The time Bruce Pearl cost Illinois a chance at 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…

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