Collins, it turned out, was holding a lot more than just a grudge. He told me he still had reams of transcripts of NCAA testimony related to the Thomas affair, and then he issued a warning."Believe me, I keep them in a vault," Collins said. "I'll never let them burn up. If a fire comes up into my house, they are in a burn-proof vault. And I tell [Pearl]: Every time you want to toss mud, we'll toss. Otherwise, you keep my name out of your mouth and I'll keep your name out of mine."
Now, it seems, everyone is tossing mud at Bruce Pearl, who was fired yesterday by Tennessee. For much of his career, no two people could agree on what Pearl was, exactly. A fink? A whistleblower? A cheat like any other? A trailblazer? But with Friday's blowout loss to Michigan, and with this fall's revelation that he had lied to NCAA investigators looking into his recruiting activities, Pearl looks like the two things a college basketball coach is not permitted to be, at least not simultaneously: a crook and a loser.
In the wake of Pearl's firing, it's worth revisiting that seminal moment in his career, the Deon Thomas recruiting saga, from which we've obtained a number of little-seen and revealing documents. It may not have been the most important sports scandal in recent memory. Given what's happened at Tennessee, it may not have even been the most important sports scandal to involve Pearl. But it was a model scandal. It had all the elements. It was Cam Newton and Renardo Sidney and O.J. Mayo and Blue Chips, all rolled into one and topped off with a touch of Nixonian spycraft. No one came off well: not Pearl, who'd broken a kind of coaching omerta; not Collins, who was labeled a cheat at a time when Illinois's rivals around the Midwest were trying to lay recruiting inroads in Chicago; not Thomas, who looked like another kid with his hand out; not Thomas's supposed best friend, who acted as Pearl's snoop; not Mike Slive, who was then a lawyer hired (and subsequently fired) by Illinois and who is now SEC commissioner; not Randy Rueckert, a former NCAA investigator, who once allegedly hounded Deon Thomas up and down the sidelines of a pickup game; not Rich Hilliard, the former head of the NCAA's enforcement staff, who was a college friend of Pearl's and who would have some trouble of his own staying on the right side of the rules. Even two decades on, it still has something to teach us — about Pearl, yes, but especially about the nature of that burn-proof vault of yellowing secrets known as the NCAA.