A Pearl of a Guy?

by Special Feature | March 22nd, 2005

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by this writer do not necessarily reflect those of Bracketography.com. If any Iowa or UW-M fans would like to submit a rebuttal, please contact me at davidmihm@gmail.com. –David Mihm, editor of Bracketography.com

Thursday’s game will be huge for the Fighting Illini, and it’s not just because they’re playing the UW-Milwaukee Panthers for a spot in the 2005 Elite Eight. The weight of fans’ expectations on Dee Brown & Co. has been heavy all year long. Adding to it Thursday will be fans’ clamoring for revenge against Illini Enemy #1 Bruce Pearl, current head coach at Milwaukee. For those still unaware of the bad blood between Pearl and Illinois, here’s a quick rundown:

Pearl was the man responsible for putting the Illinois basketball program on NCAA probation in the early 1990’s. The timing of the sanctions could not have come at a worse time for Illinois—the program was on the verge of becoming a national powerhouse, hot off its run to the 1989 Final Four. As a result of Pearl’s allegations of wrongdoing, numerous big-name recruits readily admitted they were scared away from attending the U of I by the potential for serious long-term sanctions. The program was set back a decade, not rising to national prominence again until 2000.

~~Cue wavy screen shot and harp glissando for flashback in time…~~

At the center of Pearl’s allegations was Chicago recruit Deon Thomas, now the all-time leading scorer for the Fighting Illini. Thomas chose Illinois over the University of Iowa, where Pearl was head recruiter. In an effort to cool his own seat for losing this blue-chip recruit, Pearl set out to show that the Illini had recruited Thomas illegally. He called Thomas repeatedly, badgering him with hundreds of questions. Chief among them was whether the University of Illinois offered Thomas a new Chevy Blazer and $80,000 in return for his attendance.

Demonstrating dubious ethics, in at least one instance, Pearl tape-recorded a conversation without Thomas’ knowledge. In the taped call, Pearl asked the same question over and over; Thomas’ responses were inconsistent. Thomas would later say that he was just trying to give Pearl the answers he sought in order to get rid of him.

Upon analysis of the tape, the NCAA reported significant gaps in the recording, and disqualified it from the base of evidence. In the end, the NCAA found Illinois guilty of minor infractions, with the most serious a $10.00 pizza that then-Assistant Jimmy Collins had bought for one of the recruits. Nevertheless, Illinois was slapped with sanctions, and the program declined into mediocrity.

~~Wavy screen shot and harp glissando back to the present…~~

While most Illini fans, myself included, want Illinois to bury the Panthers, this may be the ultimate trap game. The Illini have nothing to gain and everything to lose. UW-Milwaukee is the lowest remaining seed in the tournament—the ultimate Cinderella. The national media will no doubt make Pearl into a hero: a good guy who blew the whistle on a shady program. He’ll be portrayed as a guy who, despite being blackballed early in his career, has worked hard and has now taken a mid-major team to the Sweet 16. Despite the decade-and-a-half that has passed since the allegations first surfaced, the specter of Pearl’s actions still haunts the Illinois program.

Allstate Arena will be packed with Illini supporters, many of whom will let Bruce Pearl know exactly how they feel. It’s my contention that Illini fans will be best served by acting with class throughout the game. They’ll no doubt boo Pearl loudly during introductions, but it’s in their interest to concentrate on the ten guys on the floor, not the guy on the sideline.

This year’s version of the Flyin’ Illini is 34-1. Illini Fever has become contagious in Chicago, and a recruiting pipeline that had run dry for so long is now overflowing with possibilities. This is not the time to discourage players like Sherron Collins and Jon Scheyer from playing for the Orange-and-Blue by hurling personal insults at the opposing coach. There are plenty of guys on Bruce Weber’s bench to support, without looking across the way for guys to oppose. Kill the story before it starts—don’t cheer the Panthers to defeat; cheer the Illini on to victory.

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