The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Why some fans and alumni of the University of Illinois are a bunch of whiny babies.

If you're following the NCAA tournament this weekend, and UW-Milwaukee in particular, you're bound to hear a few stories about UWM coach Bruce Pearl's history with Illinois:

His transgression? Pearl was an assistant coach at Iowa in 1989 when he secretly taped a telephone conversation with the high school star Deon Thomas. The tape was said to implicate an Illini assistant for offering cash and a vehicle for Thomas's commitment. Pearl then handed the tape to the N.C.A.A.

After an N.C.A.A. investigation, Illinois was put on two years' probation in 1990 for improprieties in the basketball program, though the N.C.A.A.'s report never cited Pearl's allegations.

While Pearl was recruiting Thomas for Iowa, Thomas stated that Illinois had offered him a substantial sum of money and other perks if he would attend. This was clearly intended to entice Iowa to offer a similar deal. Pearl did not tape Thomas until their second meeting, in which Thomas (quite stupidly) repeated the same statement about Illinois. Pearl, now with evidence that Illinois might be breaking NCAA regulations, turned the tape over to the NCAA. A subsequent NCAA investigation did not reveal any impropriety with Thomas. Indeed, it appears that Thomas was lying the entire time. (Note: This point is still open to some dispute.) However, the investigation did uncover numerous NCAA violations that were completely unrelated to Thomas, and sanctions were imposed.

Illinois fans, Thomas, and University of Illinois-Chicago head coach Jimmy Collins, (a former assistant at Illinois) are just beside themselves with anger over this. (Quote from Thomas: "It's kind of hard to forgive a snake.") My question to them:

What did Bruce Pearl do that is in any way unethical, sneaky, or illegal?

He had evidence that a competitor was cheating. He had no special obligation to protect the University of Illinois from anything. In fact, if he had any duty, it was to do exactly what he did and turn them in. Pearl was acting ethically:

Dr. Tom Davis hired Pearl at Boston College and then Iowa. He was impressed with Pearl as an undergraduate and put him to work promoting B.C. basketball, resulting in Pearl's roles as the mascot and advertising salesman.
"Whatever jobs we had, he was willing to do it," Davis, now the Drake coach, said in a telephone interview.

"There were no winners," Davis said about the incident with Illinois. "But Bruce did things the right way. He stayed at jobs longer than he should have to learn more. Most guys go the other way and take the big money or jump around. But he's an excellent coach and a people person who has done a great job at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and everywhere else he's ever been."

He had evidence that a highly touted player was attempting to cheat. What good would it do to look the other way? At this point, Iowa was on the brink of engaging in a serious breach of NCAA regs. Pearl would have been negligent if he had not at least informed his superiors at Iowa of the situation (which he did). When Thomas made his nefarious statement he immediately put Pearl's program in jeopardy. The subsequent taping was as much a defensive measure as it was an offensive one.

He did not release his evidence publicly, and instead turned it over to the proper authorities. Pearl did not engage in a smear campaign or anything of that nature. The NCAA handled everything.

Illinois fans will hear none of it. They blame him for the sanctions that they endured, rather than looking at their University, which did, after all, break the rules. To this day, Jimmy Collins, who coaches in the Horizon league with Pearl refuses to shake Pearl's hand after games. This makes Jimmy Collins a crybaby, and I have almost no respect for the man.

If you hear anything this weekend about how Pearl "screwed the University of Illinois" or any other such nonsense, just remember the above, and remember that college basketball would be well served to find more Bruce Pearls:

Pearl said if he faced a similar situation today, he would not hesitate to turn in a competitor that he believed violated N.C.A.A. rules. "Regrettably, I would, because of principles and because I'm a bit of an idealist," he said. "A lot of people got hurt. It's unfortunate."


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