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Douglas S. Looney
May 25, 1981
Harsh penalties following a bizarre series of events have made some Illini clamor to get out of the conference
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May 25, 1981

The Big Ten's Big Mess

Harsh penalties following a bizarre series of events have made some Illini clamor to get out of the conference

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Further, the conference evidently is telling Illinois, without specifically saying so, that it doesn't care for junior college transfers—especially from California, where scholarship standards and eligibility requirements aren't always perceived as being top-drawer. It would seem that it irks the Big Ten that 13 of White's 22 scholarship recruits this spring are junior college transfers, with half a dozen more expected in the fall.

Finally, some observers feel, the faculty reps want to cast in concrete that what they say goes and that a good conference member gets along by going along. Indiana's Jack Wentworth, chairman of the faculty group, says, "We're the ultimate authority, and our view is that these people are in school for an education. The vote against Illinois was 9-zip so there's got to be something down there that causes concern."

William Ferguson is executive secretary of Illinois' mathematics department and also the school's faculty representative. "The reasons for all this [the sanctions against Illinois] are conspicuous by their absence," he says. "I think there must be an undercurrent of something, some hidden agenda."

Could be. It seems to gall the Big Ten, for example, that Illinois fired Cecil Coleman as athletic director in 1979 after seven years in office. Then Illinois, in the view of much of the rest of the conference, compounded the error by hiring Stoner from California State-Fullerton. Illinois also fired Coach Gary Moeller (Ohio State '63), a Big Ten old boy who had logged eight years as an assistant at Michigan, and signed up White, who had coached at Stanford and Cal and for the 49ers. More California. Even worse, word was going around that White might have played fast and loose with the rules when he was head coach at Cal. He was fired in 1977 after a 7-4 season. The fact was that he had a personality conflict with California athletic director Dave Maggard, who, among other things, wasn't thrilled with the borderline academic qualifications of some athletes White was recruiting. (A friend of White's says, "Mike will play up to the limit of the rules, but he won't go beyond.") Moreover, Cal players were labeled cheap-shot artists during White's six-year tenure, and that reputation has been hard for the Illinois coach to shake. Against this backdrop, White hired two Illinois assistants from Arizona State and two others from Oregon—and both those schools were penalized by the Pac-10 last August for accepting unearned credits and falsified transcripts. Then White recruited Wilson.

The Big Ten believes Illinois has loose faculty control of athletics, which may well be the case. If so, it isn't unique in this regard, even in the Big Ten. Academicians talk about faculty control; in reality, athletics are controlled—for good or ill—by athletic departments.

Only 14 years ago Illinois was severely penalized by the Big Ten. When a slush-fund operation was discovered, the school was ordered to fire its football coach, Pete Elliott, and both of its basketball coaches, Harry Combes and Howie Braun. That action so crippled athletics in Champaign-Urbana that its effects have been felt to this day.

But all these things are intangibles, and Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke vigorously denies that they have anything to do with the Wilson case. "You don't take pride in enforcing the rules," he says. "You take pride in protecting academic standards."

Ironically, no one accuses Wilson of doing anything wrong. The blots on his record are that he didn't hit the books as hard as he should have in high school and that he is always doing what well-meaning adults tell him to.

Two weeks ago in Champaign, Wilson was eating pizza with fellow quarterbacks Kris Jenner, Tim Damron and Tony Eason and the quarterback coach, Walt Harris, and discussing his plight. "I remember when I was little, a coach showed me a sign," he said. "I still remember it. It said: Rule No. 1: The coach is always right. Rule No. 2: If the coach is wrong, refer to Rule No. 1."

Wilson has subscribed to that maxim in spades. Further, his red hair and wide-eyed innocence make him look like an overgrown (he's 6'3", 215 pounds) Dennis the Menace. But he isn't. What comes through is candor. "Of course I wouldn't be here if it weren't for football, to be honest," he says. "Football is first and education is second. I know I haven't used my academic talents to their fullest. I could be a lot more intelligent than I am now. I am an underachiever. But I go to class. I go to lab and cut up a few rats and frogs. I'm relatively intelligent. I'm not a dumb jock." The proof is in the numbers. At both Fullerton and Illinois he has made passing grades. His average is 3.57 on a 5.0 scale, a C+.

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