IOWA CITY — Twenty years after tape recordings, withdrawn handshakes and uneasy praise, the fire between the Iowa and Illinois basketball programs has cooled into ashes.
No longer does Iowa-Illinois elicit memories of students jingling keys at Carver-Hawkeye Arena chanting “Blazer” every time Illinois forward Deon Thomas steps to the free-throw line. Illinois’ vaunted student section, the Orange Krush, hurls the same insults at Iowa as it does for any other Big Ten program.
It once was the Hatfields and the McCoys. Now it’s 2013 version of the Hatfields and McCoys.
“I could go ask (Illinois players) Brandon Paul or D.J. Richardson what do you think about next Tuesday’s game going to Iowa, that’s a big rivalry,’ former Illinois guard T.J. Wheeler said. “They’d probably look at me like, ‘That’s a rivalry?’ You don’t understand.”
“I think the rivalry means more to some older people, and it’s kind of cooled off with the players,” said former Hawkeye J.R. Koch, who grew up near Peoria, Ill. “It still is heated and a hated relationship there. A least with me.”
Iowa guard Devyn Marble knows the significance of his team’s rivalry with Illinois. His father, Roy, is Iowa’s all-time scoring leader and played in some of the series’ greatest games. But when asked if Iowa-Illinois still mattered, Marble said “nothing over edgy.”
“It’s our next opponent,” Marble said. “Probably not the same as when my dad was there.”
The rivalry recently has fizzled, partly because of competitive level. Illinois has won 17 of the last 22 games including a series-record three straight at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Gone are Lou Henson and Tom Davis, who presided over the programs during the vitriolic days. Iowa has no Illinois players on its roster, and Illini Coach John Groce admits he’s heard about the Iowa-Illinois past but “obviously we have not paid attention to that.”
The schools share 105 years of history and until 2000, the Illinois led 64-62. Each school relentlessly defended its court against the other with Illinois holding a 61-14 record against Iowa in Champaign, while Iowa leads 52-20 in Iowa City. The rivalry always had a starchiness with a large percentage of Iowa’s students hailing from the Chicago area. Many of the school’s greatest players, such as Acie Earl, Ronnie Lester, Don Nelson, Michael Payne, Ed Horton, Kevin Gamble and Carl Cain, come from Illinois.
In 2009 ESPN/Sagarin listed its all-time college basketball rankings with the Illini rating sixth and the Hawkeyes 10th. There were all-out grudge matches among the players, like Iowa’s Horton, Gamble and Roy Marble with Illinois’ Nick Anderson and Kendall Gill. In 1987, top-ranked Iowa registered one of its greatest comebacks in school history with a 22-point overtime rally to beat Illinois 91-88 in Champaign.
But the series changed from fiery to wildfire in 1988. Former Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl secretly taped Thomas admitting he was offered $75,000 and a new car by Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins. Pearl turned over the tape to NCAA officials, but the ensuing investigation netted no Illinois sanctions for that incident. However Illinois was banned from the NCAA tournament for one year for other infractions discovered in the investigation.
“I would tell you back then in the early ’90s, it was probably our biggest rivalry,” Wheeler said. “From a players’ standpoint, it was Illinois and Iowa just because everybody that played on team was either a senior in high school or a freshman when the whole NCAA investigation came down. So with Bruce Pearl in the center of it against us, that made it even more so that you wanted to beat Iowa.”
“Growing up in Illinois, I heard the Illinois side of it but never put a lot of stock in it,” Koch said. “I’ve got friends that are huge Illinois fans and they are just hate Iowa because of that whole Deon Thomas-Bruce Pearl debacle. It fuels a lot of things. That was one of the things that put the rivalry on the, I think, the tip of iceberg.”
The games sizzled, especially when Pearl returned to Assembly Hall before leaving in 1992. In 1993, the Illini upset Iowa 78-77 on buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Andy Kaufmann to send The Assembly Hall into a frenzy.
Earl, whose shot bounced off multiple players to give Iowa a 77-75 lead with 1.5 seconds, was recruited by Pearl after a stellar prep career at Moline (Ill.) High School. He took his first college visit to Illinois before signing with Iowa. He said the all-star competitions and in-state games by Illinois players gave the rivalry a base when the players went to separate colleges.
“Then the whole Deon Thomas thing went to another level,” Earl said.
Even without Pearl, Davis or Henson, the Iowa-Illinois rivalry still has its moments. In 2010, about 300 members of the Orange Krush used a Quad Cities donor to buy tickets behind the north basket. Shortly before tip-off, the students tore off their Iowa T-shirts and all wore bright orange T-shirts. It humiliated many Iowa fans who complained to the ticket office about group of opposing fans to buy tickets near the court.
Iowa ticket manager Pam Finke said had the students bought the tickets using an Illinois address, “we would have put them at the top.”
“I know people were mad, but they weren’t mad enough to buy tickets,” said Iowa ticket manager Pam Finke. “With revenue the way it was, we couldn’t afford to say no to anyone wanting to buy tickets.”
This year could add a little more excitement. Iowa (18-11, 7-9 Big Ten) needs a victory to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive. Illinois (21-9, 8-8) is on better footing but doesn’t want to put its fate in a selection committee’s hands. Tuesday’s game is the only scheduled meeting between the programs this year.
“I think it’s lost a little bit of its luster where this year that really means a lot,” former Iowa forward Kenyon Murray. “Iowa still has its fingers crossed and hoping to get into the tournament, and Illinois is the same way. This year’s game takes on a little bit different meaning. Both teams are using every game down the stretch to get into the tournament.”
But even with the postseason ramifications, it won’t have the same meaning as it did 20 years ago, both Wheeler and Koch said.
“I don’t think compared to today’s game — there’s Rivalry Tuesday — it will be like anything that it was in those like those days, or even in the late 80s when Iowa was loaded with B.J. Armstrong, Roy Marble and Ed Horton,” Wheeler said. “I think that was a good rivalry when we had Nick and Kendall. Then I think it went to another level, when the scandal, the investigation, the allegation, when that came over.”
“I knew growing up how the Orange Krush made a great point of, if they knew a guy that was local and he went away to a different school, they were going to give him a hard time. I look forward to that, I absolutely loved that.”