Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Pearl Gets Redemption

Now that Bruce Pearl is sitting where every coach in college basketball wants to be this week, with his team in the Sweet 16, it is hard to imagine how long and difficult his road has been to this rare station. He'll lead his plucky 12th seeded University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers against the mighty Illini this Thursday. Sounds like a good story by itself but it doesn't begin to explain the ties that bind these teams.

Back in the 1980's Bruce Pearl was an assistant under Tom Davis at Iowa. In 1989 Iowa had been coming off Elite Eight and Sweet 16 appearances the prior two years, but things were about to take a turn for the worse when Iowa began recruiting Deon Thomas. Illinois was also recruiting Thomas and both were very eager to land such a top talent. What happened next seems to depend on whether you live in Illinois or somewhere else. Pearl taped a phone conversation with Thomas in which Thomas confirmed that he had been offered $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer to attend Illinois. Pearl promptly turned over the tape the the NCAA offices.

In the resulting firestorm Illinois was "cleared" of violations in the Thomas recruitment. During the investigation Thomas denied he had ever been offered any inducements and made counter allegations that Pearl had offered to "double" whatever Illinois had offered him. Further allegations were made by Thomas' mother that Pearl threatened to "go public" with her drug dependency and Thomas' stepfather claimed an NCAA investigator told them they would drop the investigation if he went somewhere else. Thomas has since claimed his grandmother "didn't trust [Pearl's] eyes" and that is when he decided he didn't want to go to Iowa. In recent interviews he has gone so far as to call Pearl "evil".

These vile and scurrilous accusations seem ridiculous but the Chicago Sun Times doesn't seem concerned that these baseless and unverified assertions don't even have a whiff of credibility. Then again why not further reinforce the persecution complex that is already well developed among Illini fans in regards to this incident. No matter that the NCAA investigation did find rampant recruiting violations going on at Champagne and slapped them with sanctions that banned them from the postseason for one year, reduced their allotted scholarships and even froze the salaries of their coaches. The impermissible contacts, loans from coaches, free NCAA championship tickets to recruits, their family and high school coaches, discounted hotel rooms and credit for car loans can all be explained away by the willfully ignorant. To them the real villain is Bruce Pearl for ruining the good thing that Lou Henson was building and it didn't matter that it was built upon habitual cheating and lies. Then again Illini fans are used to their programs getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar, with the repeated violations of their football program in the 1980s and the infamous "slush fund" scandal in the 1960s it seems like the way things are done in Champagne. Nobody noticed when the Chicago Bears played on Illinois' field while their own stadium was being refurbished a few years ago, perhaps because they were used to seeing athletes who were "paid to play".

The most depressing aspect of this was the consequences for Pearl. After the incident he was persona non grata in much of the Midwest and was banished to Division II Southern Indiana. But Pearl had so much success there that by the time he won a national title for SI he was back on the radar screens. In 1999 he was listed among the hottest coaches by Sport Magazine along with Paul Hewitt, Mike Brey and Buzz Peterson. None of them had to swallow their pride and go to work at a Horizon league doormat like UWM. Pearl had been blackballed for the unpardonable sin of telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may. Much like the culture of corruption in a police force, college coaches know who cheats but choose not to say anything even if they are honest. Even Dick Vitale was rumored to be among the whispering critics that prevented him from getting a desirable head coaching positions.

An amazing thing happened, however, Pearl turned UWM into a Cinderella, and in the process has redeemed himself. He first knocked off Alabama and then Boston College, his alma matre and the program that cut him as a walk on, where his assistant coach duties also required he wear the mascot costume during games. Now he shows up with a High Noon style showdown with the program that cost him so much. The Illini fans are guaranteed to act boorish and vulgar towards Pearl and frankly they don't know any better, but Pearl will have the satisfaction of being the only one with a national title on the court Thursday. My hope is that he gets a chance to coach a big time program, maybe even in the Big Ten, and shows the world of college basketball that honesty does pay, sometimes.

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