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Division II
Teddy Greenstein
November 27, 1995
Southern Indiana is on track for a second straight title under controversial coach Bruce Pearl
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November 27, 1995

Division Ii

Southern Indiana is on track for a second straight title under controversial coach Bruce Pearl

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Division II

8. ST. ANSELM (N.H.)

It was halftime of the 1995 Division II national title game, and Southern Indiana was halfway to humiliation, getting waxed by UC Riverside 39-21 on national TV. In the locker room a calm Southern Indiana coach Bruce Pearl simply said, "If there's anyone who doesn't think we'll win this game, leave now."

Everyone stayed, and the Screaming Eagles ran away to a 71-63 win. "Getting down by that much was tough," says Pearl, "but I had already been through much worse."

What he had already been through was perhaps the ugliest recruiting scandal in college basketball history. In the fall of 1988, Pearl, then an assistant at Iowa, was trying to reel in Deon Thomas, a 6'8" forward from Chicago's Simeon High. Pearl says that Thomas made a verbal commitment to Iowa in November. But by Christmas, Pearl was concerned because Thomas had told him that Illinois was dangling a meaty package before him—$80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer—according to Pearl.

Pearl decided to fight back by taping a telephone conversation in which Thomas seemed to confirm that Illinois had offered him the goods. Pearl turned the tape over to the NCAA, and the battle was on. Later Thomas denied that Illinois had made such an offer, saying he was just trying to get rid of Pearl. Thomas then claimed it was Pearl who had offered him money, not Illinois.

The controversy flared when Illinois visited Iowa on Jan. 29, 1990. During the game, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale told viewers that Pearl had committed "coaching suicide" and that his taping of the call was "totally unethical."

How, Pearl wondered, could shining a flashlight on cheating be unethical? "I'm still not comfortable with my methodology," Pearl says. "But I thought exposing this was necessary for college athletics."

Few Illinois fans agreed. Hate mail, death threats and harassing phone calls became common. As the stress built, Pearl's wife, Kim, had a miscarriage. At the Iowa-Illinois game on Jan. 28, 1991, in Champaign, some fans chanted, "Pearl's a narc." The NCAA ultimately found Illinois not guilty of wrongdoing in Thomas's recruitment but did sanction the Illini for other violations.

Clearly it was time for Pearl to leave Iowa City. But Winthrop (S.C.) University and Brown were the only two Division I schools that would even interview him, and only Southern Indiana made him an offer, in May 1992. "A lot of programs didn't want to touch me, "Pearl says. "I had a blemish. That's why I'm so indebted to the leadership here. They said, 'This guy stood up for what he believes in.' "

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