Cinderella fitted for a bull's-eye

Illini fans can't forget Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl's whistle-blowing in '89.

Published March 24, 2005

ROSEMONT, Ill. - Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl isn't expecting the warmest of greetings tonight.

"Regardless of who takes the floor against Illinois, do you think that team's going to be cheered as they come out of the tunnel?" he asked rhetorically Wednesday.

Of course not.

The Fighting Illini, the nation's top-ranked team and the NCAA Tournament's top No. 1 seed, look to move to the Elite Eight in the Chicago Region and will be an overwhelming fan favorite in the Allstate Arena, which is a short drive from Champaign.

"Will there be a little more noise because I'm coaching the opponent? Sure there will," Pearl said. "I understand that."

It was nearly 16 years ago that Pearl, then an assistant at Iowa, secretly tape-recorded a telephone conversation with prep star Deon Thomas during which Thomas allegedly said then-Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins had offered him $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer to sign with the Illini.

Thomas and Collins denied it, but the NCAA eventually placed Illinois basketball on two years' probation, including a postseason ban in 1991, and hit the program with scholarship and recruiting restrictions. None of those sanctions, however, were linked to the Pearl-Thomas tape.

But the fallout makes for a juicy storyline.

Pearl was derided as being unethical and breaking a code of his profession. He had to leave Iowa and salvaged his career at Division II Southern Indiana. For a while, he admitted it seemed he was blacklisted and his "options were more limited."

Thomas, who did play for the Illini and set the all-time scoring record there, is still bothered by what Pearl did. He told the Chicago Tribune this week that Pearl is "evil" and that it's "hard to forgive a snake."

Collins, perceived as a cheat while the NCAA investigated him for two years, lost any chance of succeeding Lou Henson at Illinois. He had to settle for the head coaching position at Illinois-Chicago, where he has led the Flames to three NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons.

"I was exonerated, but it affected my career a lot," he told the Times Wednesday afternoon. "The bottom line is, I did not, could not and would not have done that."

As fate would have it, Pearl and Collins both coach in the Horizon League. Collins will not shake his hand before or after games. Collins would prefer to move on, but he said he can't when he reads or hears some of the comments Pearl has made in the days leading up to this Sweet 16 game.

For instance, while Pearl conceded he has played Monday morning quarterback regarding his actions in 1989, he steadfastly maintains his aim was noble.

"I regret some of the methodology but not the intent," he said. "I really didn't blow a whistle, I just cooperated with an NCAA investigation. The classic defense is to discredit the witness, and I'm sure that happened to me through many of the media outlets, particularly in the state of Illinois, that really weren't interested in the truth."

"He's still trying to justify what he did and make himself look like a good person," Collins countered. "He's still telling the public I did something wrong. I resent that. Otherwise this wouldn't be an issue."

For the current Illini, it doesn't seem to be one. Dee Brown, for one, said he didn't start following Illinois until 2000 and he was "too young for that" in 1989.

Pearl, 45, said he hasn't brought up the situation to his players, and dredging up the past hasn't been a distraction. He said too many subplots are new and more compelling, such as his team beating Alabama and Boston College to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time and the fact that Illinois coach Bruce Weber is a Wisconsin-Milwaukee alumnus.

"Some of those storylines are going to dominate the day," he said. "My only regret will be if they don't."

Still, his players haven't been able to ignore the history lesson.

Junior center Adrian Tigert, who has hit all 11 field goals in the NCAA Tournament, said one article "got to me because it's people talking bad about a family member. We're taking it personal and I'm sure he is. ... I think it's just going to pull us together tighter and fuel us just that much more."

Star senior guard Ed McCants said the attention to the Pearl-Illinois bad blood has taken away from this game and finds it all "silly."

"I was 7 years old, and I know a lot of the fans were 4, 5, 6 or 7 years old as well," he said. "I don't have any personal grudges about something that happened when I was 6 years old to a college program that I wasn't even looking toward. Maybe if it was against my elementary school or something."

But he's expecting a bit of animosity from the crowd, and not the typical boos directed at any visitor.

"Even without that situation," junior forward Joah Tucker chimed in, "I don't think any of the Illinois fans would be cheering for us (tonight) anyway. I don't think they can cheer any harder because of that situation."

Well, brace yourself.

They just might as soon as they see Pearl.