Bad Bet: A Fixer And His Losses

Kevin Pendergast wore no. 12 when he kicked the winning field goal for Notre Dame in the 1994 Cotton Bowl. Five years later he got a new number: 11057424. Those eight digits were his federal prison ID while he served two months for conspiring to fix three Northwestern University basketball games. Pendergast went from college football's most hallowed field to cleaning latrines in an upstate New York penitentiary. "I was out of control," Pendergast told NEWSWEEK last week, shortly after his release from prison.

Pendergast, who turned 28 in the medium-security jail, says he hears it all the time: what's a nice kid like you doing in a mess like this? Where Pendergast grew up in suburban Connecticut, gambling was in the air, from the state Lotto to the casinos run by Native Americans. Betting sports was Pendergast's "itch"; in high school, he ran a $2 NCAA basketball pool. At Notre Dame, the marketing major learned about point spreads and over/under bets. Pendergast used to get so nervous when he had money down, he says, that he could no longer watch sports on TV with his father and brothers. "You think you're in control because you know sports," he says. "But you can never predict.''

Pendergast seems small for an athlete. His chiseled good looks and self-confidence seem at odds with how tense he gets talking about his "despicable" behavior. He'd bet $500 to $1,000 a weekend in college, he says, but it wasn't until he graduated and moved to Chicago that he got his first credit cards and started "leveraging to the max" to cover his bets, which got him some $10,000 into debt. Creditors were calling his loft constantly. Every time he lost, he had to pay "the juice"--a 10 percent fee to a bookie. An acquaintance told Pendergast that Northwestern basketball player Dion Lee, a kid from a Louisville housing project, had gambling debts and was disgruntled with his coach. With just two phone calls, Pendergast got Lee to shave points for cash. Pendergast broke even on the first game and won about $10,000 on the second. Pumped up, he flew to Las Vegas to watch the Wildcats play Michigan. Then, he says, "my gambling fortunes turned." For all Lee's efforts to miss a shot here and play weak defense there, Northwestern lost by only 17 points. Not enough to keep Pendergast from losing $20,000. Then, he says, he quit betting and moved to California and started teaching private school in Los Olivos.

But the FBI eventually caught up with him there. A Northwestern running back named Dennis Lundy had bet $400 against his team, then deliberately fumbled in a 1994 game against Iowa. That suspicious miscue eventually led the Feds to campus bookie Brian Ballarini, then to Lee and Pendergast. Last week Ballarini was sentenced to three years' probation for campus bookmaking; Lundy, charged with perjury, will be sentenced in May. Lee served one month in jail. All told, the three-year FBI investigation at NU has led eight students to plead guilty to gambling-related crimes over the last year. When the Feds finally nabbed him in 1998, Pendergast couldn't stop shaking. "In a way, I was tremendously relieved," he says.

Pendergast isn't the only college kid--and Northwestern isn't the only school--with a gambling problem. Experts estimate that some 30 percent of college students bet once a week, mostly on sports. The rate is closer to 50 percent for college athletes. Other betting scandals have tarnished schools, such as Arizona State and Boston College. The FBI recently investigated UCLA football players for point shaving (they found none), warning some team members to stop partying with a reputed Colombo crime-family captain. "We are on the verge of a crisis," says the NCAA's anti-gambling enforcer, Bill Saum. "Gambling is the biggest threat to college sports."

For his part, Pendergast hopes the tell-all book he's writing will make enough to pay back his dad, who covered his losses. "Gambling and being in debt lead you to do desperate things,'' he says. "You get outside yourself.'' Are his betting days over? Pendergast shrugs his shoulders and says: "To say I'm completely cured would be to predict the future."