Friend: Betting pool was 'social event'

Updated: February 8, 2005, 10:31 PM ET
Associated Press

KENT, Wash. -- A friend of Rick Neuheisel testified Tuesday that the Washington football coach was on his betting team, which correctly picked three Final Four teams in 2002 and again in 2003 in auction-style NCAA basketball pools.

Seattle real estate developer Tim O'Keefe, on the witness stand in Neuheisel's trial against the university and NCAA, said that kind of success was unprecedented in the pool, which he said went back to 1983.

"Do you attribute that to your sharp knowledge of basketball?" asked Neuheisel's lawyer, Cyrus Vance Jr.

"I would say luck," O'Keefe said.

Neuheisel is suing the university and NCAA in King County Superior Court, claiming he was unfairly fired in June 2003. That month, he told NCAA investigators he didn't bet on NCAA basketball but then recanted.

The NCAA prohibits gambling on college sports by coaches, athletes and athletic department staffers at member schools. O'Keefe testified he didn't believe Neuheisel was breaking any laws or rules.

"We had seen an article where this type of auction is legal in the state of Washington because all the money is paid out," he said.

O'Keefe agreed it was "highly unusual" that the same four-man team could select three of the Final Four participants in each of two consecutive years, but he rejected the notion that Neuheisel had inside knowledge.

"No more than anyone else," O'Keefe told Vance.

Their team also successfully bid for the eventual NCAA champion in each of those years, picking Maryland in 2002 and Syracuse in 2003.

About 40 people usually attended the auctions, O'Keefe said, including former Seattle SuperSonics star Jack Sikma, now an assistant with the NBA team. Participants munched on pizza, drank beer or soda and laughed a lot.

"It's just a great time," O'Keefe said.

University lawyer Lou Peterson tried to give jurors several reasons to question O'Keefe's credibility.

O'Keefe testified he began attending the event as early as 1983. But he admitted under questioning by Peterson that he had told Pac-10 investigator Ron Barker his first appearance was in 2001.

Peterson also focused on a detail from O'Keefe: that his team bid on Miami's basketball team in 2003. O'Keefe said other participants teased Neuheisel because Washington's football team had lost 62-7 to Miami in 2001.

"I remember someone saying, 'Rick, this is your opportunity to own Miami.' It was a big joke," O'Keefe recalled.

Peterson pointed out that the final score of Miami's win over Washington was actually 65-7. He also noted that Miami's basketball team reached the NCAA tournament in 2002, not 2003 as O'Keefe maintained.

O'Keefe shrugged off the amount of money he and Neuheisel paid into the pool, characterizing the auction as "a social event" despite a $65,000 pot in 2003. He said Neuheisel didn't bring a checkbook one year, so he covered the coach's entry fee.

Neuheisel paid O'Keefe $2,790, and jurors were shown a copy of the canceled check. They also saw copies of two checks from Neuheisel's 2003 winnings, written for $3,920 and $2,550.

O'Keefe indicated he and Neuheisel each had net winnings of $4,799 in 2002 and $7,324 in 2003.

Over two seasons, their team had gross winnings of $18,523, but bids were subtracted from winnings -- a net of $12,123. But the money wasn't as important to O'Keefe as seeing old friends and having fun.

"I know we're fortunate and lucky to win this money," O'Keefe testified. "I've been fortunate. I don't pay attention to this type of money."

Earlier, Assistant Attorney General Karin Nyrop testified that Neuheisel's gambling was played up by university officials at NCAA and Pac-10 hearings because the school wanted to address potential NCAA rules violations.

Nyrop said the university included concerns about Neuheisel's dishonesty while presenting its case at a December 2003 hearing with the Pac-10 and during a June 2004 appearance before the NCAA's infractions committee.

On Monday, Nyrop confirmed to Neuheisel's lawyers that the school cited his gambling in closed-door Pac-10 and NCAA hearings while maintaining publicly that dishonesty was the main reason the coach was fired.

Peterson asked if the focus of the Pac-10 hearing was Neuheisel's contract.

"No, that hearing was not to determine his employment contract. That hearing was to determine the extent of NCAA rules violations," she explained.

Nyrop also testified she had concerns about the truthfulness of an affidavit by football secretary Liz Zelinski. The document stated Neuheisel had read a March 13, 2003, e-mail by former UW compliance director Dana Richardson.

The e-mail, which approved gambling in college basketball pools in contradiction to NCAA rules, is a key piece of evidence. Neuheisel says he relied on it before taking part in the auctions.

"I had concerns about it because Mr. Neuheisel had not said previous to the declaration by Ms. Zelinski that he had relied on it," Nyrop said.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press