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Wholly Toledo - MAC School's Football-Program Picture Grows Murkier...By Nelson Lardner
Just when the Tim Donaghy/NBA story was receding into the background, just a bit - at least, it appeared that way, while we apprehensively await the next dribble of potentially-relevant information to come to the surface - the ESPN.com reporting team of Mike Fish and George J. Tanber comes on with the latest summary/update on news developments which may have affected the University of Toledo's athletic program . . . (http://www.sports.espn.go.com/espn/p...14&type=story).
As far as athletes in the picture are concerned, the investigation's primary spotlight originally fell on ex-Rocket running back Harvey "Scooter" McDougle Jr. and his reported associations with Detroit businessman and Rocket-program adherent Ghazi "Gary" Manni. Questions linger about McDougle possibly acting as a liason with one or more Toledo varsity basketball players, as well.
But more recent leaks have also brought the name of the program's 2003-05 starting quarterback, Bruce Gradkowski, into the conversation. Gradkowski, currently holding a backup spot on the Tampa Bay Bucs' offensive depth chart, is reportedly an object of curiousity in relation to his playing time contributions (or lack of same) in specific Rocket games which have attracted the attention of federal investigators. Unlike McDougle, Gradkowski has never been subject to charges in relation to these matters.
But some important, powerful folks remain concerned as questions linger. Even last October, well past the conclusions of the collegiate athletic careers of both McDougle and/or Gradkowski, high-level conversations between NCAA representation and the Toledo brass centered around Las Vegas reports of substantial, extraordinary action on last October 14's matchup between the Rockets and Kent State, a game the Golden Flashes won going away, 40-14, as seven-point favorites . . . a game now fading from broad relevance, especially when compared to a handful of other contests.
We encourage all to read the latest ESPN.com story, linked above, in detail. Fish and Tanber have been on this story from the get-go, and did their job to the letter, in their latest.
Toledo's 2004 swan song in the Motor City Bowl versus the developing Connecticut Huskies was one of those games which is drawing sustained attention.
You'll recall that McDougle incurred a severe ACL injury in the final stages of the MAC title game that season, as the Rockets held off Miami (O), 35-27, a win leading directly to the Detroit matchup with UConn. Toledo - the established quantity, versus the upstart - were installed as field-goal-plus faves.
Many handicappers - myself, included - wondered why. The injury angle-shooters were eager to jump with this dog, as well, with McDougal out of commission - and with Gradkowski having broken his throwing hand in the MAC championship. There was sustained public speculation, going in, as to just how effective Gradkowski would be, under the conditions. Everyone - including Gary Manni, for whom tickets were left at Ford Field, according to the ESPN story - found out, soon enough. Gradkowski went 6-12 for some seven yards per completion before being pulled, and the rest of the squad looked equally lame. UConn vaulted ahead, 17-0, before 15 minutes had elapsed, established a 23-point lead by half, and strolled home . . . the ultimate underdog "cigar" game, from all aspects.
It was 2005 when the warning flags were flying. Many eyes remain on Toledo's Game Three matchup with Temple, in Philadelphia. Favored by more than four TDs in early trading, the woeful Owls were an inordinately-popular side, driven down to the (consensus) +25 neighborhood, by the close. Chalkeaters were snickering when behind Gradkowski, Toledo sprang out to a 28-0 lead within twenty minutes of the opening kick. But one Temple tackle apparently gave the Toledo QB a concussion in the second quarter. He sat out the second half, and most Toledo backers got backdoored when Temple scored the final TD on the way to a 42-17 final.
The dropoff on the Toledo depth chart at QB was huge. With Gradkowski a belated scratch at Fresno State in Game Four, the Bulldogs were a wildly-popular play, and the home team covered their low-double-digit spread with ease, 44-14. And on the heels of that display, the MGM Mirage group in Las Vegas excised Toledo from their football betting boards for the remainder of the season.
At this point, given the set of facts which have emerged, this has all the appearances of a classic case of a gambler or gamblers making nice/cozying up to student-athletes in positions of influence, in hopes of picking up crucial bits of information strong enough to provide megawatt illumination of the possessor's path in quest of pointspread salvation. A correct read of prevailing injury data could have led many a learned practitioner to UConn in the Motor City and onto Fresno State, early the subsequent season. And as for the Rockets' big win over UTEP in the '05 GMAC Bowl (another spotlighted game, due to unnatural money showing on Toledo) . . . we're aware that much of the focus on that game traces to a wiretap of a conversation (involving Manni) reflecting strong bullish sentiment on the Rockets' chances in that matchup . . . but you have a problem with a team TRYING? It's the natural expectation, for heaven's sake.
For the dedicated conspiracy theorists, it's the Temple game which sticks out, with Gradkowski's level of performance falling off the table in the second quarter, the minimal Toledo offensive production thereafter, and the two Temple TD drives - the first comprised primarily of a 78-yard run to paydirt, distinctive for the multiple examples of shoddy tackling therein, and the second (62-yard) drive for the final (covering!) score of the game in garbage time.
The powers that be are compelled to keep poking at this mess. They'd be negligent of their duties, not to do so. At least one wholly-pro-MAC dismissal of the circumstances I've seen online is willfully unheeding of associated, flashing danger signals. Yet, as is the case with the recent Nikolay Davydenko pro-tennis strangeness, looks and circumstantial evidence are one thing . . . proof, quite another. Easy access to college sports stars by interesting characters is one thing; deliberate, non-injury-related subpar performances for what we will hypothetically term as nefarious purposes, quite another. Let the process run its course. It's worthy of the people's attention - and, obviously, yours. Every lifer involved wants to believe the best. Here's hoping.
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