start of '67. The Illini lost 10 of their last 15 to finish 12-12 overall and 6-8 in the Big Ten.

"You're sort of scrambling in the midst of the season," Dawson said.

Dawson said he wasn't aware of payments to Kuberski, Dunlap and Jones. Dunlap was getting $15 a month and Jones received $35.

"Thirty-five dollars a month, that's all?" Kuberski said of Jones' payment. "That's chump change."

Three decades haven't wiped out all of Kuberski's bitterness. He wonders why the players were suspended.

"That was a pretty harsh enforcement of the rules," Kuberski said. "I've never heard of that."

Case study

The pain wasn't as direct for the football team. Four players were suspended, but not until after the '66 season.

As a high school senior in Hollywood, Fla., running back Cyril Pinder had scholarship offers from 90 schools. He picked Illinois because of Elliott.

"I still love him," Pinder said. "He's the kind of guy who if he ever asked me to run through a wall, I'd ask him how fast did he want me to do it."

Pinder's parents didn't want him to play far from home, if at all.

Illinois paid for Pinder's trips home for Christmas break. Based on his talks with other schools, Pinder didn't think he was breaking any rules.

"Every place that I went, that was just something that was going to happen," Pinder said. "I wasn't looking for any monthly stipend. I wasn't looking for any clothes."

During his first three years at Illinois, Pinder got $1,645, the most of any of the suspended players. He was suspended after his junior season.

Pinder had friends at other schools who were getting illegal help.

"They all called me and they said, 'Man, I got a car. I got this. I got that. And you got what you got and they're busting you?' " Pinder said.

Like Elliott, Pinder is reluctant to talk about the scandal. The less said, the better.

"The people who remember it, they act like they don't remember it, which is just fine with me," Pinder said.

Moving on

Though they were done at Illinois in '67, Pinder, Jones and Kuberski still had plenty of games left.

Pinder suffered a bad knee injury during his junior season at Illinois. He used the year off to recover and was picked by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the '68 NFL draft.

Pinder played three years in Philadelphia, two more in Chicago and finished his career with a season in Dallas.

Currently, Pinder sells commercial airtime for Chicago's WMAQ-TV. Still a supporter of the Illinois athletic program, he visits the campus for games each year.

"For me, I'm settled now," Pinder said. "I feel that I've paid the price for that (slush fund). Life has been very good for me. That is the one thing in my life that I'd just as soon forget about."

Jones went from Illinois to Memphis State, where he played two seasons. He was a fourth-round pick in the ABA draft. He played eight seasons with three different teams.

Kuberski did well at Bradley, averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds his final season. A fourth-round pick by Boston, he played nine seasons with three NBA teams. Kuberski was part of the Celtics' title team in '74.

"It worked out for me OK," said Kuberski, who owns a company in the Boston area that sells lockers.

Derek Faison, one of the football players who got suspended, spent two years at Colorado. His success has come off the field as the head of his own office supply company. Faison Office Products in Aurora, Colo., employs 46.

Of the three coaches who lost their jobs, Elliott is the only one still alive. He worked in sales in Indianapolis after leaving Illinois. He later coached at Miami and served 18 years as director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I wasn't going to let it ruin my life," Elliott said. "I've done a lot of things I'm pleased and proud of."

Combes went 316-150 in 20 years as Illinois coach. His brother Linden, who lives in Monticello, said Harry never got over the Big Ten's decision.

"He was very devastated," Linden Combes said.

After his forced resignation, Combes worked several years as a UI professor. He died Nov. 13, 1977, after a long illness. He was 62.

Braun worked in business in Champaign-Urbana. He died Jan. 9, 1996, at age 83.

Brewer, who blew the whistle on the slush fund, died Oct. 28, 1977, at age 59.

Before and after

What did the slush fund scandal do to Illinois on the field and court? Here are the teams' records before and after the scandal broke.

Football

Pre-scandal

Year, Overall, Conference

1963, 8-1-1, 5-1-1

1964, 6-3, 4-3

1965, 6-4, 4-3

1966, 4-6, 4-3

Totals, 24-14-1, 17-10-1

Post-scandal

1967, 4-6, 3-4

1968, 1-9, 1-6

1969, 0-10, 0-7

1970, 3-7, 1-6

Totals, 8-32, 5-23

Basketball

Pre-scandal

Year, Overall, Conference

1963-64, 13-11, 6-8

1964-65, 18-6, 10-4

1965-66, 12-12, 8-6

1966-67, 12-12, 6-8

Totals, 55-41, 30-26

Post-scandal

1967-68, 11-13, 6-8

1968-69, 19-5, 9-5

1969-70, 15-9, 8-6

1970-71, 11-12, 5-9

Totals, 56-39, 28-28

March

The News-Gazette's top 10 stories from March 1900 to today:

1

1967 – Slush fund scandal forces resignations from head football coach Pete Elliott, men's basketball head coach Harry Combes and men's basketball assistant Howard Braun. The Big Ten had ordered the school to fire all three coaches.

2

1989 – Men's basketball team beats Syracuse 89-86 to advance to the Final Four. Nick Anderson leads Illini with 24 points and 16 rebounds. Kenny Battle scores 28 points. Kendall Gill adds 18 points and eight rebounds.

3

1951 – Men's basketball team loses to eventual national champion Kentucky 76-74 in the NCAA semifinals. Illinois finishes third with a 61-46 victory over Oklahoma State.

4

1963 – Illini men's basketball team plays its first game at the Assembly Hall, beating Northwestern 79-73 in front of 16,137 fans. A win against Iowa in the second Assembly Hall game gives Illinois a share of the Big Ten title and a spot in the NCAA tournament.

5

1996 – Illinois picks Lon Kruger to replace Lou Henson as men's basketball coach. Kruger joins Illinois after tours at Florida, Kansas State and Texas Pan American.

6

1989 – Nick Anderson's three-point bomb at the buzzer gives Illinois 70-67 win at Indiana. Indiana's Jay Edwards had tied the game with a shot from deep in the corner with seconds left.

7

1990 – Kendall Gill wins the Big Ten scoring title with a 20.4 average. Gill is the first Illini to lead the league in scoring since Andy Phillip in 1943.

8

1952 – Illinois wins second consecutive Big Ten men's basketball title. Two wins in the NCAA tournament moves the Illini into the Final Four, where they lose 61-59 to St. John's. Illinois again finishes third, edging Santa Clara 67-64 in the consolation game.

9

1947 – Illini track star Herb McKenley sets a world record in the 300-yard dash. McKenley later won both the 220 and 440 titles at the NCAA meet.

10

1995 – Illini wrestlers Steve Marianetti and Ernest Benion earn titles at the NCAA meet. It is the first time since '38 Illinois wrestlers take two championships in the same national meet.

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Other

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