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Oh, my goodness, not Illinois ." When those words were uttered more than two months ago by Big Ten Commissioner Bill Reed, the famed old athletic conference in the Midwest was thrust into soul-searching turmoil once again. A slush fund for football and basketball players had been uncovered at the University of Illinois, heretofore a simon-pure, charter member of the league with traditions predating the folklore deeds of Red Grange. But even the revelation of Illinois' sins did not rival the surprise that came late last week when the athletic directors of the Big Ten, following a formal meeting, recommended the harshest punishment in the history of the conference, the firing of the Illinois coaches concerned. Suddenly the entire Big Ten was saying, "Oh, my goodness."
The evidence was reported to be both mountainous and indisputable. Illinois, spotlessly clean since the Big Ten was originated as the Western Conference back in 1896, had cheated by violating the conference rule that forbids the payment of anything in excess of room, board, tuition and fees to athletes. It was understood there were records to prove that a total of $21,000 had been doled out to various football and basketball stars over the past five and a half years—money given away at the somewhat notorious indiscretion of coaches and officials in the athletic department of the university.
Bill Reed's statement reflected the astonishment, regret and embarrassment that the Big Ten felt when Illinois turned itself in for cheating last December. It was bad enough that this proud institution had violated the rules, but if this were true an obvious implication seemed to follow: if a school like Illinois was guilty, then surely a lot of others might be guilty, too.
Illinois was guilty of something, all right, there was no dispute about that. The initial evidence came to the attention of the university on Dec. 16 in the form of records supposedly kept by Athletic Director Doug Mills, who had just retired, or Assistant Athletic Director Mel Brewer, who was about to resign, or by an aide of theirs. Since 1961, it seemed, there had been a group of friends of the Illini, fans and alumni who contributed money that the coaches could use as they wished—for recruiting or for the care and feeding of athletes already on campus.
Ordinarily, infractions of this sort are not substantiated by records. Investigators usually rely heavily on circumstantial evidence, concerning which they eventually get only partial and unwilling confessions. The $21,000 that Illinois passed around was hardly "big money"—but its misuse was much too well documented.
Michigan State, by contrast, was accused of paying out a similar amount in a single year, 1953, through the auspices of something called the Spartan Foundation. No books were kept, and part of the money was never accounted for. The school received a mild, one-year probation for what was labeled "improper aid to athletes."
If Illinois, incidentally, got in trouble because it kept too careful an accounting of its slush fund, it may have been recollecting the often-told collegiate tale about a coach who took the fund and left the slush. One of the most widely circulated stories in the football underground is the one about the assistant coach at a certain big school who was in charge of an unaudited payoff fund for needy athletes. As he prepared to depart one day for his own head coaching job, his ex-boss quickly inquired, "Where's the cigar box with the money in it?"
"Money? What money is that?" the assistant replied innocently. Whereupon he left the university, cigar box and all, to begin a brilliant career in another conference.
Virtually every major university with a big-time athletic program has some kind of alumni and booster group like the one at Illinois, one that presents its members as intimate friends of the coaches and top players. They give money, provide summer jobs, hold country-club parties, fly chartered planes and wear loud blazers. Under the rules their donations to the cause are permitted to be used to help defray the increasing cost of big-time collegiate sport. Their money is supposed to pay for buying new movie projectors, redecorating the lettermen's lounge, sending the cheerleaders on trips to the Coast, perhaps even for bonuses to the coaches for a season well done. These groups have nice names—everything from the Monday Morning Quarterbacks to the Go for Twos—and are warmly regarded by university financial officials.
But the University of Illinois did things differently, or at least it seems to have done so with the $21,000. Apparently, all a needy athlete had to do to get a piece of it was to ask Head Football Coach Pete Elliott, Head Basketball Coach Harry Combes or Assistant Basketball Coach Howard Braun. If the coach approved, the player was sent to the "bank"—and some reports have it that the bank was as close as an office down the hall—to pick up cash ranging from a small monthly dole to $50 to repair an automobile or even $400 to help pay for a wife's medical expenses.