It was a typical Tom Davis team: hustling, aggressive, occasionally explosive and exciting to watch.
Like most other college basketball teams, it was sometimes erratic. But when its season ended March 1, 1979, with a 91-74 loss to Connecticut in the first round of the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament, it was generally thought that Davis and the members of the Boston College basketball squad had every reason to be proud of their performance that year.
It was only Davis' second year at B.C. He had inherited a program that had been drifting, according to former Boston College athletes. His 21-9 record for the 1978-79 season appeared to be prima facie evidence that the B.C. basketball program had, at last, been turned around.
"Coach Davis came in when I was a junior, and I would rate him as the best coach I've ever been associated with or played for," recalled Tom Meggers, a 6-foot-6 senior forward on the 1978-79 B.C. team. "I'd say we had more talent my first two years than my last two years, but as soon as Davis got there we started playing better. He can get the most out of his players."
Today, they don't talk much publicly about the 1978-79 basketball team on the Boston College campus. When they do talk, they are likely to speak in whispers. Like a wastrel son that has brought disgrace upon the family, the team of 1978-79 is something the Boston College community would like to consign to oblivion.
At least three members of that team, including cocaptain Ernie Cobb and Rick Kuhn, are the subjects of a federal investigation into charges of point shaving in five to seven games that year. Henry Hill, 34, a convicted felon facing indictment on drug charges, told federal investigators he and others paid between $1,000 and $2,000 per player per game to have the outcomes adjusted. Jim Sweeney, the other cocaptain is another player whose name has surfaced in the investigation.
Cobb and Kuhn have denied participation in any point shaving scheme, and Sweeney has been available for comment.
Among the games said the figure in the probe are a Dec. 6 Boston College victory over Providence (83-64), a Dec. 16 B.C. victory over Harvard (86-83), a Feb. 3 victory over Fordham (71-64), a Feb. 6 loss to St. John's (85-76), a Feb. 10 loss to Holy Cross (98-96) and the March 1 loss to Connecticut.
Since news of the investigation broke last month, Davis has refused to discuss his 1978-79 team, and the Boston College sports information office has told players and former players still on campus not to talk with the press.
Nevertheless, from interviews with opposing coaches and players, former players no longer on the B.C. campus and knowledgeable spectators, a portrait of that team can be drawn.
Essentially, it is one of a scrappy, hustling club whose game centered around the offensive potential of Cobb -- the team's leading scorer with a 21.3-point average -- and the playmaking abilities of Sweeney, who led the team in assists. It was Davis' coaching style to supplement the Sweeney-Cobb nucleus with a steady infusion of substitutes, sometimes as many as 10 or 12 players a game.
"There was always a constant movement of players in an out of games," said Don Slaven, a veteran Boston area high school coach, many of whose players had gone on to play at Boston College.
Almost two years later, most persons familiar with the 1978-79 team profess shock and incredulity over the charges of point shaving, although there were a very few who had begun to suspect there was something amiss even during the 1978-79 season.
Dave Cawood, a spokesman for the NCAA, said the association's task force on gambling became aware of suspicious changes in the point spreads on the Boston College games that year and passed that information along to the FBI. Frank McLaughlin, the basketball coach at Harvard, said he recalls being asked by a New Jersey writer that year if he suspected point shaving in any of the B.C. games. At the time, he didn't, McLaughlin said.
"If it (the point-shaving allegation) is true, those people who were involved were the only ones who knew about it," said Meggers, a former high school all-American who saw only limited action that year after failing to recover fully from knee surgery.
Of all sports, it has been said that basketball is among the most vulnerable to point-shaving schemes, and when they do occur in basketball they can be virtually impossible to detect. If there was point shaving on that 1978-79 Boston College team, then the team offers a classic illustration of that maxim.
"I saw four of the games in question," said George Blaney, basketball coach at Holy Cross. "It is very difficult to look at any of Tom Davis' teams and say they did not give their best. They play the game hard. They are a team that dives on the floor for loose balls."
Of his Feb. 10, 98-96 victory over Boston College, Blaney said only, "The only thing I can recall is that it was a fiercely contested game."
A former player at Holy Cross, Blaney has a clear recollection of the point-shaving scandals of 1961, the last such in major-college basketball.
"I played in games that were dumped against us by Seton Hall and by Tennessee," said Blaney. "At the time, we would tell nothing. Later, when we knew the games had been fixed, it did seem that Seton Hall was maybe a little easy on defense. But we never could tell what Tennessee did.
In the Feb. 3 Boston College-Fordham game that year, B.C. won by seven but had been favored in the point spread by 14. Cobb scored 18 points and made seven assists in that game, and Penders remembers that "he was the reason why we got beat. I thought he played an excellent game. As far as performance goes, I'd say in no way was there anything fishy or was Cobb off. I also thought that point spread was way out of line."
A focal point of the federal investigation is the Dec. 16, 1978, Boston College-Harvard game played in Boston Garden. The Eagles, unbeaten in six games, were 12 1/2-point favorites over Harvard, then 3-3.
Boston College won that game, 86-83, but failed to cover the spread, meaning that anyone betting on Harvard with the point spread won his wager. Cobb, averaging, 23.7 points a game coming into that contest, made only six of 15 shots for a total of 12 points. He turned the ball over to Havard on mistakes six times.
Bob Allen, who would later captain the 1979-80 Harvard basketball team, was defending against Cobb that night, and he remembers the game well.
"I'd like to think I did a pretty good job on defense, and that's why Cobb didn't do any better," said Allen. "It certainly didn't look like he was throwing the ball away. They were a good team, tough, but fun to play against.
Bob Hooft, a Harvard forward that year, remembers Boston College as a "pretty solid team. I had no inkling at all (of any point shaving) until I read it in the paper. Ernie Cobb was a good ballplayer. He was kind of their main man at the time."
McLaughlin, the Harvard coach, recalls that, "Cobb didn't play very well against us. I was disappointed because I had heard how good he was. But looking back on it, would I say the game was fixed? I'd have to say no."
As outlined by sources close to the investigation, the trail leading to B.C. is said to have begun in Pittsburgh where Paul Mazzei, a convicted drug dealer under indictment on Long Island in another drug case, set in motion a series of events that is said to have led to the current investigation.
Mazzei and Hill, according to sources traveled to Boston to arrange the point shaving. They are alleged to have approached Kuhn with the plan, and he is alleged to have enlisted the aid of Cobb.
Initially, only the names of Cobb and Kuhn surfaced in the probe, with Sweeney's name coming up later. Sweeney has told investigators he refused to cooperate, but told no one at B.C. about the incident, according to sources. He is said to have been warned not to talk.
Kuhn, who comes from the Pittsburgh area and is said to have been a good friend of Sweeney's, has denied knowing either. Hill or Mazzei. Several people familiar with the team have expressed skepticism about his ability to influence the outcome of a game.
"You never knew too much about that kid from Pittsburgh because he didn't play that much," said one. "He was kind of a rotating seventh man." Kuhn averaged 3.5 points a game that year.
According to former members of the team, both Cobb and Sweeney were well-liked by their teammates. Cobb was the superior athlete but tended, at times, to be a loner. Sweeney, an extrovert and a graduate of the prestigious Lawrenceville preparatory school in New Jersey, excerised leadership by the sheer force of his personality. Cocaptain with Cobb of the 1978-79 Boston College team while only a junior, he was reelected captain for his senior year.
"We were all very close. We got along very well, and we did things together on and off the court all the time," Meggers, now working as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical firm in Connectibut.
"You don't win 21 games if you have a bunch of guys who don't like each other. Jimmy Sweeney and Ernie Cobb were very personable kids. They were the people we wanted as out captains. Ernie was the leading scorer. Everyone always wanted to talk with him after the games and get his autograph. e
"I was shocked when I heard about this. It's hard to believe that any of it every happened. Jimmy Sweeney is such a fine person. He comes from a super family."
Another former player, who would not permit the use of his name, said he was "absolutely stunned" by news of the point-shaving investigation.
"This was a group of guys who always played 10 to 15 percent above their ability. It just doesn't make sense," he said.
"Ernie Cobb had his heart set on becoming a professional. Why would he do something like that? I remember coach was always getting on him about his studies, but he always managed to make time to get down to the gym and work out with the weights at night."
A graduate of Stamford (Conn.) High School where he, like Meggers, was a high school all-American, Cobb was drafted by the Utah Jazz of the NBA but failed to make the team. Most recently, he has been playing witht he Harlem Wizards, a traveling amateur team.
"Sweeney was the real leader of the team," continued the former player. "But he never even went out at night to drink beer with the boys. He always had to study or something like that. He was a very religious person. He got up early every Sunday morning to go to church. He wanted to be a Rhodes scholar and go to law school.
"This is so hard to believe."