Auburn has hired ESPN analyst Bruce Pearl, the man who spent his coaching career either narcing on behalf of the NCAA's rules or making a paper hat out of them, to be its future former basketball coach. In 2011, shortly after Pearl had bombed out of Tennessee with a three-year show-cause penalty to his name, Daniel Libit went deep on the 1989 scandal that even Dick Vitale thought would end Pearl's career.
The first time I met Jimmy Collins was in 2004. I was working on a profile of UW-Milwaukee's ascendant basketball coach Bruce Pearl and had come to Chicago to get the other side of the story. Collins was coaching at the University of Illinois-Chicago, but by that point he was much better known as Pearl's foil, a sort of perpetual other side of the story. The short version goes like this: In 1989, Pearl, then an assistant at Iowa, accused Collins, then an assistant at Illinois, of offering a Chevy Blazer and $80,000 to a recruit named Deon Thomas, who was a star at Chicago's Simeon High School. Pearl had proof: a surreptitious recording of a phone conversation with Thomas. The controversy that ensued temporarily crippled one Big Ten program and two coaching careers, and it was still very much on the principals' minds in 2004 when Pearl offered a handshake before a game and Collins rejected it. This had caused some squirming around the Horizon League. Beyond that, nobody much gave a shit.
But Collins cared, and he was not about to curb himself, not for the sake of his conference commissioner, who had asked him to play nice, and certainly not for the sake of Pearl — a "shyster," in the old coach's words today, one of those "he-who-smelt-it-dealt-it guys." And so I met Collins one day in UIC's basketball offices, and he was more than happy to spend an hour answering some questions about Pearl. Collins, it turned out, was holding a lot more than just a grudge. He told me he still had reams of transcripts of NCAA testimony related to the Thomas affair, and then he issued a warning.
"Believe me, I keep them in a vault," Collins said. "I'll never let them burn up. If a fire comes up into my house, they are in a burn-proof vault. And I tell [Pearl]: Every time you want to toss mud, we'll toss. Otherwise, you keep my name out of your mouth and I'll keep your name out of mine."
Now, it seems, everyone is tossing mud at Bruce Pearl, who was fired yesterday by Tennessee. For much of his career, no two people could agree on what Pearl was, exactly. A fink? A whistleblower? A cheat like any other? A trailblazer? But with Friday's blowout loss to Michigan, and with this fall's revelation that he had lied to NCAA investigators looking into his recruiting activities, Pearl looks like the two things a college basketball coach is not permitted to be, at least not simultaneously: a crook and a loser.
In the wake of Pearl's firing, it's worth revisiting that seminal moment in his career, the Deon Thomas recruiting saga, from which we've obtained a number of little-seen and revealing documents. It may not have been the most important sports scandal in recent memory. Given what's happened at Tennessee, it may not have even been the most important sports scandal to involve Pearl. But it was a model scandal. It had all the elements. It was Cam Newton and Renardo Sidney and O.J. Mayo and Blue Chips, all rolled into one and topped off with a touch of Nixonian spycraft. No one came off well: not Pearl, who'd broken a kind of coaching omerta; not Collins, who was labeled a cheat at a time when Illinois's rivals around the Midwest were trying to lay recruiting inroads in Chicago; not Thomas, who looked like another kid with his hand out; not Thomas's supposed best friend, who acted as Pearl's snoop; not Mike Slive, who was then a lawyer hired (and subsequently fired) by Illinois and who is now SEC commissioner; not Randy Rueckert, a former NCAA investigator, who once allegedly hounded Deon Thomas up and down the sidelines of a pickup game; not Rich Hilliard, the former head of the NCAA's enforcement staff, who was a college friend of Pearl's and who would have some trouble of his own staying on the right side of the rules. Even two decades on, it still has something to teach us — about Pearl, yes, but especially about the nature of that burn-proof vault of yellowing secrets known as the NCAA.
The Player: Deon Thomas
Deon Thomas's grandmother had Bruce Pearl pegged a long, long time ago. She could spy the deceit in the young Iowa assistant's eyes.
"My grandmother saw right through him as clear as glass," Thomas said, "and that was one of the things she told me, one of the things she would often say: 'People need to be who they are.'"
Pearl, Bernice McGary believed, was not the person he purported to be. And for this, she dissuaded her grandson from being a Hawkeye. And why wouldn't Deon heed her advice? She had taken him in when his mother was laid waste by drugs. She had cared for him, loved him, and raised him during his formative and fruitful high school years. And he trusted her. And he loved her. And that, he said, is why he decided to go to Illinois.
"While I was playing I really tried to not give it much thought," said Thomas, who played four years at Illinois and then spent most of his 14-year professional career abroad. He is now the men's basketball coach and athletic director at Lewis and Clark Community College in southwestern Illinois. "My grandmother said, 'Don't think about the past because you can't change it.' And you will often hear me quote her, because my grandmother, and my mother were the biggest influences on me. My grandmother was the reason I didn't go to Iowa — which the NCAA didn't want to hear. But I guess maybe they didn't believe the poor black kid knew money wasn't the be-all and end-all."
Thomas imagines that none of this would have happened if he'd had a strong male figure in his life. His father was largely absent during his teen years, and his coach could do only so much to fend off the college suitors. A psychologist hired by Thomas's attorney during the investigation found him to be clinically depressed. Still, Thomas said, he knew right from wrong.
"I went to University of Illinois for $80,000 and a Blazer?" he said. "That is crazy."
That's Deon Thomas's story now, and that's been his story since the NCAA launched its investigation. For the particulars of the saga, you can find thorough, if perhaps biased, accounts all over the web. We'll keep ours brief:
Thomas enrolled at Illinois in fall 1989, having chosen the Illini over Minnesota and Iowa, to which he had at one point supposedly given an oral commitment. Thomas was reckoned one of the top incoming freshmen in the country. Pearl had pursued him aggressively, and on April 9, 1989, sensing his prize was slipping away, the coach secretly (but legally) recorded a phone conversation with Thomas that included the following exchange, according to documents related to the investigation:
Pearl: Okay baby. Listen, I just want to go over a couple of things and ask you a couple of questions.
Thomas: Uh-huh (yes).
Pearl: Okay? When you went down to the Indiana game…
Pearl: … and you talked with Jimmy and Jimmy offered you $80,000 and the Blazer, that upset you didn't it?
Thomas: Yeah, somewhat.
Pearl: Tell me how…what your reaction to that was.
Thomas: Nothing, I was just more amazed, you know.
Thomas: I didn't say anything about it to him.
Thomas: You know, I just laughed it off.
Pearl: Really? I felt at the time Deon that…at the time, I really felt like even though you were leaning towards Iowa, I felt that Illinois was in decent shape. Especially if they could play well this year, give it all their talent (?) you know what I'm saying? And I thought you were going to take a look. But when they offered you the money, didn't that turn you off a little bit?
Thomas: No. No, not really.
Pearl: It didn't?
Thomas: You know. I just thought about it a little bit more that's all. It didn't really turn me off.
Throughout the investigation and in the intervening decades, Thomas has maintained that no bribe was ever offered and none was accepted, and that whatever he said to Pearl that day was merely his attempt to get an overzealous recruiter off the phone. (Pearl had put in nine calls to Thomas in the previous 48 hours.) In addition, the tape submitted to the NCAA contained just six minutes of a 14-minute conversation; the full version never was provided. There are Illini fans who believe to this day that the tape was doctored. (Thomas would file a lawsuit against Pearl in 1993 for secretly recording him. The suit was dismissed.)
In response, attorneys for Collins and Thomas submitted to the NCAA a list of counter-allegations against Pearl [PDF]. Among the charges: that Pearl had given Thomas $100 in cash and various other inducements; that he had provided gifts and the promise of a scholarship offer to Thomas's high school friend, Renaldo Kyles; that he had made improper recruiting contact with Thomas in Amsterdam; that he had offered Thomas's grandmother "financial assistance"; and that he had helped another family member get a job; that he had "knowingly provided false and misleading information to the NCAA enforcement staff and investigators from the University of Illinois."
In a 14-page response sent on Dec. 2, 1991, David Berst — then an assistant executive director for enforcement, currently the NCAA's top cop — said he could find no corroborating evidence to support any of the accusations made against Pearl. According to Berst, Pearl did cop to suggesting that Kyles apply for a scholarship for managers and trainers, but he denied making any guarantees. Regarding the allegation about "financial assistance" for Thomas's grandmother, Pearl told the NCAA that it was in fact Illinois that had offered to move McGary into a nicer building. Pearl, he explained, had mentioned Illinois's offer in conversation with her in an attempt to explain that Iowa would provide no such assistance. "[S]he seemed confused and did not understand what he was trying to say," Berst wrote. [PDF]
Berst's response was dismissive and at times even sarcastic. "Your statement that travel out of the continental United States for recruiting purposes is not expressly permitted by NCAA legislation is interesting," he wrote of the incident in Amsterdam, where Thomas and his Simeon team had traveled for a tournament, and where Pearl had followed them, still hot on his recruit's heel, "but is no more relevant than the statement that travel to Chicago, Illinois, for recruiting purposes is not expressly permitted."
What's striking and especially telling about the letter is the stuff that didn't raise Berst's eyebrow — Pearl tracking a recruit all the way to Amsterdam, one of seven trips involving the recruitment of Thomas that cost Iowa more than $10,000 in all, according to one account; Pearl enlisting a kid as a mole and dangling a scholarship in front of him; Pearl creepily recording phone conversations with Thomas; and so on— and the stuff that did, like whether or not Thomas received a $100 jogging suit.
The Idealist: Bruce Pearl
Pearl at first was unnerved when I broached the topic of Thomas in one of our latter interviews in 2004. But, eventually, he warmed to the idea of a public testimonial.
I remember Pearl getting wet in the eyes, and I remember him telling me: "I've been asked a question: 'If you had to do it again, would you?' And I answer it reluctantly. Reluctantly, I would say yes. Reluctant, because it hurt me. Reluctant, because it hurt Deon. Reluctant, because it hurt Jimmy. Reluctant, because it hurt Illinois, their fans, and their university. Reluctant, because it was a pain in the butt to the people in Iowa. Reluctant, because there was enough of a percentage of the population that thought I was wrong. I understand that. I am an idealist. Having gone through this, I'm more of a realist."
Pearl has seen himself this way since the Deon Thomas affair came to a close: the tortured whistleblower who sacrificed his professional prospects — Dick Vitale called his actions "career suicide" — at the altar of truth. Of course, that's not how Pearl himself put it in a 10-page memo, marked "confidential," that he drafted for his superiors at Iowa [PDF]. The memo was a sort of bill of indictment. He mentioned Collins's $80,000 offer, then wrote: "The only other details Deon offered was that it was the most Illinois had ever offered to pay for a recruit's signature. Marcus Liberty of archrival Martin Luther King in Chicago had been offered only $75,000 and a new car when he decided to choose Illinois at the last minute over Syracuse." He cited conversations he'd had with Kyles, Thomas's "best friend," that corroborated the claim about the offer. He found several other minor violations — illegal recruiting contacts and such — and even permissible actions that nevertheless elicited a burst of high-mindedness:
Current Illinois basketball players, and former Simeon stars Nick Anderson and Irvin Small, where in attendance for at least five Simeon basketball games and made several school visits with the intent of recruiting Deon to Illinois. I realize this is not a violation of NCAA rules, but due to the number of contacts and the reasoning behind the visits, it does prompt one to ask the question "when exactly are these players in class."
But the most revealing section was the final one, entitled "strategy." It was not the work of an idealist. It was a tour de force of cold-eyed college recruiting realpolitik:
1. Notify the NCAA soon, prior to mid June when Deon arrives at summer school in Champaign. Chances of having the truth come out are better if the investigation takes place in Chicago.
2. Work with someone in Enforcement that we know personally. For example, I graduated from Boston College with Rich Hilliard and we have stayed in touch.
3. Can we discuss some "conditions" with the NCAA prior to turning over evidence.
a) The University of Iowa must remain nameless or we'll lose any chance of Deon coming to Iowa.
b) Renaldo Kyles, Deon's best friend who worked with me, must also not be named in the investigation for exactly the same reason.
c) All us the opportunity to advise them on the best way to get at the truth. That being simply this: There are several people who knew about the offers of cash prior to Deon's commitment. Many of these same people have been with Deon when he's made some purchases that prior to signing with Illinois he would not have been able to. Those most likely to tell the truth are Deon's teammates, Jackie Crawford, Antoine Johnson and Avery Stallings. These young men are going to junior college and might tell the truth about what they know if their eligibility at an NCAA school is put in question. Also Deon's girlfriend, Latisha Scott, whom I've never met or talked to, might be willing to tell the truth if she could be convinced we're not trying to hurt Deon.
4. The object of this action is to punish the University of Illinois and prevent them from doing it again. We cannot be placed in an uncompetitive situation with anyone in our conference.
5. Finally and most importantly, if this all can be done without destroying Deon Thomas, I'm in favor, but if the NCAA cannot adequately protect Deon and treat him as a victim also, then I would not feel the same way about this course of action.
Pearl's whistleblowing was unmistakably an act of self-interest. So strong was that self-interest that the possibility of destroying a teenager seemed almost an afterthought; he raised the issue in the same breath that he considered blackmailing "the truth" out of Thomas's teammates.
Although the NCAA never found Collins guilty of the major charges Pearl levied, it did sanction the school for three self-reported minor violations and "a lack of institutional control." Illinois was put on probation, banned from the 1991 tournament, and limited to two scholarships in 1991-92 and 1992-93. Recruiting was severely restricted. Thomas wound up sitting out his freshman season.
Through a Tennessee spokesman, Pearl declined to revisit the topic with me a few weeks ago. But in November, when his league suspension was handed down, he made at least a vague allusion to this history.
"I have been a very public advocate for playing by the rules," he said. "When you don't play by the rules, these are the things that can happen."
The Bloodhounds: Randy Rueckert, Rich Hilliard, And Mike Slive
Collins was as lucky as he was guilty. Randy Rueckert remains sure of that. He was one of the NCAA investigators who handled the Thomas case, a former Cook County prosecutor who now works as a private eye in Chicago, and he is certain today that Collins bribed Thomas.
When I asked Rueckert if the allegations against Pearl at Tennessee changed his opinion of what took place at Illinois, he swiftly cut me short: "No." He is offended, he said, by the implication of my question and offended moreover by the statements and innuendo that succeeded the investigation, ones that Collins has continued to float: that the whole thing was a sham; that Hilliard, an NCAA enforcement officer at the time, was in cahoots with Pearl, his old BC chum; that the NCAA was possessed with finding wrongdoing in Champaign.
"It really bothers me to think that it is being characterized as a witch hunt that we went on because Hilliard knew Pearl and we were out to get Illinois, and there isn't anything further from truth," Rueckert said. "It was a comprehensive, lengthy investigation, and we would have never brought it to the committee if we didn't feel it happened."
To impugn Hilliard, Rueckert said, is to impugn him.
"I was a major part of that investigation, so you can sugarcoat it all you like, but the implication is clearly there," he said.
Thomas's attorney, Stephen Beckett, cited telephone records showing five phone calls that Pearl made to Hilliard in July and August 1989. In addition, during the course of the investigation, Beckett and at least two Illinois administrators recalled an episode in which Rueckert and another NCAA investigator, Bob Minnix (now a senior associate athletics director at Washington State), had stalked an un-enrolled Thomas to a gym on the Illinois campus and berated him over the matter.
In his 1991 book, Undue Process: The NCAA's Injustice for All, Don Yaeger writes of the alleged incident:
Deon Thomas was playing a pickup game on the challenge court. Playing on the adjacent court was Jim Anderson, professor in the College of Education and chairman of the Illinois Athletic Control Board.
According to his statement, Anderson looked over and saw two similarly dressed men — both wearing polo shirts and blue slacks — watching Deon as he made his way up and down the court. Suddenly, one of the two men, later identified as Rueckert, began walking up and down the sidelines yelling at Deon while he was playing. Just as suddenly, Deon quit in the middle of the game and walked away. The two men followed. So did Anderson.
The still-unenrolled Thomas made his way downstairs to the weight room with the men following. From the top of the stairs, Anderson identified himself as a university administrator and asked the two men what was going on. Rueckert told Anderson that he and Minnix were from the NCAA and were actually on their way to Chicago when they decided to stop in and see Deon. As Thomas worked out in the weight room, Rueckert and Minnix watched through a glass door. Anderson stood back and watched them. When Thomas left the building, using a service door in the rear, the two investigators hustled out to meet him. There, they ran into Craig Stenson, a member of the school's athletic staff. According to a statement from Stenson, Rueckert began yelling at Thomas. "You're a liar," Stenson quotes Rueckert as saying. "You're going to talk to me. If you don't have anything to hide, you'll talk to me."
Today, Rueckert calls that account "absolute bullshit."
"I am not going to dignify it with a comment," he told me. "It is the most ludicrous allegation out there."
Thomas, meanwhile, has maintained that's exactly what happened. Minnix did not respond to an e-mail seeking his comment.
I was unable to reach Hilliard for the story, but after years of being paid to sniff out impropriety in college sports, it seems he learned a few things from his old prey. In 2001, as an attorney for the Indianapolis-based law firm Ice Miller, Hilliard was forced to settle a malpractice suit brought by his client, David Ridpath, a former assistant athletics director at Marshall. Then, in 2005, the Illinois Supreme Court suspended Hilliard from the state bar for five months after he was found to have used money for his own purposes that St. Bonaventure University had paid to retain Ice Miller as outside counsel. Hilliard was using it to pay off his personal gambling debts.
Slive declined a recent interview request to discuss the Thomas affair; he has, I'm told, turned down other opportunities to speak on this since taking over at the SEC. At the time, Slive was an attorney for Bond, Schoeneck & King, and he was initially hired by Illinois to conduct a parallel investigation of Pearl's allegations and make recommendations to the university. Like Ice Miller, Bond, Schoeneck & King is considered one of the go-to shops for athletics departments in trouble, and it was more or less Slive's job to act as a lower court and to get Illinois to punish itself before the NCAA stepped in. Slive was certain of Collins's culpability; the university was not.
"Our perception was that Slive was working in concert with NCAA and his whole process was to throw Jimmy under the bus and ask Illinois to grovel for mercy and leniency," said Mark Goldenberg, the attorney who represented Collins throughout the investigation. Eventually, Goldenberg, along with Thomas's attorney, prevailed upon the school to relieve Slive of his duties.
Collins calls Slive a snake who tried to "force-feed me words." He has long maintained — without evidence — that Slive was part of Pearl's conspiracy against him. And this fall he thought he saw the old alliance at work once again. While suspending Pearl for eight conference games, Slive lent verbal support to the embattled coach. "In the analysis I determined there may well have been enough for the entire conference season," Slive said in November, "but the fact that he owned up to what he had done, owned up to the underlying violations, I felt half of the conference season was an appropriate matter."
For his part, Pearl responded much as he did at Iowa, wrapping himself in virtue. In January, when asked by ESPN's Jimmy Dykes what he had learned through this latest ordeal, Pearl said: "That my faith in God has never been stronger and that my faith in man has never been weaker — including myself."
Reading that quote on his iPad one day, Collins smelled a familiar skunk.
"It's a con man's game, and he's running it," he told me in January. "And he's never going to con me, because I know what he's about. I know what the guy's about. Anytime you use God, you bring God into what you've done? You're conning. How are you going to buy that?"
The Mole: Renaldo Kyles
"I have nothing negative to say of Bruce Pearl," the man of God told me. "He is a hell of a basketball coach. He is a great friend."
Rev. Renaldo Kyles, Pearl's snitch in the Deon Thomas camp, is now a pastor and director of interfaith services for Chicago Public Schools. He said that he stayed in touch with Pearl for a number of years after the incident. When Pearl got the job at Tennessee, Kyles called to congratulate him.
Kyles's role in the story is one of its uglier elements — a high school kid being urged to rat on his peer, all so that one basketball program might gain leverage over another one — and even today it's unclear who was conning whom harder, Pearl (with his talk of a scholarship for Kyles) or Kyles (with the suggestion that he was part of Thomas's inner circle). Thomas recalls Kyles as a chubby, unpopular kid whom his group of friends had taken in. Pearl, however, thought Kyles was Thomas's closest pal. Pearl and Kyles communicated frequently throughout the recruiting process. Kyles, according to transcripts of telephone conversations, had told Pearl that Collins was offering tens of thousands of dollars to lure Thomas to Illinois. An investigator hired by Thomas's attorney later interviewed Kyles, and, according to the investigator's report to the NCAA, Kyles claimed he never heard Thomas tell him about the $80,000 or the Blazer — contrary to Pearl's claims. However, the investigator said that when he had asked Kyles to sign a statement avowing this, his father stepped in and wouldn't allow it. In his official response to the NCAA, Thomas called Kyles "a shakedown artist."
Here's the transcript of one call between Kyles and Pearl, soon after Thomas had decided not to make make an official visit to Iowa City:
Pearl: Are you talking to Deon?
Kyles: Yeah, what?
Pearl: What did he say? (Pause) You just called him?
Kyles: Huh-uh (no), he called me.
Pearl: He called you after I called him?
Kyles: Huh-uh, he called me just a few minutes ago, him and his girlfriend.
Kyles: Yeah, they're supposed to be coming over here later on.
Pearl: What did he have to say?
Kyles: Nothing. He still know I'm upset.
Pearl: Yeah. Well I think the most important thing you can do right now is be his friend, first. I've told you that from the beginning, haven't I?
Kyles: But I don't see how coach. It's like he betrayed me.
Pearl: You've got to...hey, you've got. I feel betrayed too now, you know, I mean stake my job and my reputation on the fact that he was coming to Iowa, and if he doesn't even come in and visit, it's going to make me look real bad.
When I reached him by phone last month, Kyles said he didn't want to revisit the incidents of 22 years ago. "That is a chapter I closed and moved on with my life and I don't want to rehash old feelings," he said. "I am praying for Bruce Pearl and his family."
Kyles had even less to say about Thomas, with whom he hasn't spoken since the investigation. "I think I was caught in the middle with having a relationship with Deon and a relationship with Pearl, and it made my last year at Simeon hell," he said. "I took a lot of negative publicity about it and I just would rather leave the past where the past is."
The Recruiter: Jimmy Collins
This past January, seven years after our first meeting, I invited Collins to lunch. Pearl's recent troubles with the NCAA had just begun, and it was time once again to seek out the other side of the story. We met at a Caribbean restaurant in Chicago's Hyde Park. Collins wore warmups and sneakers and looked very much like he has just come from a basketball clinic, even though he had retired in August. A handful of diners recognized him and came over to our booth to exchange pleasantries. Collins told me he was mulling an autobiography, and he seemed to have been doing a lot of reflecting of late. For all the ups and downs of his life, for all that he endured growing up in the projects of Syracuse, N.Y., he had come to the conclusion that he never really felt the weight of hardship until Pearl's accusations.
"The reason it impacted me so much was the longer it went on the longer I was finding out tidbits," Collins said. "They were really causing me to try to lose my job, my livelihood, the way to feed my family. That's why it hurt so bad, because I knew it wasn't true, and I knew that they knew it wasn't true."
Collins knew what it was like to stand at the mercy of someone else's judgment. After a brief NBA career, he'd spent seven years as a juvenile probation officer for a notorious hard-ass Circuit Court judge in Chicago named Maurice Pompey (who had corruption problems of his own). "If you would violate his probation," recalled Collins, "he would send you to jail."
As the judge's right-hand man, his job was not inconsistent with his future duties as a college recruiter — find kids and bring them in — and in this weird way he grew to know the high-school scene in Chicago. In 1983, Lou Henson hired him as an assistant at Illinois, and Collins was his Chicago bird dog, bringing in the likes of Nick Anderson, Lowell Hamilton, and the ill-starred Ben Wilson.
Collins, who took the head job at UIC in 1996, had a career enough for two, but when he left the Flames after 14 seasons, he departed with the nettling thought that he had failed to reach his true coaching potential for reasons beyond his control. He told me that in 1988, the season before the NCAA's dogs were unleashed upon him, he met with Tennessee to discuss the head coaching position there. The job ultimately went to Wade Houston, father of former New York Knick Allan, but Collins was sure he soon would've landed a commensurate job had it not been for Pearl, whose rise in the hoops world — until very recently — only salted the wound.
"In Champaign, all the people down there know it didn't happen," Collins said. "But the further I get away from Champaign, I get people saying, 'Ah man, how you doing? It's so good to see you beat that case.' I [worked in] the probation department for seven years and when you beat the case, it means they didn't have something on you to prove that you did it — but you did it and you got away with it."
Even at UIC, the past pressed in on Collins. He once had an opening on his staff, he told me, and wanted to bring Thomas aboard, but he couldn't convince his bosses. "My athletic director thought it would raise eyebrows, because the press was going to revisit the investigation and he wanted none of that," Collins said. "In a way, I understand it. In a bigger way, I don't because that almost tells me that he thought we had done something wrong, too. That bothered me. It still bothers me."
The Big Fraud
The mistake people have often made in analyzing the Deon Thomas affair is in seeing it as a matter of perfect guilt and innocence — as if such a thing were possible. If this particular scandal has anything to teach us now, it's that just because there are horns in college basketball doesn't mean there are also halos — a proposition to keep in mind these next few weeks, as the recent hagiography of Bruce Pearl is fully dismantled. After all, the whole enterprise of big-time college sports rests on maintaining the lie that it's not an enterprise at all, and what we get as a result is an unending series of petty frauds, all of them tiny subsidiaries of that Big Fraud, the ultimate burn-proof vault. Pearl's crime at Iowa was insisting too ostentatiously on the rule of law in a lawless land. His crime at Tennessee was winking too conspicuously at same. Somewhere in between is where the Big Fraud is most comfortably sold.
On Friday, after Tennessee's 30-point loss to Michigan and 72 hours before Pearl was sacked, I called Collins. I was curious if he had watched the blowout and reveled in the misery of his nemesis. He said he hadn't. In fact, he seemed to have softened a bit from our previous conversation.
"He is getting beat down, he is getting beat down pretty severely," Collins said. "I don't see how he can survive it."
"I think he will pop up somewhere else," he went on, "and more power to him. People are willing to forget about what happened at Tennessee if he can restore their program."
I told him it sounded as if he now felt bad for Pearl, but Collins quickly interjected.
"I don't feel bad for him," he said. "I do know that when you go into these venues to play other universities, I do know the student body and the fans are very, very cruel to the point where you almost feel like you need to have a guard or have something with you to protect yourself. And I know that for the last few months, he has had to endure some very, very nasty words and some nasty actions that are being thrown towards him. I hate to see anybody go through that, and maybe the best thing for him would be get away for a while and let people's feelings subside."
Now that it was upon him, Collins said he didn't need Pearl's ultimate comeuppance for his personal vindication. He was no longer bothered.
"People know a little more about him," he said. "And that taste is pretty sweet."
Daniel Libit is a writer in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Middle Pearl photo via the Knoxville News Sentinel.