Game 007: at Villanova 66, Maryland-Baltimore County 41Tuesday, November 23, 2004
The Pavilion - Villanova, PA
Earlier this month, boxer Thomas "Top Dog" Williams and promoter Bobby Mitchell were found guilty of conspiracy and sports bribery
for fixing a fight in Las Vegas four years ago.
The government went to great lengths to set up wiretaps and line up witnesses to make the case that Williams' opponent, Richard Melito Jr., had been offered $5,000 to hit the canvas prematurely. "The call was made, money was offered and the condition was set," the assistant U.S. attorney concluded. The jury agreed - both defendants face five years in the clink and a quarter million in fines.
There's nothing about this tale that's out of the ordinary - the practice known as "shamming" is of constant concern in the world of boxing, and efforts to stop it are performed in the interest of "cleaning up" the sport and restoring its damaged image.
But maybe Williams and Mitchell were just in the wrong business, that's all. In college basketball, paying an opponent a large sum of money to take a loss is completely legal and acceptable behavior. In fact, athletic departments openly include these payments in their publicly-published budgets!
While many early-season matchups are still settled via handshake between coaching colleagues, an increasing number are what's known as "guarantee games." Instead of setting a one-for-one (or two-for-one) home-and-home agreement, a school from a power conference will cut a one-time check to a mid-major for tens of thousands of dollars. It's quite a deal - not only does the smaller school's team get cash, it gets a trip to a big sparkly arena and a 40-point thumping.
For those mid-majors forced to live on shoestring budgets, guarantee-game money can mean the difference between balanced books and the crippling deficits which can lead to department cutbacks. These days, a November road contest can net a small school over $70,000. As Florida A&M
coach Mike Gillespie glibly puts it
, guarantee games offer benefits for all involved. "I'm guaranteed a paycheck. They're guaranteed a win."
The little guys are getting good at the game, too - they know that big schools need to fill up their early-season schedules (especially since the NCAA has put an end to exhibitions against sad-sack squads like Nike Elite and the Luxembourg National Team), and this drives the scheduling process into the summer and the prices into the stratosphere. "I'm just amazed at how it goes into September because guys hold out for something more," says Notre Dame associate head coach Sean Kearney
And the mid-majors certainly don't represent the bottom of the food chain when it comes to guarantee games. For instance, Eastern Kentucky
approximates that they receive about 50 calls a year
from Division II and III colleges looking for November schedule fillers and juicy checks. Regardless of a school's size, it usually turns into a balancing act between payoffs and payouts.Despite what the critics say
about a "flawed system," things work out on balance. If a big school schedules too many guarantee games and refuses to pick on teams their own size, they're severely punished in the RPI and aren't likely to pass muster on Selection Sunday. The quick attendance boost of a few extra home dates pales in comparison to the money that can come from TV exposure, prestige, and the increased recruiting efficiency gained by a NCAA Tournament run.
Feasting on cupcakes might make you fat and wobbly once the real competition starts. Just ask Villanova
, who raced out to an 7-0 record last year against the likes of Columbia
and Division III University Of The Redlands before getting pounded in Big East play. A conference tourney run wasn't enough to get them into the NCAA's, and they ended up on a date with Drexel
in the NIT's first round. I know all too well, I was there.
I was also in attendance for the Wildcats' first game of the 2004-05 campaign, a five-figure payout to the Retrievers of Maryland-Baltimore County
. The Pavilion was surprisingly full for a holiday week, and the band and cheerleaders were in mid-season form. The Wildcats, on the other hand, were not.
Though they sped to a 10-0 lead, and spread the UMBC deficit to 35 at some points during the first half, they seemed to content themselves with a MTV Rock N' Jock playground style of ball: lots of ankle-breaking crossovers, baseball passes and alley-oops. In the second half, as UMBC started cutting the lead back to 20 or so, the 'Cats started hoisting threes in an unsporting and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to run up the score. I can honestly say that on this evening, I learned absolutely nothing about what Villanova is going to be about this year. Or actually, maybe I did.
One of the opportunities that the business end of a guarantee-game thrashing can offer is the chance to test one's team against a higher level of competition. But UMBC didn't seem to be interested in testing set offenses or defensive schemes, and slouched off the court at the final buzzer with a paltry 41 points - their destiny this season may be a slew of similar beatings at the hands of America East foes like Boston University
. Even the Villanova student section grew bored with hurling invective at Retriever center Andy Feeley, an awkward, gawking mini-hulk of a Caucasian that served as their chosen target of the evening. Most left early.
It doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. Sometimes a guarantee game turns into more than a big school bargained for
, as Utah
found out against little Southern Utah
a few years ago. This usually spells the end of the gravy train. Power-conference coaches will blacklist an uppity mid-major faster than you can say, "Gonzaga," and this is also usually the signal that a school is not satisfied with taking whippings for money, that it wishes to start contending for conference championships and spots on the NCAA bracket.
But in other sports, offering money to your opponent to take a dive is not only a serious federal crime, it can also be a horrible insult. Take, for instance, the guy who refused to take a dive for Butterbean
. Some folks do have some
pride, you know.Photo Gallery