Philadelphia — Just about everything, from packed arenas to the attention TV has lavished on the game, points to this being the Golden Age of college basketball. But that doesn't mean there may not be a fly or two in the ointment.
Of perhaps gravest concern to the 2,000 coaches gathered here during the national championship tournament is the specter of another point-shaving scandal like the one that rocked the game in the early 1950s.
A few years back Indiana head coach Bobby Knight, whose Hoosiers played North Carolina in Monday night's NCAA final, said, "There are more unsavory characters around basketball than ever before."
That should have been warning enough for those who assumed that today's game was immune to scandal. Now, within the last few months, reports have also been published that authorities are investigating allegations that three former Boston College players shaved points -- controlling the margin of victory for the benefit of gamblers -- during the 1978-79 season.
"Whether it's true or not at Boston College, I was not surprised something surfaced," said Marv Harshman, head coach at the University of Washington and outgoing president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. "Coaches have voiced concern among themselves that there was probably going to be another big blowup in college basketball in the betting scene."
The game's very nature makes it appealing to underworld types out to make a quick buck. Not only are opportunities to manipulate the score more numerous than in football, where touchdowns and field goals are relatively few and far between, but every player on the floor gets a chance to handle the ball -- to throw away a pass or miss a shot.
A player can sometimes have his cake and eat it, too -- on one hand retaining the satisfaction that comes from winning, while on the other, winning by less to collect a payoff.
"There's just too much easy money around, and everybody wants a piece of it. That's the way the scandal happened before," says Knight, a student of college basketball history, including those gloomy days in 1951 when players from City College of New York (winner of both the NCAA and National Invitation Tournament championships), Kentucky, and other schools were implicated in point shaving.
"Kids were being given money for this and that and finally somebody said here's more money if you win by 12 tonight instead of 20.
"Somebody tells the kid, 'Look how much money the university is making off you, so why shouldn't you make some too?'"
The Boston College players who allegedly shaved points "probably made about $ 10,000 each," according to a published account by Henry Hill, the self-proclaimed instigator of the illegal scheme.
Sometimes players can be used without knowing it, as when a gambler, pretending to be a sportswriter, asks for inside information on a team's physical condition.
"That type of information is privileged," Harshman says, "and if it's to be given out, it should be given out simultaneously to all legitimate news outlets by the school's sports information office."
"Before the season," he continued, "most teams are given a lecture about gambling. If a player is approached with any unusual requests, even in the most innocent way, he is instructed to tell the coach. The coach, in turn, tells the athletic director, who informs the FBI."
Players, of course, might understandably be confused about what's right and wrong, legal and illegal, when it comes to gambling. After all, many major newspapers carry point spreads. In addition, some publications, called tout sheets, exist for the sole purpose of advising gamblers, even though betting on sports is illegal in most states.
As controversial as Knight is, his crusade against such sheets has won him the admiration of many colleagues.
During a coaches' press conference here, he asked if anyone from the Gold Sheet had surfaced. That no one had was not surprising, considering his repeated attacks on the publication. Some schools have joined Knight in his campaign by refusing to issue game credentials to tip sheets.
Of course, it's one thing to keep such a visible enemy at bay and quite another to root out invisible gambling interests that would corrupt the game.
Unfortunately, college basketball's popularity makes the sport more attractive to this element, since increased TV exposure widens the circle of bettors, as well as encourages efforts to rig the game's outcome.
What worries Harshman, who has been in coaching 36 years, is that the college athletic environment leaves some players susceptible to easy-money ploys.
"Because the recruiting of these kids is so intense," he explains, "they wind up believing they're living in an unreal world, a Utopia. Sometimes there's an implied payoff for signing, and when a player doesn't get it, he feels used. He may even see the coach rewarded for endorsing a product and wonder, 'Why don't I get the money?'"
Ultimately, the culprit in this distortion of values may be the misplaced emphasis on won-lost records.
The vicious chain reaction begins when the coach is driven to agonize over "the bottom line."
"Fear becomes even a greater factor for assistant coaches," Harshman says, "because they know they'd better come back with some good recruits or see the team go down the tube, and their job with it."
Once a program's integrity is compromised, insidious outside influences may have an easier time of selling players on point shaving.
Indirectly, then, one of the best ways to lessen the threat of corruption may be to give coaches more job security, Harshman feels.
North Carolina coach Dean Smith said as much when he expressed support for enlarging the NCAA's 48-team tournament field. "With 64 teams playing, coaches would be harder to fire."