A group of recent University of Connecticut graduates shunned the old sports gambling adage of not betting with your heart en route to a five-figure payday.
Twelve diehard fans, all of whom graduated from UConn within the past two years, put $100 each on the Huskies at 50-to-1 to win college basketball’s national championship last November at Cantor Gaming’s sports book inside the Hard Rock Hotel. Eleven of them returned Saturday to cash in on their combined winnings of $60,000.
“The plan was if we won, we’d come back to Vegas to pick up the money and have a ridiculous Memorial Day weekend,” said Harrison Fuchs, the de facto leader of the big winners. “We all thought it was a long shot, but here we are.”
Last fall, Fuchs inadvertently sparked the series of events that led to him and all his friends circling around a stack of $100 bills taller than a 12-ounce beer can. Planning a trip to Las Vegas with his sister’s boyfriend, the 22-year-old engineer decided to invite his closest Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers to come along.
Since most of them hadn’t seen one another since graduating the previous spring, the vacation didn’t take much persuasion. David Faenza, a 24-year-old environmental-company employee, saddled himself with the harder sell.
Faenza wanted to mobilize the betting effort of getting everyone behind UConn. After Fuchs and a couple of others quickly committed to spending the $100, Faenza relied on the art of peer pressure.
“Enough people started saying yes that everyone felt like they had to do it,” Faenza said.
During their trip, the friends gathered to watch UConn’s first regular-season game before placing the bets. The Huskies didn’t inspire much confidence, edging Maryland 78-77 and costing some of them money by not covering as 5.5-point favorites.
Frank Feratovic, a 23-year-old who graduated this month, had to talk himself into the wager for the sake of camaraderie after the showing.
“I was probably the least willing to do this,” Feratovic admitted. “At first, I was like ‘come on.’”
The crew was at Caesars Palace directly after the game but felt the 25-to-1 odds on UConn in the future book were insultingly low. They shopped around at other books looking for something higher than 35-to-1 to no avail until getting to the Hard Rock, where Fuchs was staying, and seeing the 50-to-1 price.
They could all agree 50-to-1 was lucrative enough.
“Well, we had one friend who didn’t do it,” Faenza snickered. “He’s probably off gutting fish somewhere right now or something.”
No one thought much about the bets during the season, partly because UConn’s erratic play made most perceive them as outside the collection of national title contenders.
The Huskies finished the regular season 24-7, getting shredded 81-48 in their final game against rival Louisville. Their odds to win the title had increased to 100-to-1 at the start of the NCAA Tournament, where they were a No. 7 seed and 5.5-point favorites over No. 10 Saint Joseph’s in the first game.
“A lot of people had Saint Joe’s beating us in the first round,” said Paul Delvecchio, a 22-year-old who works at Fidelity Investments. “I’m not going to lie, I was skeptical at a certain point too. I had them going to the Final Four and losing to Florida, which to be honest, was hopeful.”
It took a couple of lucky breaks and overtime to beat Saint Joseph’s, 89-81, and UConn was never favored in any of its next five games. But Delvecchio’s outlook changed when he saw UConn obliterate No. 2 seed Villanova, 77-65 as a 4-point underdog, in the round of 32.
“Shabazz (Napier) was rolling, and I knew it was going to cash,” Delvecchio said. “Free money from there.”
The matchup Delvecchio prognosticated formed in the Final Four against Florida. The date coincided with a formal dance held by a sorority where many of their girlfriends were members.
Most of the friends were able to get together for the national semifinal.
“Nobody danced,” said Andrew Zielinski, a 22-year-old who graduated two weeks ago. “We were all just around the TV the whole time.”
They spread out two nights later for the national championship game but kept in contact through a text-message conversation. Delvecchio wasn’t worried, noting that opponent Kentucky “was nothing.”
Zielinski attended a watch party on campus in Storrs, Conn. Fuchs caught the game with the man who brought him to Las Vegas in the first place.
“I was hyperventilating,” Fuchs said. “I walked out of the bar with my sister and her boyfriend and he said, ‘Listen to me: I’m happy you won, but if you ever have $60,000 on the line ever again, you freaking hedge the bet.’”
The idea of hedging — betting on the other side to ensure a profit — never progressed beyond a passing mention.
“There were conversations, but in the end, we all stood strong and decided not to hedge,” Delvecchio said. “Instead of hedging, I ended up betting on them in every game.”
Delvecchio made $1,200 by taking Connecticut on the point spread in all six games of the tournament, rolling over the winnings in each round. The extra earnings might have gone a long way over the weekend.
Although the 12 friends had no predetermined plans, they wanted to spend their three days in Las Vegas extravagantly. Their celebration proceedings projected to put a dent in the winnings.
“How much is to be determined,” Fuchs said. “As long as I bring back at least $100 to know I broke even.”
Fuchs and a couple of others put back their initial investment of $100 on UConn to win next year’s championship at 60-to-1. Bemoaning all the players the Huskies lost, they didn’t think it was a particularly strong wager.
But betting on their favorite team worked once, providing an unforgettable experience.
“It’s not even the money,” Feratovic said. “It’s the story behind having 11 of your best friends putting money on a bet on a whim and then having it all come to fruition. That’s an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime thing.”