By Murry Nelson, Guest Contributor
Murry Nelson is a Professor Emeritus of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of basketball, and is the author of The National Basketball League: A History, 1935–1949 (2009) and Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League (2013). He recently edited a multiple-volume encyclopedia on the history of American sport, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas (2013). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
My current work is on researching and writing a history of Big Ten basketball and, in that project came across the Illinois Slush Fund Scandal of 1966-67. I was surprised at how little I knew of this, particularly since I am from Illinois and was a college student in the Midwest at the time of the scandal’s events. My lack of knowledge was seemingly matched by friends and colleagues to whom I mentioned the scandal and that, too, surprised me. That ignorance was not found among one of my best friends from high school, who had been a freshman at Illinois when this all occurred. When I told him of my new project this past spring, he immediately said that I hope you’ll talk about the Illinois “scandal” of 1966 and his tone was one of anger and frustration. That seems to coincide with the feelings of many Illinois alumni over the years.
Although there was a lot of background that could be discussed, a good place to start is the exposure of the scandal and the circumstances that led to that exposure. In the spring of 1966, the long-time athletic director of the University of Illinois, Doug Mills, who had served for more than 25 years, announced that he would be retiring from the university in the fall and there was immediate speculation on who would be his successor. After a lot of “jostling” the top candidates seemed to be Mel Brewer, the Assistant Athletic Director and Pete Elliot, the football coach, who had begun in 1960 and won a Rose Bowl title in 1963.
In mid-December, 1966, it was an open secret that Elliott would soon be named the new A.D. Initially, he would also retain the head coaching position, but it was likely that his assistant would attend to the daily athletic department duties during the football season and he, Elliott would address the larger policy issues. Once this was apparent, Mel Brewer paid a visit to the office of the University of Illinois president, David Henry, where he, Brewer, dropped a enormous batch of files on Henry’s desk and asked Henry to examine them, at least preliminarily. They were the records of a “slush fund” that the athletic department had established five years previously and which had spent approximately $21,000 during that time. The funds came from various boosters and companies and were divided into three parts- football funds, basketball funds and athletic director funds. Brewer was the administrator of the slush fund and, when it became clear that he would not be getting the position of athletic director, he decided to become an “informant”.
Henry was, apparently, nonplussed at this revelation, but immediately decided to act on the contents. He informed the basketball coach, Harry Combes three of his players, Rich Jones, Ron Dunlap and Steve Kuberski, should be suspended temporarily, while the university began an investigation into this situation. Henry also contacted the Big Ten office and told Commissioner Bill Reed what he had learned and how he was acting in response to these new revelations.
It should be noted the devastating impact this would have on the Illinois basketball team. The Illini had been rated #13 in the UPI national poll of college teams on December 20 and much of this was because of the veterans returning to the squad, and the top sophomore help expected from Steve Kuberski, Dave Scholz and Steve Spanich. The team returned Rich Jones, Ron Dunlap, Preston Pearson, Jim Dawson; the former two would go on to professional basketball careers, while Pearson would become a top receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Dawson would be the MVP of the Big Ten in 1966-67. The team was one of the favorites for the Big Ten title. On December 21, Dunlap had 19 points and Jones, 18, in an 81-67 victory over Stanford, raising Illinois’s record to 4-1. Two days later, three players, Jones, Dunlap and Kuberski, were declared ineligible for accepting illegal aid. Coach Harry Combes offered to resign at that time, saying that he was shocked at the situation. The players sat on the bench in street clothes as the Illini played in Chicago Stadium in a highly publicized doubleheader on December 23rd, defeating the University of California, 97-87.
The next day more players were named as being involved with the illegal fund, Spanich, and Randy Crews, a freshman. There were also seven football players named, but this seemed less important at the time since their season had ended. The files were to be presented to the athletic directors of the Big Ten for their determination of how the university, its athletic department and the individuals involved should be disciplined for the fund. That would take a while, but the basketball players were finished for now, as their eligibility had been removed by the university. The Big Ten review would determine if they would be punished more severely, as well as whether others would be.
Despite the loss of the four players from the varsity (Crews played on the freshmen team, since players only had three years of varsity eligibility at the time), many at the University of Illinois were hopeful that the penalties would not be severe and looked for some support from the athletic directors at the University of Iowa, Forrest Evashevski, and Michigan State, “Biggie” Munn. In 1953 Munn and Michigan State had been accused of paying out approximately $20,000 through the Spartan Foundation to players, mostly football players, but “no written records were kept and part of the money went unaccounted for. MSU received a mild one-year probation for what was labeled ‘improper aid to athletes’”.[i] Evasheski presided over a football scandal in 1961 which involved illegal aid, but there was even less of a punishment. Since they were both voting members of the panel deciding, it was quite surprising when a unanimous vote of the Big Ten Athletic Directors in the week of February 19, 1967, supported two-year penalties of Big Ten ineligibility for all the players involved on both teams, plus the demand for the immediate firing of Head Football Coach Pete Elliott, Head Basketball Coach Harry Combes and Assistant Basketball Coach Howard Braun.
The Illinois High School Coaches Association (IHSCA) voted to support the retention of the three coaches, in the face of this demand by the Big Ten. Defying the ban would lead to the potential expulsion of the University of Illinois from the conference. The action of the IHSCA in supporting the retention of the coaches was also publicly reinforced by the Governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner; the football players of the university, the Illinois Alumni Association and the Board of the Illinois Athletic Association. On February 28, the University said that it would appeal the decision on the coaches and would not pull out of the Big Ten. No word was said about the students and their fate was seemingly sealed, despite the lack of a hearing.
The appeal by Illinois was to the faculty athletic representatives of the Big Ten and that was heard on March 3rd in Chicago. Besides the three coaches, there were still 14 athletes from football and basketball implicated. The father of Steve Kuberski said that his son was authorized by Illinois coaches to take the money and was told that it came from a Moline sponsor for Kuberski working in a Moline plant (John Deere) on semester and holiday breaks. According to Kuberski’s dad,
That money went from Moline to the slush fund. We thought the money was coming from the place he worked. If we had known that it was from a slush fund, Steve never would have gone to Illinois.
Kuberski did not get the money at the plant, but in monthly installments on campus of $15 to $35 a month. It should be noted that the NCAA allowed for $15/month payment to students for incidentals, but the Big 10 saw this as illegal. In this whole situation, the NCAA eschewed involvement, allowing the Big Ten to deal with this as an “internal” matter.
On the day of the appeal, it was announced that Steve Spanich had transferred to Quincy College, not far from his home in Rock Island, Illinois. He played at Quincy for the next two seasons, was drafted by the Chicago White Sox as a pitcher in 1968 and played in their minor league system through the 1971 season.
The next day, in front-page news, the Illinois appeal was rejected, 9-0, by the faculty reps, with Illinois abstaining. At this time, it was announced that Athletic Director Mills and Assistant Director Brewer had been involved with the fund for five years and upwards of 30 athletes had been involved, but only 14 still had eligibility.[ii]
The next day, more information came forth and, for some of the athletes, it was gratifying, as seven of them were cleared, but the other seven were all suspended by the Big Ten, five permanently. Kuberski, who received periodic payments of $35/month and a total of $490 (over 16 months), was suspended for two years and promptly transferred at the end of the year to Bradley. It had been determined that he should have known that the money he received was more than he actually earned working at the John Deere plant. He sat on the Illinois bench for the remainder of the 1966-67 season, agonizing over the fortunes of the team, which dropped to a tie for sixth in the conference with a record of 6-8. He played two years at Bradley University, averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds per game in his senior year. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics and played nine years in the NBA. Randy Crews, previously mentioned, was cleared of all charges and no penalized. The others who were not penalized were not named.
Rich Jones received payments of $35 per month (a total of $720 not from the fund, but from a businessman/booster) and was suspended for two years. He transferred to Memphis State University (his home town; he was the only non-Illinois player on the roster), where he also starred for two years, then was drafted by the American Basketball Association. He played seven years in the ABA and one in the NBA after the ABA/NBA merger. Ron Dunlap received $15 per month (a total of $410). He also was married with a daughter, but this was not seen as extenuating in any manner. He remained in school, was drafted in the 1968 draft by the Chicago Bulls in the second round, played five years in the Continental Basketball Association and for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.
The biggest beneficiary of the fund was running back Cyril Pinder, who received over $1100, mostly for trips home to Florida to visit/attend to his ailing grandmother, who had raised him. He was injured for a year, then was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles and played five full years in the NFL.
Illinois vowed to continue the fight for their three coaches, leaving the student-athletes as collateral damage. There was one final appeal available, to the Big 10 University presidents, in a “show cause” hearing. Meanwhile, the basketball season came to a close with Illinois dropping its final game to Ohio State, 100-79, to finish the Big Ten with a record of 6-8. Indiana and Michigan State tied for the title with records of 10-4, but when the Chicago Tribune Silver Basketball was awarded for the Most Valuable Player in the Big Ten that year, the award went to Jim Dawson of Illinois. It is hard to imagine that a lot of that was because of his and the team’s ability to endure during a most difficult season. He also averaged 21.7 ppg for the year, which didn’t hurt, either.
On March 9th, it was announced that the Trustees of the University supported President Henry in his appeal. The story also noted that Woody Hayes, the Ohio State football coach, disagreed with the firing and saw it done as a warning to others, as much as it was a punishment to the coaches.[iii] In an accompanying article, Governor Kerner said that he would not interfere with the decision-making process. The Trustees reiterated their support and encouragement in a public statement five days later, also.[iv]
Four days later, Representative Tom Railsback (R-IL), who represented Steve Kuberski’s district of Illinois, announced that e would seek a Congressional probe of the Big Ten’s athletic aid. He noted that the boys involved believed what they were told, that the payments were legal since the coaches said so. Not so, he countered, with the coaches. “They hardly could have helped but know that this violated the rules of the Big Ten.”[v] The next day, Doug Mills said that he had been “misinterpreted” when he said that President Henry knew of the fund. This was not true.[vi]
On March 18th, the University made its final plea to the Council of Presidents, a show cause hearing to show why the University and Big Ten should not split as a result of this situation. The appeal was denied and the University was ordered to fire the three coaches by March 21 or have the University suspended from the Big Ten. That day the three coaches all quit, saving the university and everyone else the anguish of protracting the situation any more. A new Athletic Director, Gene Vance, a former Illini Whiz Kid of the 1940s, was hired and would take office, April 1st. Until then, acting A.D., Professor Leslie Bryan, Director of the Institute of Aviation, would continue in the position.[vii]
Three days later, a Champaign businessman announced a drive to raise $10,000 for each of the three coaches to be presented at a dinner in their honor, but the next day, the coaches announced that they would refuse such gifts, but that they would attend the planned dinner. That same day, Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Chicago) said that he supported a probe of the Big Ten in the case of Illinois. In that same article, Mike Ditka, Chicago Bears tight end and former All-American at Pitt, was also adamant in his disagreement with the Illinois punishments. Ditka said that when he was recruited at Indiana, all the recruits were at a meeting where they were told that they would receive $50 per month and that he was offered even more from at least one Ivy League school.[viii] A few days later, the fired athletic director of the University of Pennsylvania, Jerry Ford, claimed that he had been fired for challenging the use of a slush fund at the school. (Was this one of Ditka’s targets?)[ix]
Illinois tried to recover. They hired Jim Valek as the new football coach, who went 8-32 over the next four years. They hired Harv Schmidt as the new basketball coach who went 89-77 in seven years at the Illini helm, but lost many top Illinois players to Indiana, something that had hardly happened before. In what might be seen as a coda to all this, Tribune sportswriter, Robert Markus, in summing up sad sports stories of 1967 had this to say about the Illinois slush fund scandal,
A Greek tragedy in modern dress. The jealousy or remorse, depending on who’s telling the tale, a man destroyed himself. Disgraced his associates and the University of Illinois’ athletic program and shook the Big Ten to its very foundations.[x]
This does not end the story, however. In fact, as my alumnus friend made clear, it may never end. Posts/web sites from the Phoenix alumni of the University of Illinois, from 2004 from and the Champaign News-Gazette of 1999, indicate that this story continues to have “legs”.[xi] Is this what Penn State alums will feel in 2050? How could this happen with the NCAA steering clear of it? That surely would not be the case today. And how might we view it, when we consider both the efforts of players, headed by the Northwestern players, to be more justly compensated for their work as “employees” of the university? How does all this square with the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit? And what of the statements of the five “power conferences”, who will now provide their own version of better compensation for their athlete/workers?
In conclusion, was this fair? If so, to whom? Certainly the players got short shrift. As for the coaches, Combes was done at 52 and, according to his brother, lived a sorrowful life after this. He died ten years later. Howard Braun, barred from coaching in the Big Ten, worked for a bank in Champaign, was pro golf manager at a Champaign course and died in 1996 at 83. Elliott returned to coaching six years later at Miami (FL), where he was also athletic director. In 1978, he became an assistant coach of the St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals and from 1979 to 1995 was Executive Director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He died there in 2013 at age 86.
Illinois archival materials on this entire matter are found at https://archives.library.illinois.edu/uasfa/0402012.pdf.
[i] Dan Jenkins, “The Fighting Illini”, Sports Illustrated, v.89, no.10, p.90, March 6, 1967. Also found at http://www.phoenixillini.org/article.html?aid=294, Accessed October 2, 2014.
[ii] “Illini Appeal Rejected”, Chicago Tribune, March 4, 1967, Pt.1, p.1.
[iii] “Illinois Trustees Back Henry’s Statnd”, Chicago tribune, March 10, 1967, Pt.3, p.1.
[iv] “Urge Illini to Keep Fighting”, Chicago tribune, March 15, 1967, Pt.3, p.1.
[v] Aldo Beckman, “Probe Sought of Big Ten’s Athletic Aid”, Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1967, Pt.3, p.3.
[vi] “Mills Denies Henry Knew of Fund”, Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1967, Pt.3, p.1.
[vii] “Illini Make a Final Plea to Big Ten Today”, Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1967, Pt.2, p.1. Roy Damer, “Big Ten Denies Illini Appeal”, March 19, 1967, Chicago Tribune, Pt.1,p.1. “Three Illini Coaches Quit”, Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1967, Pt.1, p.1.
[viii] “Plan $10,000 Gifts for 3 Ex-Illini Coaches”, Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1967, Pt.3, p.1. “Illini Coaches refuse $10,000 Gifts”, Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1967, Pt. 3, p.1. “Wants Congress to Probe Big 10 in Illinois Case”, Chicago Tribune, March 25, 1967, Pt.2, p.1.
[ix] “Fired Penn Aide Hurls ‘Slush’ Charge”, Chicago Tribune, March 30, 1967, Pt.3, p.1.
[x] Markus, Robert, “Stories We Could’ve Done Without in ‘67”, Chicago Tribune, December 25, 1967, Pt.3, p.3.
[xi] http://illinois.scout.com/2/276216.html, Accessed October 2, 2014. http://www.news-gazette.com/sports/illini-sports/other/1999-03-21/darkest-days.html, Accessed October 2, 2014.