A Washington bookmaker opened for business at 6 p.m. Friday and immediately received a phone call from a client who inquired, "What's the Stanford-California line?"
"Stanford by 5 1/2," the bookie replied.
"All right," the bettor said, a trace of glee in his voice, "Give me three thousand on Stanford minus 5 1/2."
At 6:01 the phone rang again. This caller asked for the entire list of college football point spreads, and when he had heard them said, "Just one play. I'd like five dimes ($5,000) on Stanford."
"What the hell is going on here?" the bookie asked.
It was a question that members of his profession from coast to coast would be asking. By Saturday afternoon they had the painful answer. They had suffered as disastrous a single-game setback as any of them could remember. They had been buried under an avalanche of Stanford money - an avalance triggered not by inside information or rumors of larceny, but by the handicapping judgment of three football fans in Boston.
When the money started to show for Stanford on Firday night, local bookmakers made urgent phone calls to each other and agreed that they should raise the point spread on the game. A shift of one or two points can usually sway many bettors' opinions. But even after the bookmakers had made Stanford a 9 1/2-point favorite they could not stem the tide.
"I've seen games come up hot," said a prominent Washington bookmaker. "Heck, it happens every week, and it usually doesn't mean a thing. But I've never seen anything like this. Not a single person wanted California. By Saturday morning every bookmaker in town had taken the game off the board. You couldn't get down for a quarter."
In cities where bookmakers continued to handle action on the Stanford-California game, bettors were willing to take the favorite at any price. In Las Vegas, Stanford was a 14-point favorite. In Fort Worth the line skyrocketed to 17 1/2. In Cleveland it was 18.
And even with these exorbitant point spread, the bettors never had to worry. Stanford amassed 538 yards in offense, rolled up a 30-3 lead after three quarters won 30-10. Along with the University of California, the nation's bookies had been routed.
Although they might have suspected that they had been the victims of some sinister conspiracy, the bookies had in fact been beaten by Bob Dunbar, Bill Hilton and Willie O'Brien, three real estate men who in 1972 started a football-touting publication called SCORE.
The first year of their business' existence was a struggle, but SCORE did enjoy one small triumph when it correctly picked Boston College to wallop Holy Cross, billing the game as the "Lock of the Year."
In each succeeding year, SCORE picked a "Lock of the Year" and each time it won, building the publications reputation and criculation. So this year the editors looked hard for the optimal opportunity to keep their streak alive.
"We've liked Stanford for most of the year," Dunbar said. "The team is only 15 points away from an unbeaten season. We think Steve Dils, their quarterback, is the second coming of Bob Griese. And California had been hit by a lot of injuries in its last few games."
So, in its last issue, SCORE invited its 25,000 readers to mail $300 for its selection. (Or $500 for a special package of hot tips including the "Thanksgiving Turkey Stoot.")
"It is now a matter of hours before we officially rocket away for SCORE's Lock of the Year," the advertisement said. "Willie O'Brien and the Lock Team are euphoric . . . To those of you who attend the game, the public-address system will announce the locationof the postgame Lock Party hosted by Willie O'Brien and the Lock Team.
The come-one might have been ridiculously hyperbolic, but for bookmakers it was no laughing matter. Dunbar said one his clients, a Texas oilman, bet $250,000 on the game. And the money wagered by SCORE's customers merely touched off a stampede by other betters, who observed the powerful action on the game, concluded that somebody knew something and scrambled to hop on the bandwagon.
"Everybody I've talked to got buried," a Washington bookie said. "From Maire to Spain we got buried. It was what you'd call a deluxe cleaning job."