Trying Times for Illinois’ Lou Henson : College basketball: Coach maintains his cool in the face of an NCAA investigation that produces charges of improprieties in the Illini program.
He will write a book about these days and set everything straight. It will answer his critics in a way that he cannot right now. And it will be titled something like, “The Loneliest Days of Lou Henson.”
But that is still sometime off in the future.
In the present, the coach of 19th-ranked Illinois sits calmly Thursday, but tight-lipped, on the NCAA equivalent of Death Row, waiting for the evidence that will send the real culprits to the electric chair in his place.
Last Thursday, the NCAA set out a bill of particulars of Illinois’ alleged sins and when Henson took his charges to a game in East Lansing, Mich., two days later, the students there waved bills at them and yelled at him, “You’re a crook, Lou.”
He has been an inviting target for a long time, hammered for things both significant -- Indiana rival Bobby Knight rarely passes up an opportunity to belittle his coaching skills--and insignificant--his wraparound hairdo, the “Lou-do.” And yet no one seems to have gotten deep enough under his skin to touch that place where he really hurts and make him complain.
Not even in this past week, one of the roughest 57-year-old Lou Henson has ever known.
“He was just born with that temperment,” his wife, Mary, said. “In his quiet moments, I’m sure he’s thinking a lot about the situation and the criticism that went with it. But he’s got no problem pushing it aside and focusing on whatever is necessary. He’s been that way since I met him.”
“I don’t doubt he’s heard the screaming,” said Stephen Bardo, Illinois’ articulate senior guard, “We all have. You can’t be human and not feel something.
“But we really haven’t seen any changes in him and we’ve been looking. He may purposely be trying not to change any of the circumstances around the team to keep us from focusing on this.”
On Thursday morning, a cold winter rain has already filtered most of the light peeking through a thin strip of windows on the back wall of his cramped office. But Henson is in the midst of a never-ending good mood, smiling. He begins drawing a map.
It is an accurate enough, but not very elaborate map. The state of Illinois is a rectangle in the middle of the lined, yellow legal pad, the Champaign campus a small circle at its center. Iowa is to the left, Indiana to the right.
“Why shouldn’t we have an advantage recruiting here and here and here?” Henson said, filling every corner of makeshift Illinois with dots from a black pen.
“And that’s what makes me the most uncomfortable about this whole mess,” Henson said. “Because when bad things happen to us, everybody around us stands to benefit.”
Then he stops cold. What Lou Henson dares not say -- at least not now, anyway -- is what everybody else in Champaign has been saying for days. That jealous neighbors, the names most often mentioned belong to University of Iowa recruiter Bruce Pearl and Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, helped trump up the charges and called in the cops.
A week ago Thursday, the NCAA leveled charges that Illinois committed six major rules violations in recruiting two players over the last two years: LaPhonso Ellis, a high school All-America who played at nearby East St. Louis and is now a sophomore at Notre Dame; and Deon Thomas, another high school All-America from Chicago’s Public League and now a freshman at Illinois, though he has been barred by the school from playing a single minute this season.
At the risk of oversimplification, both recruits allegedly were promised eye-popping cash packages -- about $25,000 in Thomas’ case and $80,000 for Ellis -- a car and financial assistance to help relocate a relative.
None of the charges implicate Henson, though almost each names Jimmy Collins, his assistant coach and chief recruiter. As a college player, Collins brought Henson and New Mexico State from obscurity to the Final Four in 1970; as a recruiter these past seven seasons, he has brought the finest talent from basketball-rich Illinois and Chicago’s especially wealthy Public League to sleepy Champaign.
In the process, Collins frequently bumped heads with Pearl and almost always won. That seems to be why Pearl phoned Thomas late one evening in May, and unbeknownst to Thomas (and legal in Iowa) taped a telephone conversation between the two. In it, Thomas apparently rambles on carelessly about what Illinois has put on the table, and not long after that, the NCAA gets a listen.
That tape’s effectiveness as a weapon, Illinois’ defenders say, will soon be rendered harmless. Thomas, they note, already has characterized his half of the conversation as meaningless bragging, an immature attempt to get Pearl off his back. And equally important, detractors belive they can prove the tape has been doctored, noting a telephone bill shows the conversation to be 14 minutes long and only six of those minutes are captured on tape.
The motives in Ellis’ case, though, are decidedly less apparent. For one thing, Ellis said nothing about any offers of payola for a year. For another, like Thomas, Ellis’ high school coach and almost everyone close to him -- friends and relatives alike -- have denied any knowledge of the matter.
Which is how the suspicion began that somebody put Ellis up to this and how the finger-pointing settled on Phelps, who thus far has studiously avoided stepping into the fray.
But sources close to the investigation, who declined to be identified, offer the following reasons: Phelps is upset because Illinois beat Notre Dame to the punch on a TV contract with Chicago superstation WGN; Phelps is upset by his inability to recruit in Chicago and is feeling the heat from alumni similarly upset; Phelps, simply, has never liked Henson, and couldn’t pass up an opportunity to stoke a fire that Pearl had already set.
Henson won’t field any of the possibilities, but it’s clear this dull Thursday morning that none of them has ruined his day.
Wednesday night, Illinois upset No. 9 Purdue, virtually guaranteeing its eighth straight NCAA berth, its ninth in Henson’s 15 years, and he has an abiding faith that tomorrow will be even better.
Even though he knows come April, or June, or whenever it is the NCAA gets around to deciding this case, he could become a sacrificial lamb, his firing an offering part of the cleansing ritual schools undergo to appease the NCAA.
“A head coach should take the blame,” Henson said, eyes still bright. “It’s like a family. You have kids at home and they may do something completely outside your reach.
“But it’s still,” he said, “your responsibility. And that still means something to me.”