On September 10 last year, Bruce Pearl not only publicly admitted to having improper recruiting contacts; he also admitted to lying to NCAA investigators about it. Said Pearl: “I’ve made some serious mistakes, and for that I’m truly sorry.” It’s an odd place for Pearl to be in considering that back in the late ’80s, Pearl was reporting others’ recruiting violations and in the process set back Illinois basketball for years. Needless to say, he isn’t getting much sympathy these days in Champaign, IL.
Just prior to becoming a head coach at Southern Indiana, Pearl was an assistant at Iowa and responsible for recruiting Simeon High School phenom Deon Thomas out of Chicago. Iowa’s main competitor in this recruiting battle was Illinois and Pearl’s foe was Illini assistant Jimmy Collins, who was also responsible for landing Thomas.
Eventually the Chicago-native chose Illinois and that’s where the story should’ve stopped. But after his commitment, Pearl recorded telephone conversations he had with Thomas. During the conversation, Thomas allegedly admitted to Pearl that Collins and Illinois had offered Thomas a Chevy Blazer and cash.
Pearl sent the tape to the NCAA, along with a memo describing the events as he remembered them. Below is part of the memo Pearl sent to the NCAA:
“On Wednesday evening, February 1, Deon told me over the phone that a member of the University of Illinois coaching staff offered him $80,000 and a brand new Blazer if he would sign their letter of intent to attend the University of Illinois. He said the offer took place during this weekend visit. The only other details Deon offered was that it was the most Illinois had ever offered to pay for a recruit’s signature.”
The allegations were too explosive to ignore and the NCAA launched a 16-month investigation. During the course of the investigation, Thomas took and passed a lie-detector test as he told police the allegations were false. When the NCAA was done, it had no credible evidence supporting Pearl’s claim.
But it had found other violations, including Illinois’ third major violation in six years. As punishment, the NCAA took away scholarships from the Illini and issued a post-season ban for the 1991 season.
Pearl never apologized for the incident and Collins has never publicly forgiven him. When asked if he’d ever forgive Pearl, Collins was quoted as saying, “It’s hard to forgive a snake.”
Thomas wound up becoming Illinois’ all-time leading scorer. In an interview with LostLettermen last year, he admitted that he had come to peace with Pearl never apologizing:
“It doesn’t bother me at all. Like I said my grandmother always used to say, ‘If you keep anger inside, you allow people or situations to control you.’ And I don’t like to give up control of myself to anyone.
So I had to put those things behind me and let them go.”
Now two decades later the shoe is on the other foot and Pearl is at the center of an NCAA investigation. Pearl violated NCAA rules when he hosted recruit Aaron Craft at his home in 2008. Pearl and his assistant were also in trouble for making excessive phone calls to recruits. The final straw was Pearl lying to NCAA investigators about the violations.
Tennessee docked Pearl’s pay by $1.5 million over five years and banned him from off-campus recruiting for a year. The SEC suspended Pearl for the first eight conference games (he also can’t practice with the team) and he won’t be back on the sidelines until the beginning of February.
All that’s left is the NCAA and it can chose to further punish the school and Pearl if it wants to. Thus far there is no timetable on when that judgment will be handed down.
After the news broke, Jimmy Collins was asked to respond. Said Collins in USA Today: “What goes around comes around.”
Collins certainly has plenty of reason to be angry. His coaching reputation was torn to shreds and he was banned from off-campus recruiting to two years.
Said Collins: “It rings in my mind what he said back then. He said, ‘If I had to do it again, yes, I would do it again.’ The persona he tries to portray is that he’s Honest John.
“If I sound a little angry, I’m not angry anymore. God has taken care of that for me. But for me to say, well, I’m going to take the high road and say I feel bad for Bruce, my nose would start growing like Pinocchio. It will be interesting to see what happens to him. I’m watching with a microscope.”