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Toledo Football, Scooter . . . Smoke? Yes! Fire? Not Yet . . ....By Nelson Lardner

With legal action currently on hold regarding the law's expressed curiousity regarding some of the more recent performances of the University of Toledo's football and basketball teams, it seemed time for a recap, and a few relevant observations.

Make no mistake - what you're about to read is from the extremely jaundiced viewpoint of a dedicated football fan who for years has been reluctant to take Mid-America Conference (MAC) games seriously, based in large part on what this typist felt was an inordinate number of surprising, last-minute reactivations - or de-activations - of key personnel. Such talent uncertainty, in tandem with sustained stretches of results that this observer judged to be bizarre, long ago left the MAC as the football conference least-worthy of this fan's time and energy.

We observed an inordinate number of radical line moves in MAC football action in recent years, especially in the 2004-05 timeframe. Many of the sides that were being hammered were getting there. In and of itself, these market/performance observations prove absolutely nothing. But as conspiracy, in and of itself, can be a viciously-difficult thing to prove, one would have to be blind and dumb not to consider the possibilities.

Vegas certainly did. MAC football limits were curbed by a number of outlets at the time, and opening lines on MAC games were often delayed, so as to avoid being caught leaning the wrong way with numbers all-too-vulnerable to heavy, sharp action. Now, we're presented with the latest brouhaha. U. S. attorneys operating out of Detroit dropped the previously-brought charges against Toledo running back Harvey "Scooter" McDougle earlier this week. As they say around the ol' chess table, the prosecutors would have been operating under severe time pressure, even had they felt ready to proceed full-steam-ahead at this time. With this move, the feds can keep their cards close to their vests while proceeding to gather more information to further solidify their case, awaiting the time when they're good and ready to let it all hang out.

McDougle was charged late last month with conspiring to influence Toledo fall/winter sports results. Though McDougle lawyer James Berdick has pooh-poohed the possibility, it's been asserted McDougle was the beneficiary of various material kindnesses flowing from Sterling Heights, Michigan resident Ghazi "Gary" Manni. It's been inferred that after gaining a measure of influence, Manni looked to McDougle to serve as an influence-conduit with Toledo football and basketball players, with regards to affecting pointspread results.

As noted . . . conspiracy is one tough thing to prove. The last NCAA football betting-scandal story which came out with all the pieces fitting neatly together was the Dennis Lundy/Northwestern case. Lundy, the all-time leading rusher for the Wildcats at the time, turned out to be a bettor from 1993-95. Apparently operating on his own within the team, Lundy acknowledged having laid against NU in a '94 matchup against Iowa, fumbling on the goalline to thwart a Northwestern drive to "help" make a likely Cat pointspread loss certain.

Oh, I've heard the call, "You HAVE to have the quarterback," to assure the success of any such nefarious plans. Really? If anything, relying solely on a QB to do all the dirty work could make skullduggery all too obvious. Were I living a different kind of existence, and were looking to tamper with major-college-football spread results, I'd go shopping for some combination of a (a) center, (b) long-snapper, and/or (c) at least one, and maybe more, defensive backs. As much as DBs live on the edge, play by play, operating with such a narrow allowance for error, such players would likely need to make but one overt mistake in a game to place his side squarely behind the eight-ball. And such knavery would not be at all easy to spot, with any broad certainty.

With the MAC jumping through hoops for all that ESPN appearance money to play stand-alone midweek night games, all those cable-televised contests no doubt drew appreciably more dollar play - both legally, and illegally - than they might if there were played as part and partial of the typical, monster, multi- page Saturday NCAA card. With the stakes far higher in these isolated instances, the value of any tampering information to insiders increased exponentially.

Is McDougle guilty of anything, beyond a reasonable doubt? Not at this point, for certain. Sharply-cut limits on Toledo games of the time - fashioned most prominently by Robert Walker at the Mirage - indicated that somebody had reason to be concerned. Getting -110, the Mirage and other associated hotel books would hardly be eager to turn away legitimate handicapper/fan action. But their stand on such MAC games raised a red flag, for anyone willing to take a calm, reasoned look at the broad situation.

I'd be delighted if the surface evidence that's emerged thus far turned out to be much ado about nothing. But in cases such as this, fraught with conspiracy possibilities, when the existing circumstantial evidence is as forbidding as it appears here . . . you hope that what eventually emerges does not provide fresh ammunition to John McCain - or added grief to Barney Frank.

Nelson Lardner

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