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Revisiting the Illini’s bitter past with NCAA scandals: Part I, The History

The Big Ten and NCAA deal death blows to Illini Football; Deon Thomas’ recruitment brings unwanted attention to Champaign

NCAA Men's Final Four - Previews Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Steven Godfrey’s riveting account of the Ole Miss scandal and the weird FBI probe into college basketball inspired us to take a look back at the times the Illini found themselves in the NCAA’s crosshairs.

Past Illini Scandals

The crippling 1960s Slush Fund Scandal

In the 1960s, the Illini had re-emerged as a force in football, winning the 1964 Rose Bowl. Then, in 1966, Illini basketball was off to a promising start, after beating Kentucky in Lexington, and on its way to challenging for a Big Ten title.

The good times came to a screeching halt in December of 1966 when then University of Illinois president, David Henry, was made aware of a slush funded by Illini Boosters. The slush fund contained approximately $21,000 ($157,000 today) that made separate allocations for football, basketball and the athletic director. The fund made monthly payments to certain basketball players and payments for player emergencies such as a payment to a football player to help pay his wife’s medical bill and several payments for another football player to visit his ailing grandmother in Florida.

Henry misread the Big Ten

Henry immediately suspended three key basketball players. Then, he turned over the evidence of the slush fund to the Big Ten. In doing so, Henry hoped that the Big Ten would take it easy on the Illini since the Illini proactively suspended players who were involved and because the Big Ten slapped Iowa and Michigan State on the wrist for similar infractions years earlier.

Henry, however, should have read the tea leaves that pointed to the Big Ten eventually making an example out of a member school for this behavior.

[World War II] made it impossible to determine what was legal and what wasn’t. The ideal of amateurism had become essentially undefinable; the SEC had already begun offering outright athletic scholarships in 1935, while conferences like the Big Ten — whose jealousy of Notre Dame’s success motivated often spurious accusations of cheating and increased reluctance to schedule the Irish — refused to do so. ...

So in 1948, in an effort spearheaded by the Big Ten, new bylaws were adopted. Known first as the Purity Code, and then the Sanity Code, the rules were designed to limit subsidies to players and give the NCAA more power to expel schools that were not complying with the rules. The Southern schools immediately rebelled against these prohibitions, and a group of colleges became known as the Sinful Seven after openly refusing to adhere to the bylaws. And they were joined in their objections by the Fighting Irish.

The Big Ten was hesitant to even offer players athletic scholarships. Any form of aid to player, outside the scholarship, even if for morally just purposes like visiting a sick grandmother, was going to be met with shrewd resentment.

In addition, Illinois had gotten creative in the 60s when they began recruiting transfers, a practice seen by others in the Big Ten as unbecoming of a member institution. As should have been evident with the Big Ten’s treatment of Notre Dame in the 1940s, creativity in recruiting greatly irked the Big Ten — especially its moral ring leader, Michigan.

The NCAA watched the scandal unfold but left matters in the hands of the Big Ten, who imposed severe punishments on Illini Football and Basketball:

  • Football: The immediate firing of Head Coach Pete Elliot.
  • Basketball: The immediate firing of Head Coach Harry Combes and Assistant Coach Howard Braun; immediate suspension of numerous players, most of whom transferred away.

Aftermath of the Slush Fund Scandal

The scandal completely derailed a promising season but Illini Basketball did remain competitive through the remainder of the 60s.

Football, however, fell of a cliff. In the four years prior to the scandal, Illini football went 24-14-1. The four years after, without Elliot, the Illini went 8-32. The Big Ten’s severe punishment crippled Illini Football.

The Illini would not play in a bowl game until 1982. Granted, up until 1977 the Big Ten had a policy of only allowing their champion to play in a bowl, the Rose Bowl. Still, the decade and half Illini football spent in the wilderness drastically dropped their profile.

1980s Illini Football Scandal

In the early 1980s, Mike White got Illinois football back on track. The 1982 team made the Liberty Bowl, the Illini’s first bowl game since the 1964 Rose Bowl, against Alabama (also notable because it was Bear Bryant’s last game as the Tide’s coach.

The 1983 Illini took the Big Ten by storm when they beat Michigan and eventually clinched a spot in the Rose bowl.

1983 win against Michigan
Sports Illustrated

The fun quickly ended early in 1984 when the NCAA punished White and the Illini for recruiting violations stemming from the recruitment of two junior college players from California.

Aftermath

The punishment included a bowl ban in 1984 and a TV ban in 1985. Illinois also self-imposed several recruiting limitations that led to dismal seasons in 1986 and 1987. Then, a minor recruiting violation, in the form of a lodging payment made to a prospective recruit, led to White’s firing in 1988.

At this point, the NCAA’s enforcement mechanism was as powerful as ever and the Illini had no choice but to rid themselves of their most successful coach since Pete Elliot.

The Golden Age of NCAA enforcement

The mid-to-late ‘80s was a golden age for NCAA enforcement. The organization had just popped SMU with the death penalty, thereby crippling one of the usurpers that challenged college football’s established elite in the early 80s. Schools were scared of the NCAA. Why would they not be?

Back then, the NCAA seemingly had the media in their back pocket. A media member who uncovered a scandal could really make a name for themselves. As a result, the media functioned as a watch dog for the NCAA. This made it easy on the NCAA because they could outsource their investigations to the media. The media also stirred a public sentiment of moral outrage that cheered loudly when the NCAA came to impose punishment.

The message from the NCAA was clear: break the rules and you risk the media watchdogs bringing negative publicity to your campus. Once the media is done with your school and with pubic sentiment in our back pocket, we will come in with a god like wrath and cripple your program.

This message resonated perfectly in the Reagan 80s: stick to the rules bestowed on you by the establishment or suffer harsh consequences. No questions asked.

Looking back, however, arguments could have been made for the players to commercialize their skill sets in the free market— a key tenant of the Reagan 80s ethos — but society’s moral compass was not yet in a position to entertain such arguments.

The Deon Thomas Scandal

The scandal itself is well-documented. In summary, Lou Henson’s right-hand man, Jimmy Collins, triggered an NCAA investigation in 1989 when he tried to recruit high school phenom basketball player Deon Thomas.

Collins was a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail. He was particularly effective in Chicago having successfully recruited Nick Anderson, among others. When Thomas, a product from Simeon in Chicago, emerged as an elite player, Collins was naturally going to be the one who recruited him.

Like any good basketball scandal, Bruce Pearl was involved.

Kentucky v Auburn Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Pearl was an up-and-coming assistant for Tom Davis at Iowa, who was also trying to make a name for himself. Pearl ruthlessly zeroed in on Deon Thomas.

When Pearl failed to land the Chicago phenom, Pearl ratted out Collins and the Illini for alleged recruiting violations related to Thomas, including payments of $80,000 and a car given to Thomas. This created an animosity between Pearl and Collins that would exist for nearly two decades, and Pearl would go on to become Public Enemy No. 1 in Illini circles.

This made the Illini’s 2005 Sweet Sixteen win over Pearl’s Wisconsin-Milwaukee team all the more gratifying.

NCAA to the rescue

Pearl’s self-serving snitching brought a spotlight on the Illini’s basketball recruiting. The NCAA was unable to prove Pearl’s allegation but did find a few recruiting improprieties: application free car loans to players from a bank in Decatur; promises of payments to St. Louis phenom LaPhonso Ellis (who would go on to sign with Digger Phelps and Notre Dame); and misuse of tickets.

Fallout for Illini Basketball

On Nov. 7, 1990, the NCAA handed down its punishment: The Illini were banned from the 1991 postseason. They also had significant scholarship reductions along with reductions in recruiting visits. The Illini did not bother with an appeal likely because the public sentiment at this point in time completely sided with the NCAA.

The repercussions of the NCAA’s punishment were felt into the late 90s as Lou Henson would never again reach the heights of the 1980s. With the sanctions, the Illini went from a ‘power’ to a ‘pretty good’ program that had trouble getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. They would rise to power status again in the late 90s when Lon Kruger brought in the consecutive elite recruiting classes that included Corey Bradford, Sergio McClain, Frank Williams, and Marcus Griffin.

Come back tomorrow for Part II of our revisit to the Illini’s bitter past with NCAA scandals.