Illinois#039; fans remain bitter toward Pearl

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Associated Press

ROSEMONT, Ill. - The few dozen Illinois fans barely mustered a yawn, let alone righteous indignation, at the sight of Bruce Pearl coaching his team through a practice.

Come gametime Thursday night, though, the Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach knows the reception will be as hostile as any he's ever seen.

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It's been 16 years since Pearl gave the NCAA a secretly recorded tape that he said was proof Illinois was cheating. He moved on a long time ago, and no one connected to the incident is left at Illinois.

But for Illinois fans, the bitterness toward Pearl remains as fresh as it was the day sanctions were imposed. Instead of another step toward the Final Four, the Illini's game against the 12th-seeded Panthers in the Chicago Regional on Thursday night has become a chance to finally avenge past wrongs.

''Regardless of who takes the floor against Illinois, do you think that team's going to be cheered?'' Pearl said Wednesday. ''Will there be a little more noise because I'm coaching the opposition? Sure there will. I understand that.''

Pearl was a young assistant at Iowa in 1989 and working hard to sign Deon Thomas, a Chicago prep star who was one of the top recruits in the country.

Thomas had given the Hawkeyes a verbal commitment but later changed his mind, opting to stay close to home and go to Illinois.

Pearl kept chasing Thomas, though. Convinced Illinois was up to something shady, Pearl secretly tape-recorded one phone call in which Thomas seemed to confirm that Illini assistant Jimmy Collins had offered him $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer.

To this day, Thomas denies Illinois did anything improper, saying his comments were simply those of a naive 17-year-old trying to get Pearl off his back without offending him.

''I'm not that person that coach Pearl tried to say that I was. That's not me at all,'' Thomas said Tuesday from Israel, where he plays professionally. ''For him to go out and tell lies and then pass them off as the truth in order to hurt someone or try to gain some notoriety or whatever he was hoping to get from it, it's wrong.''

The tape touched off a 16-month investigation by the NCAA. Though Illinois was cleared of the allegations involving Thomas and Pearl's tape, other infractions were found and Illinois was barred from postseason play in 1991.

Thomas went on to become Illinois' all-time leading scorer, but he says his ability to trust people was forever shaken. Both Pearl and Collins saw once-promising careers derailed. The only job Pearl could get was at Division II Southern Indiana.

''It's a tough situation,'' said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who was an assistant at Purdue at the time. ''You've got two coaches involved, it's their livelihood. Maybe one guy went a little too far. I don't know. That's not my call. It wasn't good for either person, to be honest. But you've got to go on with life.''

Pearl maintains he did nothing wrong, and says he would do the same thing again.

''That's the only thing that he has,'' said Thomas, who never talked to Pearl again after that phone call. ''If he admits that he did something wrong, who would trust him? Who would even think about having him work for their university?''

Though Pearl knows his presence adds intrigue to the matchup, he doesn't want it overshadowing Thursday's game. The Panthers (26-5) have enough to worry about, playing the top-seeded Illini (34-1). UWM used its vaunted press to stun Alabama and Boston College last weekend, but Illinois is better equipped to handle it with its three standout guards.

The Panthers know they're not going to sneak up on anyone again, either. Illinois knows all about Ed McCants and Joah Tucker, sharpshooters whom Weber called two of the best players left in the tournament.

''They obviously have the mental edge and have the capacity to bring it every game,'' McCants said. ''I don't think that's going to change. They're going to bring it hard.''

And not because Pearl will be on the other sideline.

The players were barely in grade school back when Pearl turned in Illinois. The brouhaha has as much meaning for them as short shorts and canvas sneakers.

''Personally, I really don't know much about the situation,'' Illini guard Deron Williams said. ''Growing up in Texas, I really didn't watch Illinois basketball until they started recruiting me.''

Said McCants, ''I don't have any personal grudges about something that happened when I was 6 years old to a college program I wasn't looking toward. Maybe if it was against my elementary school or something. It's kind of silly really.''