A recent poster on the Illiniboard sought input from Illini basketball fans regarding whether they would be able to accept a National Championship if it was accompanied by charges of cheating and major NCAA penalties. While a majority of respondents preferred a clean program even if it meant something less than a National Championship, a significant number of posters thought the ends justified the means.
It made me realize that some people do not understand Illinois' long-term history relative to run-ins with the Big 10 and NCAA over recruiting infractions. If they did, they would realize that any speculation over whether Illinois should cheat is an exercise in futility.
The title of my next four columns is: Why Illinois Can't Cheat! Today's column deals with the infamous Slush Fund of 1966, and it will be followed by columns on the ramifications of the Slush Fund for football and basketball and then a summation of where these and other events place us in today's NCAA world. I hope these columns will shed light as to why Illinois must do its utmost to run a clean program no matter how much that impacts our ability to compete for championships.
Back in the glory days of Bob Zuppke and George Huff, the University of Illinois enjoyed unparalleled success both as an academic institution and a bellweather of collegiate athletics. Being one of the largest and most prosperous Land Grant Institutions, and existing in a highly populated state, Illinois had many advantages over its competitors. With little more than a simple letter of invitation, the UI could attract top athletes from all over Illinois and around the Midwest and South.
The prevailing attitude of leaders at the UI was somewhat elitist because of this success, but it did not really approach arrogance. They felt athletes would naturally gravitate to the Illini because it was the best place for them. And, Red Grange and many other stars proved them right, at least for awhile. Most Illini leaders at the time believed in honor and integrity. They wanted to win with dignity and lose with the grace of gentlemen. It was not part of their thinking to create a pattern of systematic cheating to gain a competitive advantage.
The Illini leaders were naive in this regard because they didn't understand the nature of the human ego. They hadn't become accustomed to losing, so they didn't consider to what lengths weaker or less successful programs would go to compete with them. After all, if you must win but can't win through merit, you have the choices of breaking the rules, changing the rules to create ambiguity and thus loopholes, and/or infiltrating the rules makers to influence the application of the rules. All three of these choices, plus others, have been tried repeatedly, and with frequent success, by numerous institutions to compete and win.
Weaker schools are not the only ones willing to cheat. There are some schools that are most arrogant in their pretence of superiority. Without mentioning names, you can sometimes find suggestions of their arrogance in the wording within their fight songs. Even if it was not their original intent to become arrogant, early success made them feel superior. And it forced them to find ways of repeating that success so their arrogance could be justified and maintained.
These types of institutions can be among the most ruthless when it comes to competition because they believe they have the most to lose. Fear of mediocrity can motivate them to extremes. Certainly, they may cheat to recruit players and keep them eligible. But some of their work is done behind the scenes and in the offseason to damage their opponents prior to facing them on the field of battle. There is no limit to the diabolical plans they might create to serve their purposes. Since no loss is acceptable, any activity, no matter how illegal, unethical or immoral, may be utilized without remorse.
For example, one institution is said to have gotten a great halfback drafted to the military to prevent him from competing against them. One ultra-rich alumnus signed a top athlete to a massive Major League baseball contract, possibly to keep that athlete from beating his school in football the next season. Two or more schools may have conspired to do a "whisper campaign" to destroy another school's credibility and then falsely accused that school of recruiting violations. Numerous schools have born false witness against other schools for "recruiting violations" that were either groundless or unprovable. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Anyway, Illinois was ill-prepared to defend itself against this type of competition, and they began to lose athletes and games as a result. Bob Zuppke was without doubt the greatest football coach in Illinois history, and his reputation was nationwide, but he could not attract as many top players in his later years as he had previously. Ray Eliot, known as Ray Nusspickle when he captained one of Zuppke's teams, was only moderately successful at maintaining Illinois' standard of excellence once he replaced Zuppke as head coach. And much of that success resulted more from his remarkable ability to inspire his players beyond their limits than to attract superior athletes.
Ray was adamant that Illinois should not have to recruit, that recruiting was ruining college sports. And he had great difficulty submitting to the notion of begging high school prima donnas to prefer his school over others. So Ray retired from coaching in 1959, in large part due to the increasingly complex game of recruiting that he was loathe to play.
It was not the nature of Illinois' administrators to seek vengence against other schools or expose misdeeds to the NCAA. Instead, they decided to remain competitive by studying the ways of their opponents so they could set up something similar at Illinois. It is said they copied Purdue's program, but their ultimate plan was no doubt similar to those of many other schools at the time.
So sometime in the early 1960's, Illinois sports administrators created a fund that would be used by basketball coach Harry Combes and football coach Pete Elliott to provide for the extra needs of certain select athletes. It must be remembered that Illinois was so unaccustomed to cheating that they kept meticulous records, records that could be used against them if discovered. And only small sums of money were ever spent on athletes, and then for emergencies such as hospitalization for a wife of an athlete, trips home for emergencies, and certain other special circumstances. It is likely this fund was not used to gain a recruiting advantage but to provide for unusual needs.
In addition, certain wealthy alumni and/or friends of the program were each assigned one particular athlete, to help him when needed. According to the interviews I have seen from athletes who received these benefits, other schools were offering large sums of money, gifts for parents, new homes or apartments, parental jobs, etc., that were far more substantial than anything ever offered or provided to our players. And I am not sure whether prospective athletes were introduced to their benefactors before committing to the school or just when they actually enrolled. Regardless, a small percentage of Illini basketball and football players received extra benefits from these "sugar daddies" while on campus.
This program was in place for a few years when Athletic Director Doug Mills resigned. Speculation on Mills' replacement settled on Pete Elliott, who would then turn over the reigns of the football program to top assistant Billy Taylor. Pete was a charismatic person who would have made an outstanding athletic director, but he was a graduate of the University of Michigan, and some Illini faithful were resentful of Michigan even then.
In particular, Assistant Athletic Director Mel Brewer, a former Illini football captain and hero glorified repeatedly by Ray Eliot in his inspirational speeches, took offense at the thought of a "Michigan Man" running the Illini program. We may never know for sure whether it was his concerns about Pete Elliott or his vengence over being passed over for Athletic Director or both, but in a fit of pique Brewer took all the ledgers of the "Slush Fund" to university president David Dodds Henry.
I used to think that Mel Brewer was just a selfish person who sought vengence when he wasn't named athletic director. But in more recent times, I have come to believe something slightly different. I am told that, as a result of the consequences of his actions, Brewer was disconsolate and lived the last years of his life in isolation and misery. It made me realize a possible alternative explanation for his behavior and thinking at the time.
When Brewer met with Henry, he may never have considered the possibility that Henry might go public with it. Brewer might have thought the information would remain hidden within the university, that it would be used to alter the naming of the athletic director but nothing else. I doubt sincerely that he considered the amount of integrity David Dodds Henry possessed. So while he expected to live with the consequences of exposing the "Slush Fund" within the university, my guess is he never once thought it would become public and lead to all the extreme ramifications that resulted.
It may be impossible for most people to forgive Mel Brewer for what he did, but I at least now have a soft spot in my heart for his plight, especially realizing how much he loved Illinois and how much he sacrificed as a player and administrator. Somehow, realizing the personal torture he lived with every day of his life afterward, makes me feel less in need of punishing him for his crimes. I hope his soul is now at peace.
Anyway, David Dodds Henry realized correctly that he had no choice but to turn the University of Illinois into the Big 10 and NCAA for violating their codes of ethics. He knew that a coverup would lead to even bigger problems, and that it was better to come clean and accept punishment than to pile lies on top of lies and become part of the conspiracy. I respect him for his courage, although that single act started the Illini on a downfall from which they have never totally recovered.
Most people think it was the NCAA that punished Illinois for the "Slush Fund". But it was really the Big 10. The NCAA merely rubber stamped the decisions of the Big 10. And what a number the Big 10 did on the Illini. Yes, we were caught red-handed. Yes, we deserved punishment. But the way the Big 10 went about their investigation, and the self-serving motives that were likely at play in their decisions, makes their behavior especially suspect.
Neither the Big 10 nor NCAA have subpoena power, so there is no way they can force anyone to testify against themselves. They lack the power to get to the heart of matters such as a "Slush Fund" scandal unless they get cooperation from the accused parties. However, they obtained that cooperation from Illinois, for two main reasons.
One, Illinois' administrators were feeling extremely remorseful and guilty, so they "threw themselves on the mercy of the court", so to speak. With tails between their legs and eyes transfixed to the floor, they admitted their guilt and accepted any and all punishments without presenting a defense. Secondly, the Big 10 used what only can be described as deceptive practices to trick athletes into admissions they would later regret.
The athletes whose names were found on the official ledger were interrogated one by one. They were told they would not be punished personally if they came clean as to their involvement and named names. They were told they did not need lawyers or personal advisors in their interrogations. So, with only one exception, the athletes told their stories honestly and did not insist on any representation.
For their efforts, every athlete identified was punished severely. Most lost permanent eligibility at Illinois, and they all lost at least a year (one semester in the case of the athlete who had representation). The Big 10, with vested interest in the outcome and controlled by schools that may also have been utilizing similar funds for their athletes, lied to our athletes and then punished them for telling the truth. To this day, some people believe Illinois should have hired lawyers to defend against this travesty of justice, but we felt too guilty to go against the will of the majority.
Of course, Illinois was forced to fire Pete Elliott and Harry Combes, as well as Combes' assistant coach Howie Braun. A couple of the athletes like Ron Dunlap and Cyril Pinder chose to remain at the UI and complete their degrees despite having no sports outlet. Dunlap became a respected high school principal, and Pinder later played several years in pro football. Steve Kuberski only lost one year of eligibility at Illinois, but he chose to transfer to Bradley where he could play sooner. He later played a number of years for the Boston Celtics. Richard Jones lost full eligibility, so he transferred to Memphis State and later played several years in the old American Basketball Association.
Bob Stephens, a big bruising fullback from Chicago Vocational, and Derek Faison from Virginia were both just freshmen, but they were banished for life. If I remember correctly, Faison was given air fair to travel to Illinois for the start of fall classes. He later became an offensive line starter for the University of Colorado. I don't remember all the players who were affected, but never before or since has any school's players been punished like Illinois' were during the "Slush Fund". Usually, it is the coaches and schools who are punished, not the players.
Illinois was placed on major probation and banned from postseason games for an extended period (I have forgotten the exact amount of time because we no longer had the ability to compete for a championship or bowl bid anyway). And the alumni and friends who paid out the money for the athletes were banned for extended periods from having any contact with the university. But the worst punishment of all was the total devastation that was wrought on our basketball and football teams.
The reputation of the University of Illinois was destroyed to the point we are still remembered as cheaters, even after nearly 40 years. Illinois became the butt of jokes around the country, and all future success was questioned. Athletes didn't want to play at Illinois, and opposing schools used our "reputation" against us repeatedly in recruiting.
Illinois began a period that might be likened to the "Dark Ages". In the time it took from the day David Dodds Henry turned over the 'Slush Fund" records to the day we were handed our final penalties, we went from a school capable of competing for championships in football and basketball to a school that was the laughing stock of college sports.
I would never wish to relive this experience, and I truly hope no Illini present or future ever has to endure anything like it. One cannot truly understand the position of the University of Illinois within the athletic hierarchy of the NCAA without taking the "Slush Fund" ramifications into account. Everything that has happened since has been influenced by it, in one way or another.
In my next column, I will talk about the effects of the "Slush Fund" on the football team between 1967 and the present day.