THE CASE HAS ALL THE ELEMENTS OF AN ESPIONAGE NOVEL: international intrigue, a secret tape recording and physical reprisal, with college athletics' version of the firing squad looming at the end. It involves the Big Ten's season-long cold war between Illinois and Iowa over the recruitment of Deon Thomas, a talented 6'9" power forward from Chicago's Simeon High. Thomas signed with Illinois last April, but he hasn't played a game for the Illini, who have kept him out of action until the NCAA can decipher the whole imbroglio.
The NCAA is expected any day now to charge that the Illini offered Thomas $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer to play for them. In addition, Notre Dame sophomore forward LaPhonso Ellis reportedly told NCAA investigators that two years ago he was offered $85,000 and an automobile by Illinois, with the cash to be disbursed in installments—similar to the way Thomas allegedly was to be paid. The NCAA has a tape recording, made by Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl, of a phone conversation between Pearl and Thomas in which Thomas seems to confirm the details of the alleged offer. The recording was made just before Thomas reneged on what the Hawkeyes claim was an oral commitment to play for them. Pearl's taping of the call was legal under Iowa law.
The focus of the inquiry is Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins, who Pearl charges made the illegal offer to Thomas. "I'm limited [by university officials] in what I can say," says Collins. "To know all these things aren't true and not be able to say so is very frustrating. It's caused me many sleepless nights."
Collins isn't the only one who has suffered. Among college recruiters a code of silence has long been observed more rigorously than have NCAA rules. Thus Pearl, 29, is being given the cold shoulder by coaches at other schools. TV analyst Dick Vitale, the college game's cultural commissar, has called Pearl's taping of the call "totally unethical," adding that Pearl has "committed professional suicide."
Pearl admits to having been "uncomfortable" taping the call, but says he did so only after returning from the coaches' convention at last season's Final Four in Seattle, where a number of colleagues informed him of rumors that he had violated NCAA rules in an effort to land Thomas. Pearl says he taped Thomas only after Simeon High coach Bob Hambric, who had sent such players as Nick Anderson and Ervin Small to Illinois, phoned Towa coach Tom Davis to charge that Pearl had made improper offers to Thomas.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," says Pearl. "And only one person could clear me—Deon. I called him and asked about our recruiting effort."
With a tape recorder running, Pearl asked Thomas whether Iowa had done anything improper. According to Pearl, Thomas said that the Hawkeyes hadn't. Pearl says that he then began discussing the $80,000 and the Blazer and that Thomas confirmed that Illinois had made such an offer.
Thomas has since said that he was just "talking trash, not paying a lot of attention" to Pearl. In fact, he recently told the Chicago Sun-Times that Pearl, not Collins, offered him $80,000 and a Blazer. Meanwhile, Thomas's stepfather, Everett Johnson, has charged that Pearl offered to move Deon's mother to Iowa City, and that Pearl told him that if Deon didn't sign with Iowa, he would make allegations "that will ruin Deon's career."
Pearl denies both charges. "The defense is just trying to discredit the witness," he says.
Pearl maintains that only when NCAA investigators came to Iowa City last August to raise questions about his conduct—and when he felt that matters might well come down to his word against Thomas's—did he excuse himself from the room, fetch the tape and tell his interrogators, "I think you'd better listen to this."