Bruce Pearl depicted a chance meeting with former Illinois men's basketball assistant and University of Illinois-Chicago coach Jimmy Collins Friday in New Orleans as "two old coaches who had a run-in 23 years ago getting some closure."
Pearl and Collins, both in the Crescent City for the unofficial coaches' convention that is the Final Four, were involved in a now-infamous NCAA tangle in 1989 triggered when Pearl, then an assistant coach at Iowa, accused Collins, then an assistant at Illinois, of trying to lure recruit Deon Thomas with promises of money and a vehicle.
"I saw Jimmy just before dinner about 7 p.m. on Friday; I put my hand out, and he shook it," Pearl, the former Tennessee men's basketball coach, said Sunday. "I told him I'm really sorry about what we all went through, and that Deon Thomas was a victim and there were a lot of victims.
"My apology was it was unfortunate it happened, and it hurt people, ultimately, including me."
Pearl was fired on March 21, 2011, after six seasons at UT, as a result of the cumulative effect of an NCAA investigation that turned up multiple recruiting-related violations, according to then-Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton.
Collins spoke out during Pearl's NCAA ordeal at UT, telling the USA Today in a telephone interview for a story published on Sept. 20, 2010, that "what goes around comes around."
Pearl's submission of a secretly taped phone call between him and Thomas,
led to a lengthy NCAA investigation into the Illinois basketball program and a rift between Pearl and Collins.
The two men later coached against each other as rivals in the Horizon League when Pearl was head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2001-05) and Collins was at UIC (1996-2010).
According to several publications, ESPN commentator Dick Vitale referred to Pearl submitting the tape to the NCAA as "career suicide," suggesting an unspoken oath among coaches not to turn one another in for violations.
Indeed, Pearl wasn't hired as a head coach at the Division I level until after a successful nine-year stint at Division II Southern Indiana. It took four more years at mid-major Wisconsin-Milwaukee — and a trip to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 — before Pearl landed his first job at a major conference school.
Pearl said Sunday he "wasn't trying to hurt the University of Illinois," but he was "trying to right a wrong" when he turned in Collins for putting his school (Iowa) at a recruiting disadvantage.
Pearl said his Friday apology wasn't for what he did, so much as for the unfortunate circumstances it brought about.
The NCAA report ultimately cleared Collins of Pearl's allegation, but Illinois was found guilty of other violations and penalized.
Collins spoke to ESPNChicago.com about his meeting with Pearl in New Orleans in a story published online Saturday evening.
" ... I looked up, he was walking toward me," Collins told ESPNChicago.com. "When he got to me, he started to apologize for what had happened. He made it clear that he was young and didn't understand things. He ended up saying he really felt bad because he knew Deon Thomas got hurt.
"The truth of the matter was it was fine. It was a guy who had gone through some changes, and as he's gotten older, he realized some things were wrong, and he apologized for it."
Collins told ESPNChicago.com he holds no grudge.
"I let it go; there's nothing I can do with what happened then," he said. "I'm not going around with a lot of hate in my heart. I'm not going to hold a grudge all your life."
Pearl said he didn't think the feud affected the coaches in their head-to-head meetings.
"I always respected how Jimmy coached, and our issues never transcended onto the court," Pearl said. "But we'd had a fairly public incident on national TV after we beat them where he refused to shake my hand. I'm hoping this brings some closure."
Collins told ESPNChicago.com that he ran into Deon Thomas after meeting Pearl on Friday night, and told him of Pearl's apology.
"Deon's one of the nicest people you'll meet in life," Collins said. "He didn't want to elaborate on it one way or another. He just said okay."
Thomas, who finished his career at Illinois (1990-94) as the Illini's all-time leading scorer and enjoyed a successful playing career overseas, is now the director of athletics and men's basketball coach at Lewis & Clark community college.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32