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Illini basketball

Jamall Walker – Driving Mr. Jackson

Episode 2 of Infractions From The Groce Era.

Here’s another story of the NCAA and its silly rules.

On August 30th 2012,  Jamall Walker drove Demetrius Jackson & Quron Marks 208 miles from their home in Mishawaka, Indiana to Champaign.  It was a Thursday.

Unfortunately (?) Quron Marks was a high school athlete.  That means, as far as the NCAA is concerned, that he was a prospect. Driving him to campus was an NCAA violation.

Jackson’s adoptive family, the Whitfields, came to town on Saturday, September 1st, and watched some of the football game against Western Michigan. Then they drove the two boys home.  The story of Jackson and the Whitfield family is very well documented. Basically, they took him in when he needed a home.

Quron Marks paid for all his meals “and entertainment” during his visit. But that’s immaterial. Walker gave him a ride valued at $106.08 ($.51 per mile), so unless and until Marks reimbursed the university, he was ruled ineligible to receive an athletic scholarship (that wasn’t offered).

Ryan Squire — then in charge of compliance at the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, now its Chief Integrity Officer – says this wouldn’t be the case if the recruit were Michael Finke, and the addition guest his brother Tim.

That is going back a little ways, but I don’t recall the other prospect being a foster brother. I thought it was just his good friend from Mishawaka. It would absolutely have been different if the other person was his relative as NCAA rules give us some relief when a brother or sister is a prospect and wants to be part of the official visit.

So, for example, we could transport Michael Finke’s brother to campus along with Michael and his family for the official visit. We could not, however, transport one of Michael’s high school teammates to campus for the official visit.

Marks eventually enrolled at Bethel College, and then Holy Cross College (NAIA). Jackson played for Notre Dame, beating John Groce and the Illini in the grand reopening of State Farm Center on December 2, 2015. He’s now playing for the Boston Celtics.

Jackson’s eligibility to play for Illinois was not affected by this infraction. Only Marks’s was. And lots of paperwork was generated.

Categories
Illini basketball

Are we Elite? Not if we’re just mimicking everyone else.

The Purdue game was fun right up until it started. Most Illini fans already know that.

What they don’t know, unless they were there, is how cool Purdue’s pre-game ceremony was. Loren Tate mentioned it, referencing the legends involved in the recorded video portion (presented, like all pre-game videos, on the center-court jumbotron).

Loren is still the best Illini sports writer, so it’s no surprise that he took note of the presentation. It was meaningful.

Purdue’s pre-game ritual is not a passive experience. It requires the entire audience to work. Fans download the “BoilerBall Lights” app, which takes control of a smartphone’s LED light, and flashes it in coordination with everyone else’s LED light.

The combination of swelling music, the involvement of thousands, and the quasi-nationalistic call to arms video referenced in Tatelines (in which recorded Purdue greats ask rhetorically “Whose House? and the entire crowd responds “OUR HOUSE!”) achieved an atmosphere that Leni Riefenstahl might have admired.

At State Farm Center, our crowd watches an embarrassingly derivative, inescapably passive video & lighting montage that seemed pretty cool when the Bulls (first?) did it in 1993 or whenever it was.

Opponent introductions/dim the lights/crank the smoke machine … yeah, yeah. We’ve seen it. Everybody does it, and it’s just as embarrassing in Bloomington, Indiana as it is here.

Luckily, our school prides itself on innovation. Right?

A couple years ago, I told my friend Jeni that Illini athletics should trailblaze a new approach to pre-game ceremonies. We were discussing the National Anthem, and our preferred styles & performances.

I suggested that Illinois — an international university with a stated mission to embrace not merely diversity, but indeed university — should scrap the worn-out tradition altogether. If we want to remind attendees that they’re in the United States, why not let’s read a passage from the Constitution instead?

Sure, there’d be a “conservative” backlash. But those people can be invited to center court, to read the 2nd Amendment for all the “snowflakes” they so strongly revile for disrespecting … the Constitution.

We could show our international visitors what this country is really about.

Jeni’s husband Mike was in charge of Illini athletics at the time. But she recommended I mention my idea to Mike Waddell, whom she described as “the ideas guy.”

This was before I put Waddell on NPR’s All Things Considered, to promote DIA’s Mandarin simulcast experiment, which led to his appearance on The Today Show. We didn’t know each other well, but he listened to my idea.

He’s gone now, as are Jeni and her husband.  So we never got any further with the reading a passage from the Constitution discussion. But fortunately, the new DIA boss already knows about our founding document. He’s studied it. He knows why, like winning, “it’s important.”

I don’t hate The Star-Spangled Banner. I enjoy some renditions. But after decades of constant repetition, it rarely gives me chills.

I’m philosophically bothered that it’s performed de rigueur.  That’s the antithesis of the freedom from our British monarchist overlords it chronicles. Is it too soon to stop cowering before the mighty UK?

My conversation with Jeni took place long before Colin Kaepernick’s knee hit the ground.  But that later development only furthered the argument for scrapping the Banner: To replace rote recitation of a poem that promised to hunt down all the black people with a different recitation, one that changes each game.

A pastor could join a journalist to read the first amendment. An international student might read Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, which provides the formula for treaties with foreign nations. Maybe Al Gore or Donald Trump would come to read the Twelfth Amendment, which refined the electoral college.

Solemn. No light show. No piped music.

The author as Geoffrey Palmer, with Allie Groce & Jeni Thomas, possibly on the night in question

Canned noise is the worst.  Penn State’s automated lion growl  is the most annoying sound in sports. (Northwestern uses it too, but they pretend it’s a wildcat.) Fortunately, someone at DIA recognized this fact in time to scale back the aural onslaught for the 2016 football season. A gameday tech confirmed to me that some of the canned noises were eliminated before the Lovie Era got underway.

It would be great if DIA did the same for basketball. Take out all the fakery, and let the crowd make the noise. (This last part might require some other changes, of course. Nudge, nudge.) Keep the band, lose the pre-recorded crap. If the basketball team can’t generate crowd noise, don’t pretend 100 dB of screaming Ron Burgundy will make up the difference.

DIA has a lot of dedicated people. They have a lot of great ideas.  But sometimes, those ideas don’t translate.

Lu Yekai & He Liaohan have not been well served by the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. Nor have a billion potential customers.

The Mandarin simulcast is a perfect example. It languishes in obscurity, mostly because it’s not actually a simulcast. The audio isn’t synchronized with the video.

So it’s unwatchable. Or at least, if you did watch it, you wouldn’t understand what was happening (which was kinda the point).

DIA has no plans to implement a synchronized Mandarin presentation (the way they synchronize Brian Barnhart’s radio clips to video highlights).

Josh has a lot on his plate.

But Tuesday night in West Lafayette, he saw & heard everything that I saw & heard. Maybe he’s begun to have some ideas.

 

 

Categories
Illini Basketball

The Reason Mike Thomas Got Fired

Paul Kowalczyk acquitted himself better than Barbara Wilson in the November 9 press conference that announced Mike Thomas’s ouster.

He seemed nervous, he seemed humble, he expressed uncertainty. In other words, he was a real human.

Kowalczyk didn’t PR his way through his introductory press conference. He contemplated questions, was sometimes confused by them (and said so), and answered genuinely, to the best of his knowledge.

He stuck around for further interviews following his formal press conference. Asked about student-athlete health and welfare, his portfolio since August 8, he agreed that he was up to speed on all aspects of the topic. But he also admitted ignorance on some issues, and he said so in an intriguingly cloak & dagger fashion:

“There are some things I don’t know about, but that was Mike being smart about being close to the vest, trying to protect staff and others around him.”

Timothy Killeen refused press inquiries on the topic.

It’s a brilliant move by Killeen to lay all responsibility on Wilson, who says she doesn’t want the chancellor job on a permanent basis. Whatever the reaction, whatever the fallout, he’s absolved of blame simply because no one can say what position he took re: Mike Thomas. You can write “Killeen fired Mike Thomas” but you can’t link to an authoritative source. There’s no audio or video clip.

Here’s the thrust of the situation. Barbara Wilson performed a hatchet job deemed necessary by the administration. She’ll soon fade into history, and a new chancellor with no record of malfeasance/accomplishment will take her place.

Seventeen hours before the announcement of Mike Thomas’s firing, and  four days after the decision was made, I introduced myself to Timothy Killeen. He attended the UIUC-UIS exhibition in Springfield. He wore a Prairie Stars golf shirt. I recognized that display as a fun political maneuver, standing up for the little brother. I wanted to ask Killeen about basketball, nothing pressing. He was immediately evasive. Maybe he thought I knew something. He  certainly knew something.

WHY MIKE THOMAS GOT FIRED

Long-time donors were pissed because the Thomas administration un-grandfathered them from premium basketball seating. Think of the elderly couple that leaves a 15¢ tip at the diner. They think it’s pretty good money. When they were kids, it could buy a meal.

The level of donations from longtime Illini supporters = the stagnant results in the revenue sports. There’s a direct, causal relationship. It’s also the reason the Assembly Hall waited so long for an upgrade.  (There’s no link for that claim either. Ron Guenther was a closed door to media not named Loren Tate. )

The re-seating angered everyone who held season tickets in A & B Sections. For each year they’d been season ticket holders, each of these fans moved closer to the court (when another’s death or non-renewal opened a spot).  For a considerable number of people, this annual commitment began decades ago.

All that grandfathering disappeared with the new regime. It had to.

A conversation with Associate AD Rick Darnell, in the early stages of the renovation campaign, found him rolling his eyes after a day of taking angry phone calls, and trying to reason with disgruntled cheapskates. I don’t remember if he used the word “unsustainable,” but the message was distinct. You just can’t give away the best seats in the house for monies equaling the face-value of tickets. It doesn’t pay the bills.

I recall a conversation with one of those disgruntled donors. Former U of I trustee Dave Dorris, a Blagojevich appointee, attended something close to 400 straight Illini basketball games, wherever they occurred (including Hawai’i) before skipping all of last season.

At a Madison BBQ joint, prior to the 2014 game at Wisconsin, he said he’d been offered something along the lines of The Dorris Family Outdoor Smoking Area & Ceremonial Ashtray in exchange for a donation of $200,000.

Dorris is not a cheapskate. But the people who find themselves honored at halftime of basketball games, since Mike Thomas took over the DIA, were giving ten times that amount.

John Giuliani gave $5 million, and his prize is a private club within the SFC.

Last year, Bob Assmussen reported that Darnell and Thomas were discussing the sale of naming rights to the SFC court. It’s hard to imagine a price tag under $10 million for that amount of advertising. After all, “State Farm Center” is merely mentioned by TV presenters. The court is visible throughout each home game, even with the volume muted.

Obviously that major gift never developed. In an effort to appease all those longtime, disgruntled fans, the Thomas administration shifted gears, announcing Lou Henson Court four days before firing Tim Beckman.

Unseen on campus for a year, Dave Dorris showed up to honor Lou.

If Ron Guenther had stayed on at Illinois, he’d have had two choices.

  1. Irritate all those same longtime donors
  2. Not renovate the Assembly Hall

You can argue that renovation plans were already underway when Mike Thomas took over. But where was the money coming from? The football stadium still isn’t finished. Marquee sports programs pay their head (and perhaps more importantly, assistant) coaches double, or more, than Illinois.

By leaving Illinois, Guenther allowed important work to go forward, and didn’t have to be the bad guy.

If Mike Thomas hadn’t hired Tim Beckman, perhaps he’d have survived donor wrath.  His firing will remain a riddle, and a head-shaker, barring further revelations.

Now, a little bit more about that Franczek Radelet investigation and its final report.  First some medical stuff, then the part about Bill Cubit.

Page 37-38 of the report features an unnerving contrast in the protocol of team doctors.

Two team physicians reported that, if their “not safe to play” decision to hold a player out of football participation is based upon a player’s lack of confidence, they do not share that reason with coaches, saying only that the player is “out” or “not cleared” to play. In their view, it is a poor practice to share with coaches that their medical opinion, in part, is based on a player’s perspective because the coaches want players to return and could seek to change the player’s mind. These physicians believe that players should not be subjected to such pressure and, to encourage candid communication with sports medicine personnel, the players are better served by doctors not sharing such information with coaches.

Another team physician reported, however, that, in situations where his “not clear to play” decision was based on a student-athlete’s lack of confidence, he routinely shared that information with Coach Beckman. That team physician also reported that Coach Beckman would say he planned to speak to the player.

All players who were interviewed and asked about this issue strongly preferred that physicians not share such information with coaches. One player reported that when Beckman was told that the player expressed concern to a physician about whether he was fit to play, Coach Beckman told the player that the player would not get to decide whether to play.

All student-athletes sign a HIPAA waiver, which allows medical staff to discuss individuals’ medical condition (HIPAA provides a federally protected privacy right.)

The waiver is necessary. Otherwise, coaches, trainers and doctors simply wouldn’t be able to communicate about an individual’s condition.

But it’s alarming that one team physician didn’t foresee the potential for mischief & psychological abuse inherent in sharing the above information with a man as notoriously stupid, and demonstrably skeptical of medical sciences, as Tim Beckman.

Later in page 38, Bill Cubit is the subject of one particular health & welfare inquiry. Franczek Radelet concludes Cubit did nothing wrong.

For example, one former player reported that Bill Cubit (Offensive Coordinator and now Interim Head Coach) attempted to convince him to stop taking anti-anxiety medication to improve his football performance just prior to the 2014 season. Cubit explained that the player had complained about stomach issues and other impediments to his performance during Camp Rantoul, which the player believed stemmed from his medication. Because one of Cubit’s family members had suffered from similar issues, he spoke privately with the player about the sensitive subject to share that experience. Cubit informed the player that Cubit’s family member had decided to stop taking the medication and experienced significant improvement, but he told the player it was entirely up to him to decide how to proceed. The former player perceived this as coaching pressure. Another player who was a teammate with the reporting player knew about the conversation and believed that the reporting player misinterpreted Cubit’s statements, which he interpreted as a supportive gesture. There is no indication that Coach Cubit said anything else inappropriate to the reporting player or evidence that he ever made inappropriate comments or pressured other players about injury issues. The lack of concerns raised by other players lends further credence to Cubit’s account, which we find credible.