‘Bet 10 Grand If You Want’: The Best Betting Stories From Super Bowl III, Namath’s Upset of the Century
Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Joe Namath
- Fifty years ago, Joe Namath and the New York Jets pulled off an improbable win as 18-point underdogs against the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
- These are the stories of those who won -- and lost -- big one of the most shocking upsets ever.
IT’S THE FIRST week of January 1969 and Super Bowl III is just days away.
Norton Peppis and John McGuire, owners of the one of the most popular bars in New York, are thinking about how much to bet.
Peppis and McGuire do this everyday. Betting is as common for them as pouring a drink. Peppis is a well-known gambler who specializes in horses; McGuire is a former cop turned barkeep whose brothers happen to be two of the biggest names in basketball: Dick, who coached the Knicks from 1965-68, and Al, coach at Marquette.
The bet will be large, but Peppis hasn’t decided what side he will fall on.
He needs some more “research.”
The next day, McGuire can be found inside the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel right on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, scouting the Jets players — looking at their faces, their demeanor.
He asks himself: Are they ready for this game? Are we willing to bet on them?
THE NARRATIVE AROUND the greatest upset in the history of sports, which also happened to propel the Super Bowl into the stratosphere, began with a column by Joe Falls, the sports editor of the Detroit Free Press, whose piece ran in newspapers across the country.
On December 30, 1968, under the headline “It Could Finish Colts 270, Jets 0,” he wrote:
“If you think Green Bay was something in those first two Super Bowls, wait’ll you see what the Colts do to the Jets. The Legion Of Decency may have to step in and ban the picture in living picture in the living rooms of our land. They won’t need a scoreboard down there — they’ll need a computer to keep up with the Colts.”
The next day, “Jimmy The Greek,” a man who rose to prominence after his prediction, in 1943, that a Great Lakes team would cover a 19-point spread against Notre Dame (they actually beat the Fighting Irish), boldly announced to Dave Anderson of the New York Times, that he thought the Colts should be favored by 17 points.
“I gave a four-point edge to the Colt front four,” The Greek reasoned. “Four to their linebackers and four to their cornerbacks and safetymen.
“I also give the two points for their offensive backs. That’s a total of 14 points and add three for intangibles — the NFL mystique and Don Shula’s coaching.”
The Jets didn’t get any points back because he thought the special teams were similarly positioned, and while he gave Joe Namath five points and the Colts starting quarterback Earl Morrall three points, he awarded the Colts two points for having a backup in Johnny Unitas.
The Greek’s opinion carried across the country.
“It was the biggest publicity a point spread had ever gotten up until that point,” said Hall of Fame broadcaster Brent Musburger, now managing editor and lead voice of the Vegas Sports Information Network, who was then writing for SPORT magazine. “I don’t even remember anyone talking about the point spreads for the first two Super Bowls.”
It was, in fact, rarely mentioned.
Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers covered as 14-point favorites over the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967 and 15-point favorites in 1968.
Musburger said that while “The Greek” gets credit for the line, it was actually made by Bob Martin of the Churchill Downs Sportsbook. Martin was dubbed “Mr. Oddsmaker” at the time and was the guy all football oddsmakers looked to.
“No one was questioning it,” Musburger said. “You had Lombardi’s NFL and no one thought the AFL was a comparison, including (commissioner) Pete Rozelle, who said himself he was thinking about playing the two best NFL teams in the Super Bowl until the AFL was better.”
The line quickly moved up to Colts -18.
THREE DAYS BEFORE the Super Bowl, there were just three reporters in the room at the Miami Springs Villas to watch Namath be honored as the Miami Touchdown Club’s “Most Outstanding Professional Football Player of 1968” — Musburger, Dave Anderson and Luther Evans for the Miami Herald.
Namath said a couple of words and planned a hasty retreat. But, after a heckler screamed the Jets were about to get killed, he fired back.
“You can be the greatest athlete in the world, but if you don’t win those football games, it doesn’t mean anything,” Namath said. “We are going to win Sunday, I guarantee you.”
“I didn’t think anything of it — didn’t seem to be news to me,” Musburger recalled. “Dave didn’t even call it in or put it in the Times at all.”
Evans, however, saw it differently. His front-page column in the late-edition of the Herald screamed, “I Guarantee We’ll Win — NAMATH.”
It was classic Namath. How much would bettors buy in?
JOE NAMATH DID personally get two bettors to wager on the game.
In the first couple days of 1969, before the Jets departed to Miami, Namath was at Bill’s Meadowbrook bar by Hofstra University, where the team practiced.
It was there that the bartender, named Al “Tank” Passuello, pridefully told Namath he was taking the Jets thanks to the fact that he was getting 18 points.
Namath was confused.
“Points?” Namath asked, according to the account by Mark Kriegel in Namath’s biography. “What are you talking about points?”
“We’re gonna win straight,” Namath said. “Bet it. Bet the ranch.”
Namath got Tank to believe it, so he went around the restaurant and collected $3,000 and took the Jets to win. The bet netted $21,000.
Namath also got to Bob Skaff, president of Liberty Records, who told Namath he would bet $1,000 on the Jets getting 7-1 on the moneyline.
“Al, listen to me you’ve got nothing to worry about,” Kreidler wrote that Namath said. “Bet 10 grand if you want. We will beat this team.”
But most didn’t believe Namath’s guarantee or his personal talks. Of the 55 writers who were polled before the game, 49 picked the Colts. One of the most respected writers, Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule, picked the Colts 43-0.
WHILE HIS BROTHERS found their ways into Hall of Fame coaching careers, John McGuire was known as a legendary gambler.
He spent 10 years as a cop, where bragged that he led the department in most sick days. Those days coincided with big races at Aqueduct, which is where he was when he was told it was time to leave his job as a cop.
Opening a bar was a natural decision. His parents had a bar. During summers, they would rent the living quarters they had above the bar and the McGuire boys would sleep in the basement among all the beer bottles.
So he linked up with Peppis — who he met as a cop when he pulled him over for running a light — to create Pep McGuire’s on Queens Boulevard, which quickly became an important place to see and be seen.
Athletes could often be seen mixing with the other members of high society who could afford, at the time, the high price of $1 for a whiskey shot. The most mainstay of mainstays was journalist Jimmy Breslin, who, all too often, took the $3.25 ride from Manhattan to Pep’s.
But no matter how much money the two brought in, it always went out. Pep would frequently ask his wife not to go to the grocery store for a couple hours, so that he could get in a bet on a race and, hopefully, make money so that he could pay off the band, and then pay for groceries.
“A band that played five nights in July 1966 was paid six months later, the day after Super Bowl I,” according to an account in a 1967 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Pep had money on the Packers, of course.
WE KNOW WHICH side Pep and John bet in Super Bowl III thanks to this story from a 1969 issue of Sport Magazine:
“So now John McGuire patrolled the lobby of the Galt Ocean Mile, carefully inspecting each New York Jets player he saw. Now John McGuire knows athletes and their reactions quite well. The problem is, John McGuire is black Irish. He is a brooder. You will say to him, ‘How’s it going, John?’ and he will say to you ‘Terrible my life is over.’
“John truly can be comfortable only in a calamity. And thus, in Fort Lauderdale, at the ‘Galts,’ when John McGuire saw Joe Namath, who was walking casually through the lobby on Saturday afternoon, he saw the John McGuire version of Joe Namath. Namath was not walking. He was limping, limping badly. By nightfall, after several drinks, John McGuire saw a cane in Joe Namath’s hands. On Sunday morning the day of the game, John McGuire caught a glimpse of Jets going to breakfast. He saw in the faces the quantities he most associates with: Apprehension, impending doom.
“He then raced over to the Statler Hilton, where the Baltimore Colts were quartered. John McGuire was able to get a peek at John Mackey, the great Colts end, eating a steak. In John McGuire’s eyes, the steak became cold, raw meat. Out in the lobby, John saw Bubba Smith, a black tower. ‘He will destroy Namath,’ John said to himself. He ran to telephone his last minute, professional evaluation to Pep.
“‘The Jets look like they’re dying. I feel sorry for them. Geez, you look at them, their lives are done. And then you come over here and see these monsters. What is it now, 18 points? I’d make Baltimore 25.’ Pep was on the telephone until almost game time. He sat at his bar, eyes going up in his head while he tried to remember the number of another bookmaker. By game time, he had $60,000 on Baltimore.”
THE ACCOUNT WAS certainly how John McGuire saw things, but any account that day wouldn’t have favored the Jets.
On his ride to the Touchdown Club a few days before the game, Namath reportedly drank Johnny Walker out of a paper cup. He stayed out so late the day before the team picture, he missed the Jets 1969 Super Bowl photo.
Namath admitted later that year, in Playboy Magazine, that he invited a woman to stay with him in his room the night before the game.
Just a week before, a man who placed a bet on Namath’s appearance, came out a loser. New York rookie cop John Timoney spotted Namath on the street at 8 a.m., five hours before the AFC Championship game, clearly still up from the night before.
Timoney called into his bookie, knowing “The Greek” had the Jets as three-point favorites, took his inside information and happily sided with the Oakland Raiders +3.
Namath threw a fourth-quarter TD pass to Don Maynard to win the game … by four!
If John McGuire saw trouble with Namath, the confidence he saw with the Colts was also there too.
The players divided their winning Super Bowl shares, worth $15,000, before the game, with some players already bragging that they spent it. The victory party in Miami was already planned by Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom. The invite list included more than 500 people.
PRIOR TO Jan. 12, 1969, if Norton Peppis was really confident in a bet, he’d put down $2,000.
How confident were he and McGuire on the Colts as 17-point favorites? They put down $60,000. That’s the equivalent of $410,000 today.
We know how it ended, for the Jets, for Namath, for the Colts and for Pep and McGuire. With three minutes to go in the game, the Jets led 16-0, ultimately winning by nine.
As legendary Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray wrote:
“On Sunday afternoon, the canary ate the cat. The mailman bit the police dog. The minnow chased the shark out of its waters. The missionaries swallowed the cannibals. The rowboat rammed the battleship. The mouse roared, and the lion jumped on the chair and began to scream for help…It was like the turkey having the farmer for dinner, the rabbit shooting the hunter, the dove pulling the feathers out of the eagle.”
Later that month, the United Press International named Jimmy “The Greek” “Bonehead of The Year” for his 17-point spread. But the impact of the Jets’ upset was much bigger than that.
It saved the AFL, led to the NFL-AFL merger, brought gambling out of the shadows and contributed to a television contract that nearly doubled from the previous deal.
NBC Sports broadcaster Curt Gowdy called it “the most financially important game in American sports history.”
As for Pep, it was one of his biggest blows. But like so many other times, he moved things around to stay afloat.