"When you hear horror stories about the children of your friends -- how they're hooked on drugs or have been arrested or whatever -- you say to yourself, 'I can't believe that happened to that parent. I thought they were raising their kids perfectly.' But it happens. And now, that's how I feel." --Tom Davis, Boston College basketball coach
The dual masks of comedy and tragedy that hang above the entrances to many a college theater should, instead, be hung above the entrance to the Boston College gym. The mood of the BC basketball team is as starkly, as bizarrely, divided as those contradictory faces of jubilation and despair.
On one hand, the Eagles had their best moment of athletic jubilation in a dozen years this week when they smashed Villanova, 73-60, to move into a tie for the lead in the Big East Conference. With a 13-2 record, BC is one of the year's success stories; little was expected of the Eagles, but thanks to two tall, skinny freshmen and a chubby sophomore guard, they're on the brink of the Top 20.
On the court, the BC players exemplify much of the best of their sport. They're unselfish, intelligent, poised and infectiously brave. "We are just a typical college team which has suddenly discovered an attitude which is not typical at all. We're an old-fashioned team with a real 'sense of the game,'" said Davis, a Ph.D. "We're playing with a glow that never entirely diminishes. One season, I felt it as a player. Now, I feel it as a coach. It's that great, unexplainable feeling of 'team' which you never completely lose for the rest of your life.
"I don't know if we can sustain it. If (5-foot-11 sophomore guard) John Bagley was injured, for instance, I'm not sure we could beat anybody. He holds us together in a very fragile way. At least, we've had it for a while."
However, BC has something else that it certainly will never forget. This is the school that is alleged to have given college ball its first major point-shaving scandal in 20 years.
The Justice Department is investigating the allegation that in five to seven games in the '78-'79 season, at least two Eagle players, including star guard Ernie Cobb and reserve forward Rick Kuhn, agreed to keep BC from beating the point spread. Cobb and Kuhn have denied the allegations.
That college basketball should have another scare surprises no one; that it should happen to a program run by Athletic Director Bill Flynn, a former FBI agent, and Davis, who epitomizes the squeaky-clean coach, has sent a chill down the sport's spine. "Every coach has to think: There but for the grace of God go I. Especially me," says Catholic University Coach Jack Kvancz, a former BC basketball star who was a leading candidate for the job that Davis got.
"Bill Flynn and Tom Davis. . . Heck, their whole lives have been an open book, a proof that you could put your values first and still get enough victories. It's a tragedy to have these pages written in their book. It's worse than that. It's disgusting because it makes no sense. So many louses, if it happened to them, you'd want to cheer. I just want to scream. 'These are the wrong guys.'
"Davis even sent me the film of the (suspect) Harvard-BC game to study. Hell, I could have watched it for a hundred years and not seen anything."
When Davis talks about his methods, his team, his purposes in coaching, the full burden of his suppressed sadness leaks out. "I'm not as composed as I seem," said the coach, a ringer for Phil Donahue. "I can be analytical about the team. I can focus on that. I try to put all my thoughts there. I could not be as objective about other things. With time, maybe I will be."
The more Davis talks about the present, the more it seems a bitterly ironic commentary on the past. "Most of what we try to do is to maximize the opportunity for the player to grow in self-knowledge . . . see things the way they really are," he said. "Also, we do everything we can to be aware of problems on the team."
To that end, Davis goes to remarkable extremes. He has every shot, rebound, assist and turnover of every practice recorded and put into a box score. "Day by day, we prove to them where they stand so there won't be any shocks," he said. "Players will lose respect for you if they think you act arbitrarily. I want my players to like me, think I'm fair, and be open with me."
Davis even gives open-ended questionnaires to his players and assistants, asking not only such obvious things as "Who are our best shooters, rebounders, defenders . . . but also notions such as "Who are our best winners?" "Who do you want to see take the last-second shot for us this season?" "Which teammate would be the most fun to room with?"
This is not just an internal team PR smokescreen. "I find that the players are often right. They appraise each other very perceptively. I constantly question my decisions. You'd be amazed how often my evaluations and my coaches are very different."
Few coaches in sport as exhaustively, almost compulsively, self-critical as Davis.His conscientiousness, his desire for an atmosphere of mutual respect and loyalty are everywhere. "Is this the guy whose players go and pull a fix on him?" said Kvancz. "I know Tom Davis. This is killing him."
Partly out of respect for Davis, and partly, perhaps, out of less noble impulses, Boston College passionately wishes to draw a line and disassociate itself from the reality of the Justice Department's ongoing investigation. The campus -- from the college presidents and alumni, to the coach and his current players -- seems caught in a paroxysm of rationalization and forgetfulness.
Davis refuses to comment on the situation, although he was in his second BC year then and inherited both of the players allegedly under investigation. bAll he'll say is that, after studying game films, he can't spot anything fishy. "I still wonder if anything will really come of this," he said."How much of it will wash and will any of it ever get to court?"
BC players take an identical line: "We're living in this generation," said Bagley. "That's all behind us. We're ready. Judge us by what we do now."
An alumnus' view:
"Davis inherited some not-so-great guys from the previous regime and did the best he could with them," said Bob Ryan, who has covered basketball for the past decade for the Boston Globe. "Nobody here blames Davis. He's completely rebuilt and revitalized this program. And done it the right way. The school, the alumni, everybody are entirely behind him."
If ever sport offered a bitterly paradoxical, unsolvable moral dilemma, it is the situation here. Boston College seems both unwilling, and unable, to address itself simultaneously to the past and the future. So, it has chosen to concentrate fiercely on the future and hope the past will die.
Even college President Rev. J. Donald Monan won't address himself -- even in broad terms -- to the responsibilities of an educational community to appraise its own recent past and bear its responsibilities. No Boston College spokesman, after four days of requests, is willing to be interviewed on the college's position or feelings about the loudest national noise that the school has ever made.
"The most disturbing part of this situation," said Georgetown University Coach John Thompson, "is that BC, as a college, does not seem willing to accept any weight for what has happened. In fact, we're all responsible. A coach, like me -- when I get money for endorsing a brand of sneakers, or do a TV commercial, or get special considerations to stay at a school as coach, (I) help create an atmosphere where the players can think that the coach is getting something 'extra,' while they're getting nothing.
"The newspapers that run point-spread and tout columns are making a buck by promoting big-time gambling, which is nothing but putting more money in the hands of mobsters. TV has its Jimmy the Greek gambling shows which make it all seem legitimate. Colleges who hire recruiters who are known to be shady operators, then turn their heads away as long as the flesh-peddlers deliver the goods, are at fault."
As if this complex situation needed more irony, more cutting edges, it is further tangled by the fact that BC is in a recruiting war for the favors of Pat Ewing, the 7-foot Cambridge, Mass., high-school star. Since BC still thinks it has a chance for Ewing -- he was in the Eagle locker room, slapping hands, after BC's win over Villanova here Monday -- nobody wants to suffer any self-inflicted black eyes until after Ewing announces his choice on Monday.
All this contributes to an odd impression. To the question, "What is Boston College's reaction to its scandal?" the answer seems to be "There isn't any." At least not on the surface. The BC gym, with its tuba-and-drums pep band, its wholesome "We're No 1" signs, and its patriotic yellow ribbons is an extension of the tough, austere, work-and-religion-ethic urban parochial high school. This school has waited a dozen dry years to get back near the top.
To a college student, perhaps two years is a generation; amnesia can be fun. As Boston College completed its showcase win over Villanova, the crowd clapped in unison, a fine goosebump-inducing Eagle mascot sprinted baseline to baseline in a drum-major's strut and the throng sang, "Roll out the barrel, we'll have a barrel of fun."
Boston College prefers that basketball be a barrel of fun, so that's how it has decided to view it. All the weight of serious issues, all the potential damage to reputation and good name, has been allowed to fall not on an institution but on one man -- Tom Davis, the one person who does not deserve it. He sits in his office, tie loosened, pretending that he won't talk about the cloud over him, pretending that everything's under control.
"Sometimes, when you're recruiting, you see so much talent that you ignore the true nature of the person who has it. You tell yourself, 'I'm going to be a missionary. I can save this kid.' But what you really want is the talent," Davis said. "I decided quite a time back that I just wanted to recruit people that I enjoyed being around. I remember an old coach at a small college who, when I asked him why he wasn't going after a certain player, told me, 'He just doesn't give me a tingle. I don't want to be around him for four years.'"
Davis can only wish that he could apply this precept retroactively to his predecessors. But he can't. And so, he is paying the tax on their inheritance.
"The worst thing that could come out of this is if Tom Davis quits BC," said Kvancz. "As a BC alumnus, I'm proud to have him represent me. That's why I'm so glad to see them winning. Because if they weren't winning, I wonder how generously he would be seen."
Would Davis, if allegations became convictions, feel conscience-bound to leave?
"That's Tom's problem," said Kvancz. "I'm sure he's thinking about it, because he's not a man to duck anything."
That, indeed, makes him rare. Meanwhile, Boston College continues to cheer its team with a glow, while trying to forget its team of gloom.