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BOB RYAN

No secret Pearl will hear it

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Sometime around 6:20 or so CST this evening, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl will take the floor at Allstate Arena. The boos may very well be audible at your house.

Bruce Pearl is Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of Illinois fans. He is Mr. Persona Non Grata. He is, as one media inquisitor jokingly, but correctly, phrased it to Illinois coach Bruce Weber, the "Devil Incarnate."

Their bitterness stems from an incident in 1989 when Pearl, then an assistant coach at Iowa under Dr. Tom Davis, dimed out Illinois over the alleged illegal recruiting of a Chicago high school star named Deon Thomas. Pearl had turned over to the NCAA an incriminating audio tape of a phone conversation with Thomas he had secretly recorded. In that tape, Thomas, however obliquely, admitted that then-Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins had wooed him with the offer of $80,000 in cash, plus a Chevy Blazer. As a result of the ensuing NCAA investigation, Illinois was hit with serious penalties, including scholarship and recruiting limitations and a one-year postseason ban. In so doing, the NCAA cited the proverbial "lack of institutional control."

Interestingly, however, the charges pertaining to the Thomas affair were not cited when the NCAA announced the sanctions, although Chuck Smrt, an NCAA director of enforcement, did say that while the infractions committee could not find Illinois guilty of several major infractions, he did not consider it free of guilt, either. NCAA observers say it's not entirely uncommon for the agency to nail someone by punishing them for something other than the supposed crime that triggers the investigation. We're supposed to read between the lines.

In the supercharged atmosphere that surrounds a major, beloved state university's athletic program, a whistle-blower such as Pearl will always be vilified. He well understands that it comes with the territory. He and Collins, now the head man at the University of Illinois-Chicago, are coaching rivals in the Horizon League. They praise each other on a coaching level, but they do not shake hands.

Playing Illinois in the NCAA Tournament in suburban Chicago is a classic luck-of-the-draw situation. As a 12 seed, it should have been a moot point. But the Panthers took care of No. 5 seed Alabama and No. 4 seed Boston College, and now they are playing, of all teams, No. 1 seed Illinois. I mean, does Bruce Pearl really need this? It cannot be a comfortable situation for the Dorchester-born and Sharon-raised Pearl (BC '82, in case you haven't heard), but he has clearly decided to stay on message on his personal pronouncements this week. Simply stated, The Message is as follows: This game is not about me; it's about the kids. I know people in Illinois are still upset, but I can deal with it.

"It really hasn't been that much of a distraction," he insists.

For one thing, it means nothing to his team. These kids were not even in grade school when it all happened. But they're all smart. They know what time it is. They know that at the highest level players have been bought since the beginning of time. They would hardly be surprised to learn that Ilinois had been involved in various acts of chicanery for decades prior to the Thomas incident, or that Bob Knight -- who may have his faults, but cheating has never been one of them -- had always cited the program Lou Henson was running at Illinois as the Big Ten's most nefarious during his long tenure at Indiana. There is every reason for them to support their coach.

"He's always there for us," says guard Ed McCants. "We look at him as our friend."

There was fallout everywhere you looked from L'Affaire Thomas. The young man denied the charge, saying he had said what he said to Pearl on the infamous tape only to rid himself of a persistent caller. He wound up suing Pearl, who, in turn, subsequently left Iowa for the head job at Division 2 University of Southern Indiana, where, despite winning a national title in 1995, he was regarded by some as being a man in some sort of coaching exile.

The ethics bother some people to this day. By secretly taping someone on the phone, he was involved in an act that is legal in some states and illegal in others.

It's very borderline sneaky and, frankly, I wish he had been able to nail a cheater some other way, as does Bruce Pearl. During a Monday conference call he said, "I regret some of the methodology, but not the intent."

Frankly, it's very difficult to believe that he wasn't onto something, given an Illinois track record that included a noted "Slush Fund" scandal that dated from the 1960s and the sleazy nature of any dealings with the Chicago Public League, a fertile recruiting ground for Collins during his time as Henson's chief recruiter. There was at least one Chicago school where it was well known that a pay scale dictated by the coach was in existence: so much to him for a school visit, so much to him for a home visit, etc. The hands were out all over that league and Illinois had a lot of those players. Bruce Pearl was not the only one to know this.

Pearl is trying hard to remind people that there is a bit more to this intriguing matchup than his history with the University of Illinois.

"There are so many great story lines," he points out. "You have Adrian Tigert, who has not missed a shot in the tournament [11 for 11]. You have Joah Tucker, who may be the best player in the tournament no one has ever heard of."

You also have Weber being a 1976 graduate of, yup, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. You have Illinois forward James Augustine being the nephew of UWM baseball coach (and former Milwaukee Brewer) Jerry Augustine. You have UWM actually being located closer to Rosemont than Illinois is. And you have the latest David-Goliath matchup of a fascinating NCAA Tournament.

The fact remains that the story line most people here are interested in is the presence of the Ultimate Ogre, Bruce Pearl. "Not everyone here will be an Illinois fan," Pearl reasons. "There will be people here from Oklahoma State and Arizona. You think they want to play the Fighting Illini or the Panthers of Milwaukee, in spite of our vaunted press?"

That's a good throwaway line, and Bruce Pearl's got plenty of 'em. But on the topic of the day, he gets very serious. "I have great support in the coaching profession," he declares. "In 16 years, not one person who wasn't on that [Illinois] staff has ever approached me and told me I did something wrong."

He's in a business where there are no secrets. I'm choosing to believe he's telling the truth.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.


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