To new students, this rivalry has been pretty stagnant. Sure, both teams have won and the game at the Cell in 2009 was one for the ages, but as far as rivalries are concerned, this one has been pretty dormant since Bruce Pearl left to become head coach at Tennessee.
You see, the reason the animosity exists didn’t start with Milwaukee and UIC. It started at two Big Ten schools, Iowa and Illinois.
Flash back to 1989. Iowa and Illinois are national powers in basketball, with Dr. Tom Davis heading the Hawkeyes and Lou Henson head coach of the Fighting Illini. They clash on the court twice a season, one of the biggest rivalries in the country. Illinois is an annual threat to go to the Final Four, and Iowa was moving in that direction since Davis took over in 1986.
Both teams feature the hottest head coaching candidates in the country. Dr. Tom Davis, since the days at Boston College, had been grooming Bruce Pearl to be a dynamite head coach. Pearl is a big-time recruiter, able to sell any player on the Iowa program and, like Davis, a hard-line rule follower. Illinois and Lou Henson have been doing the same with Jimmy Collins, the former New Mexico State player and Henson’s top man for years.
In the couple years previous, Collins and Pearl are two names that have floated around for head coaching jobs; both had opportunities, both had passed in hopes for better job offers later.
Deon Thomas is just like any other big time recruit coming out of Chicago – both Iowa and Illinois want him. He’s a scorer, simple as that. The kid knew how to score buckets.
Illinois has a reputation for under-the-table deals with their biggest recruits, but no one has ever been able to prove anything. Bruce Pearl and Jimmy Collins go head to head for the big prize, Deon Thomas. Pearl thinks he has Thomas all sewn up until the news gets out: Thomas has committed to Illinois.
Pearl, following advice from school administrators and Dr. Tom, secretly wiretaps a phone conversation he has with Deon Thomas shortly after Thomas’ commitment to Illinois.
During the conversation, Pearl asked Thomas if he had been offered money and an SUV by Collins to attend Illinois. Thomas said he had. Afterwards, Pearl sent the tapes to the NCAA that sprung an investigation into the entire Illinois program.
The NCAA never found any wrongdoing in the Thomas recruitment, supported by his passing of a lie-detector test. However, the investigation did uncover a major violation, the third in six years for the Illini, and they were banned from the postseason for one year.
The aftermath was big. Jimmy Collins, accused of dirty recruiting, never came up again when coaching jobs were open. It took him 7 years to get a head coaching job, when UIC in the MCC (now Horizon League) gave him a shot.
Bruce Pearl got worse treatment. There is an unwritten law that you don’t rat out other coaches, and his betrayal of that law got him blacklisted by the coaches in the country. He became head coach in basketball purgatory, D-II. Pearl had the capability, everyone knew it.
Deon Thomas? He went on to become Illinois’ all-time leading scorer, but the damage was done. A postseason ban, even for one year, had recruits picking different schools. Illinois went to the Final Four in 1989, the year of the investigation, but did not return until 2005, when Milwaukee alumni Bruce Weber brought them back.
Pearl paid his dues in D-II, but it wasn’t until 2001 that someone gave him an opportunity to come to D-I. Bud Haidet, athletic director at Milwaukee, went out on a limb and hired Pearl against the advice of many. It paid off for the Panthers, as we reached the Sweet 16. Everyone knows what happened then.
But this page isn’t about Milwaukee vs. Illinois in the Sweet 16. It’s about Jimmy Collins and Bruce Pearl, the two coaches that lit a fire on an otherwise nothing-special rivalry.
When Pearl was hired as Milwaukee coach, it made national news. Milwaukee had hired the whistleblower, and the man he blew the whistle on was in the big city to the south, in conference.
Pearl and Collins never spoke to each other. They never so much as shook hands pregame or after the game. For 4 years, UIC-Milwaukee was THE rivalry in Horizon League basketball.
The rivalry came to a head in the 2004 Horizon League Championship game, when UIC upset Milwaukee at the Cell, 65-62. The rivalry was fueled more than ever before, as the Fury, UIC’s student section, rushed Milwaukee’s home court. It has long been an unwritten rule that you do not rush someone else’s home court, no matter what you win.
Since Bruce Pearl has left, that’s been the legacy of the Milwaukee-UIC rivalry. The storming of the court, the Milwaukee vs. Chicago dynamic, and the close games. The UIC students and Milwaukee students still have extreme hatred for each other, with fights in the concourse and stands not uncommon.
The rivalry continues. In the 2008 match-up at Milwaukee, Panther fans became unruly because of historically bad officiating by Bruce Benedict. Over the course of the game, Benedict called a technical on the Milwaukee bench for fan conduct, kicked out Klotsche Krazie Travis Wacker, and threatened to kick out the band for playing the Imperial Death March. He ran up and down the court jawing with fans for most of the second half, and called most of the 26 fouls on Milwaukee. Three Panthers fouled out, and Benedict was escorted by police out of the arena to prevent incident. A couple scuffles happened in the concourse and outside the Arena after the game.
To describe the 2009 game at Milwaukee, one needs to know two things. First, Milwaukee, although favored, was down 10 points with 90 seconds remaining. Second, UIC missed six free throws to set up this play.
On August 20th, 2010, the UIC Flames hired Howard Moore of the Wisconsin Badgers to be their next head coach. Moore, like Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter, is a Bo Ryan protege.