Monday, March 21, 2005

Deon Thomas on Ex-Iowa Assistant Pearl: 'He's Evil'

Bruce Pearl was an energetic young assistant coach on Tom Davis' basketball staff at Iowa when the ugly "Deon Thomas Incident" surfaced.

That was 16 years ago, and now -- with the NCAA tournament in full swing and with Pearl a big part of it -- Thomas is, in a way, in the picture again.

Here's a story the Chicago Tribune carried today on the situation:

Still in a whirl over Mr. Pearl

Former Illini Thomas refuses to forgive the UW-Milwaukee coach

By David Haugh
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 21, 2005

Sixteen years later, on the other side of the world, the wound remains open and Deon Thomas has neither forgiven nor forgotten Wisconsin-Milwaukee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl.

"It's kind of hard to forgive a snake," Thomas said by phone Sunday from Israel, where he plays professional basketball for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Thomas believes he speaks for many former teammates and current Illini fans in condemning Pearl, the former Iowa assistant coach who secretly recorded a conversation in 1989 implicating Thomas and former Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins and forwarded it to NCAA investigators.

The bad feelings run so deep in some parts of Illini Nation that the boos for the Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach before Thursday's NCAA Chicago regional semifinal at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont might be louder than the "Bruuuuuuuce," cheer when Bruce Weber is introduced.

"I don't really want to use the word, but he is evil," Thomas, 34, said of Pearl. "What else can you say he is?"

Thomas, Illinois' all-time leading scorer, stayed up until the wee hours of Sunday morning to watch highlights of the Illini's NCAA tournament victory over Nevada on ESPN Israel--Thomas' method of keeping up with his alma mater. Asked his immediate reaction once he realized Illinois' next opponent would be Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Pearl, Thomas laughed loudly before pausing to collect his thoughts.

"I've moved on with my life and things are going well here, but when you see so many people that were affected by what [Pearl] did, it still bothers you," Thomas said. "I won't say I wish him the best, because I want Illinois to kill them when they play [Thursday]. That would be sweet."

Thomas reiterated his 16-year-old contention that he never admitted to Pearl being offered $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer by Collins as an inducement to sign. His voice rising, Thomas referred to those accusations Sunday as "lies that hurt people."

The most compelling part of the transcript of an April 8, 1989, taped conversation between Pearl and Thomas, the former Simeon star who originally had offered Iowa a verbal commitment, revolved around two questions.

In a phone call initiated by Pearl, he asked Thomas if he was upset about Collins offering him money and a car during a recruiting visit. According to the transcript, Thomas answered, "Yeah, somewhat."

In a follow-up, Pearl asked Thomas if the offer bothered him. "No, not really," the transcript said.

A year later, the NCAA slapped Illinois with two years' probation, a postseason ban in 1991 and scholarship and recruiting restrictions. But the report never referred specifically to Pearl's allegations because they were never proved. Investigators had uncovered enough dirt in other areas to penalize coach Lou Henson's program.

But once it became common knowledge around Champaign that Pearl had cooperated with the NCAA investigation, even if the evidence he submitted was not used against Illinois, fans attached a "Public Enemy No. 1" label to him that has stuck for 16 years.

It did not matter to Illinois supporters that then-Iowa coach Tom Davis encouraged Pearl to record the conversations or that Iowa athletic officials at the time bought the electronic equipment necessary to pull it off. Pearl was the one considered a snitch by many in his profession. He was the one who received blame for setting the Illinois program back during Thomas' tenure.

Good as he was, Thomas never led the Illini to the Sweet 16, and he partly blamed the sanctions.

"We might have been able to do some damage in the tournament when I was there, but what hurt us was the Curse of Pearl,"' Thomas said. "I have never seen Bruce Pearl since that happened and I don't care to ever see him. I have nothing to say to him if I did. Talking to him about this would give him a sense of importance that he doesn't deserve."

Told that Collins, now the Illinois-Chicago head coach, feels just as strongly and still refuses to shake Pearl's hand after Horizon League games, Thomas understood.

"I wouldn't either," he said. "Because of jealousy, someone took away coach Collins' lifestyle and his job. He messed up my future. How can you forget someone like that?"

Collins did not return a phone call Sunday but told the Tribune in an interview about the rift last month that Pearl "created this monster and it's here." Henson, the retired coach living in New Mexico, has decided to decline all interview requests this week to discuss the Pearl incident.

"I don't think I'm going to get involved," Henson said. "I think it's better if I just steer clear of all that."

Reached Sunday on his cell phone, Pearl also sought to quell the controversy so his Wisconsin-Milwaukee team and campus community can focus on the biggest week of their athletic lives.

"I cooperated with an NCAA investigation and provided information, testimony, documents and tapes as part of that," Pearl said. "I'm sorry that the situation hurt Deon Thomas. In many ways he was a victim. But sometimes you have to choose to do the right thing when you see something that is wrong. I'm hoping that this is the last time I'll have to revisit this."

He has been a head coach long enough to know that is probably wishful thinking.

"This is not news," Pearl said. "What's news is that UW-Milwaukee is in the Sweet 16. Our players are news. The Horizon League is news. A No. 12 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. That's the story. This isn't."


FOX Sports

Texas Tech head coach Bobby Knight said he would have fired current Indiana coach Mike Davis if he had been at the school for another season, according to Sporting News Radio.

Knight also reportedly said over the weekend that he stayed at Indiana too long because of players he liked despite being at odds with the school's administration.

"I stayed at Indiana six years too long because of the administration. The administration handled a lot of things poorly," Knight reportedly said on the radio.

"I was working for an athletic director [former IU AD Clarence Doninger] that didn't know his ass from third base. I ended up staying because of the kids that I liked and the people I did like rather than focusing on the real negatives there."

Knight apparently doesn't think highly of Davis, one of his former assistants at the Bloomington, Ind. school.

"They created that for themselves," Knight said, referring to Indiana's hiring of Davis. "The guy that's coaching there is a guy that I told Pat [Knight's son] we were going to replace at the end of the season. There's no way that I would have kept the guy any longer than that. That's their problem."

Knight's Texas Tech squad toppled Gonzaga, 71-69, Saturday, allowing the veteran head coach the opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994.

The sixth-seeded Red Raiders face No. 7 seed West Virginia in Thursday's regional semifinal.

Vol. 4, No. 325
March 21, 2005