Hello folks, and welcome back to Major – Stories of NCAA Scandals, the number one hotspot for the most gripping, gruesome, and groundbreaking scandals in the history of the NCAA. My name is Chris Brown and I’ll be your host, guiding you through every twist and turn these stories have to offer.
For the last nine years, I’ve worked in NCAA Rules and Regulations, including four years on the NCAA staff.
If you are anything like me, you love a good sports scandal. I started Major, as a way of exploring both well-known and unknown NCAA scandals. But enough about me, let’s start the show.
On today’s episode we’re covering what many call the hotbed of college sports scandal, the holy grail of rules breaking, the place where the shady stuff tends to go down….Recruitment.
It’s easy to imagine why this is the case. Getting the right player, putting together the right team, it’s the foundation of a championship season. Given college sports has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry a lot is at stake. While there is an appreciation for a coaches ability to nurture young athletes and to ensure their athletes are graduating, a coaches job is dependent upon wins and losses.
But how far will some coaches go? What does it take to turn on a rival? On a another player?
Well listen up and listen good cause we’re taking you all the way back to the Midwest in 1988 where the chase for basketball recruit Deon Thomas pitted big ten members against one another and brought out the inner espionage of one coach: Bruce Pearl.
In the 1988 season at Chicago’s Simeon High school, one Junior basketball player was at the height of his appeal. Deon Thomas had just led his team to a Chicago Public League title and would go on to cap of his senior year with being named Illinois Mr. Basketball and staring in the McDonald’s All-American Game, alongside future superstar Shaquille O’Neil.
Now if Thomas’ accolades were not enough, he was coming from an elite high school program. Simeon High School is recognized as one of the best programs for producing basketball talent, including the number one ranked player in the country Ben Wilson and NBA point guard Derek Rose.
Unsurprisingly a player of this caliber catches the attention of schools across the country. However, the Big Ten, took a particular interest in Deon Thomas. Specifically, two teams, the University of Iowa and the University of Illinois went full throttle in the all-out war for Thomas’ commitment. When it was all said and done, and the dust had settled it was Jimmy Collins, the assistant coach for University of Illinois that had made the big score, except… the dust hadn’t really settled quite yet.
Now to understand what happens next, you have to really get to know Bruce Pearl. Pearl is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and attended Boston College, graduating in 1982. While at Boston College, Pearl served as a manager for the men’s basketball team. The time Pearl spent with the Boston College program, is considered by most the darkest time in the team’s history.
In 1979, the BC men’s basketball team was implicated in a point shaving case involving former Mafia member: Henry Hill. If you don’t know what point shaving is, go back and listen to episode two.
The scandal resulted in a player going to jail and embarrassment for Boston College. Now it is hard to say whether or not this would have an impact on Pearl’s moral compass but it is certainly a unique experience for a 20 year old aspiring men’s basketball coach. Following his time at Boston College, Pearl would move on with Coach Tom Davis at Stanford University. When Davis accepted the head coaching job at the University of Iowa, Pearl, one of his top recruiters, would follow him.
Now depending on the side you take it was either a desperate act of self-preservation or a ruthless attack against a rival program that led University of Iowa assistant coach, Bruce Pearl to throw the University of Illinois and Deon himself right under the bus.
But before we dive deeper into that infamous call it’s important to do a little review on NCAA recruitment regulations and the relationship between Pearl and Deon.
As discussed in a previous episode, there are very strict regulations for how recruitment can take place between a coaching staff and an athlete. Without going too deep, the core of these regulations revolves around the very simple idea that you can’t pay prospects. One more time, you can’t pay prospects. Let’s say it all together because it keeps happening, you can’t pay prospects. It’s common that the biggest scandals in sports boil down to money and luxury to pull in a big recruit. Whether you agree with the rules or not, these are the regulations coaches agree to follow.
It was an accusation of breaking said rules that allegedly put assistant coach Bruce Pearl on the defensive. Pearl had failed to sign Deon Thomas. While Thomas had verbally committed to the Hawkeyes, he ended up signing with the University of Illinois. Now something to keep in mind, when it is comes to recruitment a verbal commitment mean absolutely nothing. Athletes commit and decommit multiple times throughout the recruitment process. Until a prospect actually signs a National Letter of Intent, a school is never guaranteed that they will play for them.
Post failed recruitment, Pearl started hearing rumors that he had violated NCAA rules in his efforts to acquire Deon. On top of that, Bob Hambric, the head coach of Chicago’s Simeon high school and presumably not a fan of Pearl’s, had called the University of Iowa’s head coach to tell him that Bruce Pearl had made an improper offer to Thomas.
Hambric would later go on to criticize Pearl further by saying “high school coaches in Chicago know how Iowa operates. Iowa's not going to get anybody out of here. And if you're in the Big Ten, you need Chicago.”
Hambric would further criticize Pearl of inappropriately crashing a tournament trip to Amsterdam and giving Deon money while he was there.
Regardless of what it was exactly that led to the incident, according to Pearl it was fear of his own reputation that led to him to hatch a plan to catch the University of Illinois in its recruitment of Thomas. The plan was simple, Pearl would call and record Thomas admitting to receiving impermissible benefits when being recruited by the University of Illinois.
The recorded call began with Pearl asking if he had done anything wrong during his recruitment process, to which Thomas replied that there had been no wrongdoing on Pearl’s part. Onto the bombshell, the call then moved over to his recruitment and commitment to Illinois. Pearl asked if Thomas had been promised payment of eighty thousand dollars alongside the gifting of a new car, for his commitment to Illinois. While he would later refute it, Thomas seemed to confirm this as true, a major violation for the University of Illinois who were finishing up probation from football violations committed a few years prior.
Outside of the whether or not the claims made on the tapes were valid, there was a question of legality when it came to recording the call, because the recording was made in secret. This boiled down to where Pearl was when he made the call.
In Deon’s state of Illinois, it’s illegal to record a call without the consent of both parties, however in Iowa, where it was later proven Pearl was when he made the call, it is only required that one party consent to a recording before a call is made. Regardless of the legality, many inside and out of the NCAA believed Pearl’s actions to be unethical, something we’ll cover a little deeper in the aftermath.
This is where things get sticky so prepare for a whole lot of, he said she said.
The release of the tapes by Pearl were apparently brought out once again by means of self-preservation. According to Pearl, NCAA investigators approached him over misconduct in the recruitment efforts of Deon Thomas and Pearl in a plea for his own innocence shared what he had recorded.
Illinois claimed that this was a targeted effort to dismantle the recruit of a rival team by inviting the NCAA investigator, but a reliable NCAA informant told me that’s most likely untrue as it’s common for these investigations to occur around high profile recruits.
The release of these tapes led to a strong counterattack by both Deon and his father. Deon claimed that he had only made the statements about the Illini’s recruiting violations get Pearl of off the phone. He would then later go on to claim it was Pearl himself that had offered the eighty thousand dollars and car, something that Pearl simply denied, stating “it was an effort to discredit the witness”.
On top of all that, Deon’s father went on to claim that Pearl had offered to move Deon’s mother to Iowa as part of the deal and had threatened false accusations against his son if he didn’t commit to Iowa.
While it is hard to know whether or not any of these accusations are true, one thing remained certain, if Illinois was found guilty of a major violation such as this one it would mean a strong possibility of an NCAA death penalty, being shut down for at least a year, and the firing of Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins.
After passing a lie detector test, in which Deon stated clearly that he had not been offered the money or car by Illinois, the NCAA found Illinois not guilty of the violation, stating the evidence provided was not credible or compelling enough to warrant penalty.
However, in a strange twist to the story, the NCAA investigation did uncover several other violations made by the Illinois coaches. Among these was Illinois’ third major violation in a six year span, giving the NCAA cause and reason to charge them with “lack of institutional control” resulting in several recruitment violations and a one year ban on post season play.
While things could have been much worse for the University of Illinois, it left a sour taste in the mouths of many Illini fans.
While the penalties we’re powerful, the real aftermath of this scandal was the lasting affect on relationships and reputations.
Deon Thomas went on to be the all time leading scorer for University of Illinois and the overall 28th selection in the 1994 draft by the Dallas Mavericks. Although this is true, Deon never actually played a single game in the NBA, rather he went on to play in an Israeli league, a country strongly tied to his nationality. Once there he continued to reject offers for the NBA and go on to become one of the most successful all time American pro’s in a European league.
While for most, this would have ended their coaching career, Bruce Pearl actually landed another job. After coach at the University of Southern Indiana, Pearl would land the head coaching job at the University of Wisconsin Milawkee where he would face an old foe: Jimmy Collins.
During their four -ear span coaching for opposing teams in the horizon league, neither Pearl nor Collins ever gave the other a post-game handshake. Deon when later asked whether he had forgiven Pearl for the recording went on to state, “it was hard to forgive a snake”. And many among the industry blackballed Pearl from ever becoming part of their coaching staff. College Basketball Analyst Dick Vitale went as far as to call Pearl’s actions “completely unethical” and compared it to “committing career suicide”.
However, as you will learn in next week’s episode, this wasn’t the last time Bruce Pearl would be involved in a major violation.
For better or for worse, this week is another example of the whistle getting blown on and off the court. Was Pearl wrong in his actions? Did he act in self-interest? Will there ever be a level playing field in an industry with so much money involved?
We’ll leave that for you to decide. In the meantime, We at Major - stories of NCAA Scandals hope you enjoyed part 1 of Bruce Pearl. Join us next week when we explore how a BBQ landed Pearl in hot water.
If you want to keep it going, give us a follow on our social media at brown_athletics on twitter or @major podcast on Instagram.
Thank you everyone for tuning in, again I’m your host Chris Brown wishing you a good day and life free of scandal!