This is largely personal, for there seems no other way at the moment to write about Tom Davis. He is a friend who has quietly built a considerable reputation within college basketball for honesty and tactical brilliance but who now is living the horror every coach dreads most -- a point-shaving investigation. I've admired him long before any whisper of scandal; I see no reason to change that notion now.
For the best of reasons, Davis is staying firmly quiet in public. He is nearly unsure as the rest of us about whether two or more of his players took money to influence the scores of perhaps a half-dozen Boston College games two years ago. If his first instinct is a swift and loud defense, a flat-out denial that Ernie Cobb and Rick Kuhn conspired with gamblers, his second is to remember Adolph Rupp.
In the Summer of '51, when the enormity of the first major point-shaving scandal was beginning to become clear, Rupp boasted: "Gamblers couldn't touch my boys with a 10-foot pole." Within weeks, three players on Rupp's best team, one of the very best teams in collegiate basketball history, admitted accepting money from gamblers.
"As soon as I heard about it (the BC investigation), I got sick to my stomach," said Rutgers Coach Tom Young, who met Davis when both were assistants at Maryland in the late '60s and later hired him as his top aide at American University. "The first thing you think about are your own kids.
"You've got to be realistic. If it could happen to his team, it could happen to mine. It could happen anywhere. A coach looks at each of his kids and asks: 'Could he? Would he?'"
Although knowledge of the BC situation became public less than a week ago, rumors have been astir for nearly two years. And when Davis asks himself the could-he, would-he questions about Cobb and Kuhn, it is not with the full background most coaches would have.
Those players were recruited to BC before Davis became the coach for four years ago. Allegedly, they were coaxed there by an assistant with a reputation for building teams in suspicious ways, who left before Davis arrived from Lafayette and who now is helping another once-obscure school achieve hasty national prominence.
Davis is an easy man to underestimate. Although he is looking more and more his age, 41, Davis, in a lineup of his peers, is not the one you would choose as the man with the 12th best record among active coaches. But Davis would be the coach likely to have earned his doctorate, which he did at Maryland.
He also is known as The Doctor among basketball insiders, as in "when will The Doctor get the sort of job where his unusual abilities will get him the recognition he deserves? When will somebody in one of the established major conferences be bright enough to hire this quietly driven man? When will substance mean as much as style in college sports?"
At AU, Davis recruited aggressively. He does not easily accept losing. But while he was vitally involved in who could help him and Young win most quickly, he also was interested in helping any player with the ability to earn an athletic scholarship.
Davis took the time to publish those ideas about how a player could attract notice to himself. He also wrote a book about how to enjoy the sport he loves even with few available facilities: "Garage-Door Basketball."
For years, at Lafayette and BC, Davis has been a bright, aggressive coach seemingly destined to be among the most successful in his profession. Now he is the coach with the whiff of scandal, the one who will get the could-he, would-he looks from strangers. At most the very moment his program seemed to be clearing a large hurdle, when the 11-2 Eagles established themselves as arguably the best team above Maryland, news of the investigation became public.
Davis joins a who's who list of coaches who have endured similar agony: Rupp and Clair Bee, Nat Holman and Jack Ramsay among them. And Arthur Bergstrom, the first man the NCAA hired to police itself, who became its full-time director of enforcement after being athletic director at Bradley when the point-shaving mess touched there.
Bergstrom recalls watching replay after replay of games known to have been fixed -- and still being unable to pinpoint the exact moments of purposeful errors. He knew who was involved, yet he still was unable to know for certain which shot was meant to be missed, whether an obvious turnover by the larcenous-minded player was a key or whether he might have achieved the same end with a pass just bad enough for an innocent teammate to be in position for a blunder.
Because it is so continuous, with such split-second timing and minuscule margin for error, basketball probably is the easiest sport to fix. And the atmosphere of college sport lately suggests fixers can work more easily than ever.
Who can be surprised that a possible hoopscam might follow abscam? Why should college sports be more pure than Congress? They ought to try, in fact are trying. This is exactly the time for every coach not to point at Davis but to look at himself. Nobody is tougher on Tom Davis at the moment than Tom Davis.