06/12/2003 12:00AM

Vegas not to blame for NCAA gambling

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This is the equivalent of winning a gunfight without firing a shot.

Nevada's sports betting industry has registered several recent victories in its battle against those who want to outlaw college sports betting in the state - primarily the NCAA, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), and U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne (R.-Neb.).

Nevada and its legislators haven't had to do a thing. They've just had to sit back and watch the NCAA and its arguments implode.

For the last three years in this battle, the rhetoric has basically been the same. The NCAA and its supporters have maintained that Nevada is the root of all evil when it comes to college sports betting. They have said that if it's made illegal in Nevada, then there won't be a mixed message sent to the youth of America, illegal bookies won't have a place to lay off their big bets, and the problem will somehow go away. The NCAA claimed it had to do this to "protect the integrity of college athletics."

Nevada has countered that the real problem is the illegal gambling on college campuses, that even more illegal gambling will be done if the one legal outlet is eliminated, and that the state's sports books help uncover scandals. "The NCAA needs to clean its own house first," was the mantra of the Nevada delegation.

Osborne, the former Nebraska football coach, said Wednesday that he wasn't confident in getting support for his bill in the House.

It was probably no small coincidence that this came on the heels of the gambling trial of Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson last week and the scandal surrounding Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel, who took part in auction-style March Madness pools for the past two years. Neuheisel said Wednesday night that he was told he would be fired.

McPherson was accused of betting on his team's games on an offshore Internet site. The case ended in mistrial as the jury was deadlocked 5-1 on conviction. The state will retry the case, a development that is probably troubling for the NCAA since it was hoping the case would be resolved and go away.

I'm still surprised to see and hear news reports that say Florida State was 3-1 in games that McPherson started. That's true, but the more pertinent stat is that the Seminoles were 1-3 against the spread in those games. (One of the non-covers landed right around the number, so depending on where it was bet, it could be claimed they were 1-2-1.) All records apparently show that McPherson was betting on his own team, so he hasn't been accused of throwing any games. Just of betting ... and losing.

Neuheisel is a rare breed: someone who has gotten in trouble for being a winning gambler. Look at the gambling scandals in recent years and they all involve people known for losing more than they won: Art Schlichter, Pete Rose, the Arizona State fixers, and McPherson. According to the latest reports, Neuheisel and three of his buddies put up $6,400 on the last two NCAA tournaments and won $12,123. But instead of being praised, he's being fired.

The NCAA has its rules and has to publicly remain tough on gambling, even while it gleefully cashes the checks for the $6 billion television contract it receives from CBS because of all the gamblers out there watching every game.

Scandals involving college coaches have been happening all spring. Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy was fired for his repeated and very public partying with coeds on various campuses. Alabama football coach Mike Price, who never coached a game for the Tide and was Neuheisel's in-state rival at Washington State the past three seasons, was fired for reportedly spending time with strippers.

None of the scandals has had any connection to Las Vegas, and no amount of spin control can help the NCAA at this point.

College coaches are obviously on guard, so it will be interesting to see how many of them actually show up in Sin City this summer for a number of basketball camps. The biggest one is the July 22-26 Big Time Tournament, which involves 344 of the nation's top prep basketball teams (approximately 4,200 players) playing a total of 856 games at 13 area high schools. Past players have included Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Lamar Odom, and, more recently, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

So, it's natural that just about every major college coach has been seen scouting young talent at the gyms and then hitting the town at night. Past attendees have included Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bob Knight, Rick Majerus, Eddie Sutton, and many others.

You can be sure a pack of reporters will be staking out the casinos and peeking in the gentlemen's clubs (strictly for professional reasons, of course) while the coaches are in town. The NCAA would be wise to instruct its coaches to stay in their hotel rooms.

Of course, maybe the NCAA is privately hoping that problems do happen in Las Vegas - then it could try to make Nevada a scapegoat again and deflect criticism from itself.