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Illini fans get their Bruce Pearl revenge ... two decades later

Bruce Pearl was fired this week as coach Tennessee amid allegations more NCAA violations. | AP

Bruce Pearl was fired this week as the coach at Tennessee amid allegations of more NCAA violations. | AP

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Does Bruce Pearl’s firing at Tennessee cast a different light on the Jimmy Collins/Deon Thomas affair at Illinois in 1989-90?

Pearl, who led Tennessee to six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including the Elite Eight in 2010, was fired by Tennessee this week when mounting violations and allegations of more violations had the NCAA ready to lay the hammer to the Volunteers basketball program.

But the crux of the matter, as it pertains to the unseemly events involving Collins and Thomas 20-plus years earlier, is this: Pearl was charged with unethical conduct by the NCAA for ‘‘misleading investigators’’ — what you and I call ‘‘lying’’ — regarding possible illegal contact with high school juniors at a cookout at his home.

Hmmm. Bruce Pearl lying? Misleading investigators? That sounds awfully familiar.

It is to Illinois basketball fans. Pearl’s predicament in Tennessee is the de facto smoking gun they’ve been looking for ever since Pearl and the NCAA ganged up on Jimmy Collins and Illinois in 1989 with charges that Collins offered Thomas $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer to attend Illinois.

The NCAA investigation that followed did not find sufficient evidence to nail Illinois on Pearl’s charges. But it dragged Illinois through enough mud to sully the reputation of Collins — and also uncovered other violations, like improper use of complimentary tickets, that put Illinois on probation for three years.

The impact was significant. Among the recruiting casualties was Vocational star Juwan Howard, who was seriously considering Illinois but was turned off by the investigation. Illinois, which had reached the Final Four in 1989, went 13-15, 19-13 and 17-11 in Thomas’ final three seasons in 1991-94 and didn’t reach the Sweet 16 again until 2001 under Bill Self.

I first met Bruce Pearl in 1983, when he was an assistant coach at Stanford for Tom Davis and he was recruiting a player in Little Rock, Ark. He was a very friendly and clearly ambitious guy — the kind of guy who would give his business card to a rookie reporter from Little Rock, Ark., because you never know who can help you when.

I covered the final game of Deon Thomas’ sophomore season at Simeon for the Sun-Times and several games over his junior and senior seasons, but never met him because of coach Bob Hambric’s refusal to allow his players to talk to the media. Though you might have had casual conversations before or after a game with a Simeon player, I can’t recall even hearing Thomas speak until he accepted his Player of the Year Award at the Sun-Times All-Area banquet in 1989. Even as high school kids go, he was as meek and laid-back as they come.

I’ve always liked Bruce Pearl. He’s an outstanding basketball coach and a gregarious guy. I even touted him for the De Paul job that was open after Jerry Wainwright was fired. But I’ve always felt the Pearl-Collins episode was a case of an overzealous recruiter taking advantage of an immature kid. Deon Thomas wasn’t used to talking to anybody, let alone a shark-like college recruiter. I’ve talked with enough high school kids in my career to know you can get them to say just about anything — sometimes you don’t have to try that hard. This was a mismatch from the start.

And nothing that has happened in the last 20 years — or the last 20 days — has changed my mind.

Illinois basketball’s tortured fanbase has a severe persecution complex, but the Pearl affair stands alone as a legitimate sore spot. Even at the time it was rife with illegitimacy: Pearl’s use of surreptitiously recorded phone calls to the 17-year-old Thomas; his use of Thomas’ high school friend Renaldo Kyles to keep an eye on Thomas and report private conversations to Pearl; or, that a college friend of Pearl’s, Rich Hilliard, was part of the NCAA’s investigation committee.

It reeked then. It reeks even more today.

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