”Yoni over at College Basketball wrote a little blurb a while back about the new contract that Coach Jimmy Collins got from Illinois-Chicago. There’s nothing too exciting about what Yoni wrote or the article he linked to. A good small-school coach got an extension.
To me though, it brought back an old memory.
[cue wavy memory lines here and Wayne’s World-style music – doodle-do, doodle-do, doodle-do]
As I alluded to in my What’s This? page, I went to college at Washington University in St. Louis. I lived in Virginia, but decided to spend most of my summers in St. Louis because my that’s where my girlfriend lived. I had a job on campus, so it made sense to just stay there instead of going back home. One summer, I think it was 1990, my girlfriend (now my wife) had a job as a campus tour guide. She’d give tours several days a week to prospective students and their families. One night a week, the tour guides hosted an open house on campus. There would be cookies and soft drinks and prospective students and their parents could meet all the tour guides and grill them. My girlfriend made me go to these things.
I didn’t really want to go. I didn’t know all the facts about the school, like when it was founded, who the first Dean was, or how many Nobel Laureates it had. I did know what fraternities threw the best parties and what bars were easy to sneak into, but no one ever asked me those things. So, mostly, I would hang out and eat cookies. Occasionally, a prospective engineering student would track me down and ask some questions. Somehow, it turned out that none of the gregarious tour guides were in the Engineering school. Go figure.
So, one night I’m there hanging out and stuffing myself on free cookies (for a college student, that’s like fancy dining) and one of the parents, a dad, came over to chat with me. Actually, I don’t think he really came over, but we both drifted out of the conversation clusters and found ourselves by the cookies. He was there with his wife and daughter and was about as interested in talking about Wash U as I was. So, we talked sports.
He and his family were from Champaign, Illinois. He told me this after I asked about his University of Illinois polo shirt. I believe he said that he worked for the school, but it may just be that he was a big fan.
Now, this summer, Illinois had been in the news a lot. The St. Louis papers always followed the Illini fairly closely. The school wasn’t too far away and it is a big rival of The University of Missouri. This summer though, the news wasn’t about Illini wins and losses; it was about the big recruiting scandal. Illinois basketball was in the midst of a good run of years, including a Final Four in 1989. They had some great players like Kendall Gill, Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson and Marcus Liberty. And Deon Thomas.
Deon Thomas. He was the one that the news was about that summer. Specifically, allegations were flying around that his recruitment had been tainted. The rumors were that Illinois had offered him a large sum of money, something like $50,000 and a car, a Chevy Blazer I think. The man at Illinois that was being blamed was assistant coach Jimmy Collins. Collins had been given credit for bringing most of the Illini talent, particularly players from Chicago. Deon Thomas was one of those Chicago players.
So back to that night – there was no way that summer to talk about Illinois sports and not bring up the scandal and the ongoing NCAA investigation. So, I asked this guy, we’ll call him Bob, about this. He smiled at me as if he’d been waiting for me to ask. “Oh yeah, I know all about it. Jimmy Collins is a good friend of mine,” Bob said. “We play racquetball a couple of times a week.” Bob was a fit-looking guy, a black guy if that matters, so this seemed reasonable.
Now I was curious. His mischievous grin told me that he had a story. “So,” I asked, “is it true?”
Bob barely let me finish the question before he blurted out, “Oh yeah. It’s all true, the 50 grand, the Blazer, all of that. In fact, they don’t know all of it. But they’ll never find anything. They won’t find any evidence. Jimmy’ll get off.” Bob was positively beaming with this news. He thought it was pretty damn funny. His boy was gonna pull the wool over the NCAA’s eyes.
Later that summer, Bob was proven right. The NCAA never did come up with a smoking gun in the Deon Thomas case. The closest they got was a phone conversation that Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl recorded with Deon Thomas. Thomas told Pearl that Illinois had offered him illegal benefits. Legal proceedings about the legality of the phone call tied the case up in court for a while. In typical NCAA fashion, they couldn’t find the big stuff, so they found a lot of little things instead. Eventually, the NCAA handed out their findings, finding Illinois guilty, but not hitting them hard. Illinois couldn’t play in the postseason for a year and they lost some recruiting privileges for a few years. Collins was placed under some sort of probation as well, but didn’t lose his job.
Every time I read stories about Jimmy Collins now, especially when he complains about Bruce Pearl, I think about Bob. His boy got off and is now a head coach with a bright future. I think Bob