THE CASE HAS ALL THE ELEMENTS OF AN ESPIONAGE NOVEL: international intrigue, a secret tape recording and physical reprisal, with college athletics' version of the firing squad looming at the end. It involves the Big Ten's season-long cold war between Illinois and Iowa over the recruitment of Deon Thomas, a talented 6'9" power forward from Chicago's Simeon High. Thomas signed with Illinois last April, but he hasn't played a game for the Illini, who have kept him out of action until the NCAA can decipher the whole imbroglio.
The NCAA is expected any day now to charge that the Illini offered Thomas $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer to play for them. In addition, Notre Dame sophomore forward LaPhonso Ellis reportedly told NCAA investigators that two years ago he was offered $85,000 and an automobile by Illinois, with the cash to be disbursed in installments—similar to the way Thomas allegedly was to be paid. The NCAA has a tape recording, made by Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl, of a phone conversation between Pearl and Thomas in which Thomas seems to confirm the details of the alleged offer. The recording was made just before Thomas reneged on what the Hawkeyes claim was an oral commitment to play for them. Pearl's taping of the call was legal under Iowa law.
The focus of the inquiry is Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins, who Pearl charges made the illegal offer to Thomas. "I'm limited [by university officials] in what I can say," says Collins. "To know all these things aren't true and not be able to say so is very frustrating. It's caused me many sleepless nights."
Collins isn't the only one who has suffered. Among college recruiters a code of silence has long been observed more rigorously than have NCAA rules. Thus Pearl, 29, is being given the cold shoulder by coaches at other schools. TV analyst Dick Vitale, the college game's cultural commissar, has called Pearl's taping of the call "totally unethical," adding that Pearl has "committed professional suicide."
Pearl admits to having been "uncomfortable" taping the call, but says he did so only after returning from the coaches' convention at last season's Final Four in Seattle, where a number of colleagues informed him of rumors that he had violated NCAA rules in an effort to land Thomas. Pearl says he taped Thomas only after Simeon High coach Bob Hambric, who had sent such players as Nick Anderson and Ervin Small to Illinois, phoned Towa coach Tom Davis to charge that Pearl had made improper offers to Thomas.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," says Pearl. "And only one person could clear me—Deon. I called him and asked about our recruiting effort."
With a tape recorder running, Pearl asked Thomas whether Iowa had done anything improper. According to Pearl, Thomas said that the Hawkeyes hadn't. Pearl says that he then began discussing the $80,000 and the Blazer and that Thomas confirmed that Illinois had made such an offer.
Thomas has since said that he was just "talking trash, not paying a lot of attention" to Pearl. In fact, he recently told the Chicago Sun-Times that Pearl, not Collins, offered him $80,000 and a Blazer. Meanwhile, Thomas's stepfather, Everett Johnson, has charged that Pearl offered to move Deon's mother to Iowa City, and that Pearl told him that if Deon didn't sign with Iowa, he would make allegations "that will ruin Deon's career."
Pearl denies both charges. "The defense is just trying to discredit the witness," he says.
Pearl maintains that only when NCAA investigators came to Iowa City last August to raise questions about his conduct—and when he felt that matters might well come down to his word against Thomas's—did he excuse himself from the room, fetch the tape and tell his interrogators, "I think you'd better listen to this."
Illinois partisans charge that Pearl went beyond merely cooperating with the NCAA; they say he "turned in" the Illini. In truth, Iowa didn't prompt the investigation. The NCAA's enforcement staff routinely probes the recruitment of high-profile signees like Thomas as part of Operation Intercept, the annual debriefing of the most-likely-to-be-cheated-for high school players. According to a well-placed Big Ten source, Iowa actually chose not to turn Illinois in, even though the Hawkeye basketball staff had information about possible improprieties by the Illini well before Pearl taped the telephone call. Pearl didn't tell the NCAA anything until it tracked him down while he was vacationing on Cape Cod last June. "I was just one stop on the NCAA's list," he says. "I'm hopeful people will respect me for doing my job—which is, when called upon, to cooperate with the NCAA."
Someone else who has talked with the NCAA about the Thomas situation is Renaldo Kyles, a senior at Simeon High and a close friend of Thomas's whom Pearl befriended while recruiting Thomas. Several newspapers in Illinois and Iowa have reported that Iowa paid Kyles for his help, which Pearl denies. Because of his links to Iowa, Kyles has received several threats from Illini partisans, gotten into a fight with an adult who thought he had double-crossed Illinois and had to stay away from Simeon for a week until things cooled off.
"It's a case of sour grapes," says Hambric. "Iowa's trying to wipe out Jimmy Collins as a recruiter. But it's not going to be able to do that because the 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.
"Pearl came over to Europe," continues Hambric, who took Simeon High to Amsterdam last March for a tournament. "He suddenly showed up while we were there. He said he was on vacation."
Pearl, who spent more than $1,700 of Iowa's money to make the trip, says that he was only "babysitting" Thomas and that there's no truth in Thomas's charges that Pearl gave him $100 in Amsterdam and took him and three Simeon teammates to lunch. "The kid was coming [to Iowa]," says Pearl. "Just to be able to phone his mother from Amsterdam, to demonstrate my concern, I thought it was worth the trip."
Illinois has for years had a virtual lock on Chicago's top schoolboy prospects largely because of Collins. The Illini's success in the Windy City has fostered cynicism about their recruiting methods among many college coaches. The only judgment that matters, however, will be rendered by the NCAA's infractions committee, probably in April. If it finds major violations—and offers of 80 grand and a car to one and perhaps two recruits would certainly qualify as major—Collins would likely lose his job, and the Illinois basketball program could receive the so-called death penalty (i.e., it could be shut down for at least a year), because the school was found by the NCAA to have committed other major violations within the past five years. The Illini football team was slapped with one year's probation in 1988.
That would be a high price to pay for a talented teenager. But in the clannish and cutthroat world of player procurement, the biggest losers could be the man who turned state's evidence and the man who is accused of the transgressions: Pearl and Collins.