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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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A stunned Wilson was informed of the decision by Stoner. It isn't clear whether it was Wilson or Stoner who broached the idea of getting a lawyer to fight the eligibility decision. But in any event, on Aug. 19 of last year, Wilson, represented by Auler, filed a request for an injunction against the NCAA and Big Ten decisions on his eligibility, citing deprivation of equal protection against the former, and failure of due process and disregard for conference rules against the latter. Stoner says he made it clear to Wilson that if the matter went to court, Wilson was on his own and Illinois would be no party to the litigation. The Big Ten is of the firm opinion that Illinois was behind the suit. Says Stoner, "They don't believe us. I don't know why. They have chosen to ignore the truth."

The Big Ten dug in its heels, trying to prevent Wilson from playing last fall. But the Champaign County Circuit Court granted the injunction, the Illinois Fourth District Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court kept the injunction alive, and Wilson kept throwing—although until late in the season he was usually uncertain whether he would be able to play on a given Saturday.

Now came the matter of The Phony Transcript. Those words strike terror in the hearts of college administrators after the abuses of academic record-keeping in the Pac-10 that came to light in 1979-80. It seems that when Wilson's petition for a waiver of the academic progress rule was filed a year ago, in the space for high school grade average, the figure 2.67 was inserted. Then, although it wasn't required, academic adviser Terry Cole asked Ferguson about attaching the high school transcript Illinois had received from Katella. Said Ferguson, "Why not?" Cole explains, "We did it because we were trying to be thorough and we had nothing to hide."

Alas, the transcript wasn't of David C. Wilson, quarterback at Fullerton, but of David B. Wilson, wide receiver at the same school. Both athletes not only went to Fullerton but also had attended Katella High. David C. had a seven-semester high school average of 2.11, counting all but the final term of his senior year (but only 1.81 for six semesters from 10th through 12th grades); David B. had a 2.67. David B. says he was asked by Katella for permission to send his transcript to Illinois. "I told them they had the wrong one," he says. "I don't know myself if they sent it anyway, but it sure looks like it." It sure does—but there is no evidence of any ulterior motive.

After all, David B.'s high school grades weren't markedly better than David C.'s. In fact, Patricia E. Askew, an admissions official at Illinois, says Quarterback Wilson, in terms of the nature of courses taken, may have been better prepared for college than Wide Receiver Wilson. Says Auler, "Why put in a less favorable transcript to deceive someone?" Askew points out that Quarterback Wilson enrolled in 31 courses of college-preparatory merit in high school and took 199 hours altogether, while Wide Receiver Wilson enrolled in 22 such courses and earned 175 hours. Ultimately, when the transcript error was discovered and the proper one arrived at Illinois, it somehow didn't get to the Big Ten faculty reps for approximately three weeks. The faculty reps must have felt they were getting a fast shuffle. And this is the only serious infraction Illinois seems guilty of: ineptitude. Says Cribbet, "Nobody can put up with cheating. We didn't cheat. We may have lacked good procedures, but we didn't lack good faith."

The fact is, Illinois doesn't require a high school transcript for the acceptance of an incoming junior college transfer, choosing instead to rely entirely on his J.C. achievement. Nor did it make any difference to the faculty representatives, their protestations now notwithstanding, whether Wilson had a 2.67 high school average or 2.11. The magic figure is 2.0. It seems to weaken the entire Big Ten position when the conference insists on saying, as it does, that Wilson had a 1.81 high school average in his final six semesters at Katella when they know that Illinois always includes the two ninth-grade semesters in analyzing an application. With them, the correct figure is 2.11.

But, triggered by The Phony Transcript, the Big Ten launched an all-out attack on Illinois, and on April 27 of this year accused it of deliberately submitting the inaccurate transcript, failing to deal in good faith in the matter of the lawsuit and being "in violation of conference rules and principles." Five days later the Big Ten lowered the boom on Illinois.

Big Ten attorney Gregory says the central issue is "What responsibilities does a member have to a voluntary association?" Commissioner Duke answers, "Being a member of a voluntary group means you voluntarily observe club rules." Another Big Ten official says, "Illinois should have sat Wilson down and said, 'Son, the Big Ten says you're not eligible. Now, you work hard, get your grades in order and maybe you will be. But now you aren't and that's final.' " In any event, you probably don't sue, and although Illinois didn't, Wilson did.

With their sanctions, the faculty representatives have backed Illinois into a corner, seemingly providing no alternative to accepting the punishment other than leaving the conference. "The principle of the truth underlies the whole thing," says Stoner. "We're telling the truth. And we cannot accept sanctions for telling the truth."

But for Illinois, the school of Red Grange, to leave the Big Ten seems almost unthinkable. It belongs there, geographically and in terms of academic philosophy. Illinois is one of the finest universities in the nation, private or public (four of its graduate programs are regarded as being among the top five in the U.S.). Thus, Illinois is irate at the faculty representatives' charge that "the ultimate solution to these problems must be found in a renewed dedication by the University to Conference principles which place academic standards ahead of athletic interests."

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