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The time Bruce Pearl cost Illinois a chance at Cuonzo Martin

It’s a strange world sometimes.

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Cuonzo Martin

On March 4, 1995, in his final game against Illinois, East St. Louis product, Purdue forward, and future Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin scored 29 points on 9-for-14 shooting in a 69-56 win in Champaign. He made an uncharacteristic five 3-pointers, plus all six of his free throws, in a win that helped move Gene Keady’s Boilermakers further toward an eventual Big Ten title, their second straight.

This was only the second time in six tries that Martin had beaten Illinois on the court, but it was the third time that Purdue had defeated the Illini when Martin was involved. The first win took place in April 1990, and of all people, Bruce Pearl — Martin’s eventual predecessor as head coach at Tennessee — was significantly involved.

The saga began in the spring of 1989, as a blue-chipper named Deon Thomas was getting ready to choose Illinois over Iowa. Pearl, an Iowa assistant, recorded a phone call in which Thomas claimed the Fighting Illini staff was offering him illegal benefits.

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. [...]

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.

The NCAA investigation that followed would eventually result in a one-year postseason ban, plus probation and scholarship limitations, for the Illinois program. It also made Pearl persona non grata at the Division I level; he would spend nine seasons at Division II Southern Indiana, winning a national title and taking the Screaming Eagles to the Sweet 16 six times before getting a sniff at a Division I job.

In the fall of 1989, however, all of this was uncertain. The NCAA was sniffing around, but no one knew how bad the punishment would be, or if Illinois would be able to refute allegations.

Martin was just about ready to end his recruitment and sign with the home-state Illini, but the investigation gave him pause.

Cuonzo Martin, a 6-6 senior basketball player at East St. Louis Lincoln, cancelled a Wednesday night press conference at which he was planning to sign a national letter of intent for Illinois.

Martin will now wait until the NCAA's second signing period, in April. [...]

Martin made official campus visits to Illinois, Connecticut, San Francisco and last weekend visited Purdue.

He cancelled a visit to San Jose State in favor of the San Francisco trip and cancelled a visit to Minnesota in favor or Purdue. [...]

"I wasn't comfortable about signing," Martin said. "I was going to sign early because it was getting so hectic with coaches always calling. But I just wasn't relaxed about making a decision yet."

Through Martin's senior season, as he was battling injury and leading Lincoln to another state title, the Illinois situation got no clearer.

"I am a little more confused in some ways," Martin said.

The confusion comes from two areas: the universities of Illinois and Connecticut. Martin essentially has narrowed his decision to those schools.

Martin has been watching closely the contrasting circumstances at both schools this season.

At Illinois, the basketball team is 15-4 and ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press poll. But the Illini's program is under sharp scrutiny from the National Collegiate Athletic Association because of allegations of recruiting violations, and athletic director John Mackovic has said the school is waiting to receive an official letter of investigation from the association.

Meanwhile, Connecticut is one of the biggest major-college surprises in the nation. Despite playing in the tough Big East Conference, Connecticut is 18-3 and ranked No. 13. Few, including Martin, expected as much.

"Before this year, I paid absolutely no attention to Connecticut," Martin said. "I never thought they were that good, and I really didn't think they would be anywhere near this good this year."

Illinois coaches were predictably telling Martin everything was going to be fine, but evidence was conflicting. Meanwhile, UConn was beginning to become UConn under Jim Calhoun. They would finish 31-6 with an Elite Eight performance that spring, and they would reach at least the Sweet 16 in four of the next six years.

At some point in March or early April, Martin decided he just couldn’t take a chance on Illinois. He also decided that UConn was too far away. A window of opportunity had opened for Purdue, and Gene Keady walked through it. Purdue had barely gotten a visit over Minnesota the previous winter, but the Boilermakers won Martin’s signature.

Lincoln High basketball star Cuonzo Martin ended the suspense Wednesday on where he would attend college next fall.

Martin, the Post-Dispatch's High School Player of the Year, signed a letter-of-intent to attend Purdue University, ending months of speculation. Purdue head coach Gene Keady attended the signing Wednesday morning at the East St. Louis school. [...]

Martin had narrowed his choices to Purdue of the Big Ten Conference and Connecticut of the Big East, but Purdue's proximity to East St. Louis won out. Purdue is in West Lafayette, Ind. [...]

He had kept everyone in suspense since declining to sign in November, and Missouri, Iowa and Michigan had since entered the recruiting picture.

Connecticut, Purdue and Illinois were believed to be the strongest candidates, but Martin said Illinois faded when the program faced scrutiny by the National Collegiate Athletic Association over allegations of recruiting violations.

"Earlier I was definitely leaning toward Illinois, but they had so many allegations, I just kind of scratched them out."

Despite NCAA sanctions, Deon Thomas was worth the money. He finished his Illini career as the school's all-time leading scorer and was selected for the program's all-century team.

Still, sanctions took their toll. Lou Henson continued to sign quality talent, but missing out on players like Martin and Chicago blue-chipper Juwan Howard (who instead became part of the Fab Five at Michigan) did some damage. After reaching the Final Four in 1989, the Illini exited the NCAAs in the first round in 1990, then went just 34-25 over the next two seasons. They rebounded with more tourney bids from 1993-95, but they won just one tourney game. Henson retired after an 18-13 campaign in 1996. The downhill run began basically the moment Pearl hit the Record button.

Purdue and Illinois, meanwhile, were ships passing in the night. As the Illini fell, the Boilers rose. Martin needed an extra year to become academically eligible, but in his freshman season, 1992-93, the Purdue renaissance began. With help first from stars like Glenn Robinson, PU improved from 18-15 in 1992 to 18-10 with an NCAA bid in 1993. They surged to 29-5 with an Elite Eight appearance and Big Ten title in 1994, then won the Big Ten again in Martin's senior season.

In 2011, Martin's path crossed with Pearl's again. Pearl had led Tennessee to Sweet 16s in 2007 and 2008 and an Elite Eight in 2010, but he was given a show-cause penalty for lying to the NCAA during an investigation. Despite his newfound toxicity, Tennessee fans continued their love affair with Pearl after his March 2011 firing. That made life pretty difficult for his successor, Martin.

After slow starts had dragged down Martin's first two Tennessee teams -- they were 8-10 in 2011-12 before winning 10 of 13, and they were 11-10 in 2012-13 before winning nine of 10 -- Martin led a truly awesome squad in 2014. His Vols lost five games by seven or fewer points in the regular season but ranked 10th in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. After narrowly surviving Iowa (of all teams) in the NCAA First Four, the Vols plowed through UMass and Mercer to the Sweet 16, where they lost by just two points to Michigan.

This wasn't enough. A "Bring Back Bruce" petition circulated and gained in popularity, and Martin escaped to Cal. His treatment was frustrating enough that his UT players were not even mad at him for leaving.

Pearl cost Illinois a shot at Martin, then cost Martin a truly fair shot in Knoxville. Without Pearl’s tape recorder, Illinois might be led by an alum named Cuonzo right now. It’s a funny world sometimes.