THE FIRST WEEK of the NCAA tournament won't be the same this year at Jody's Club Forest, an old-fashioned wood-paneled Irish bar on Staten Island. Around 1978 the owner of the shamrock-festooned tavern, Jody Haggerty, began organizing a March Madness pool (first-year prize: $880) that grew ... and grew ... and grew, until the pot in last year's $10-a-pop contest exceeded a Powerballesque $1 million. Alas, the success of Jody's pool was also its downfall, and the Staten Island institution—perhaps the highest-stakes NCAA pool of its kind—is no more. "The pool's off," Haggerty, 58, said last week, and though he politely declined to elaborate, sources said the Internal Revenue Service began poking around after one recent champ reported his winnings. Pity, because the annual event was a cultural heirloom that brought together housewives, cops and Wall Street bankers. The first Friday of the NCAAs (the deadline for entries) was always a circus, with hundreds of participants snaking down Forest Avenue to celebrate an unofficial holiday.
Jody's pool wasn't a typical bracket contest. Participants simply picked the Final Four, along with a champion and the total score of the final game as tiebreakers. NCAA pools are legal in New York State as long as organizers don't take a cut and money doesn't change hands in a licensed establishment. (The Staten Island pool took entries in a dry cleaner's next to the bar.) In 2004 Haggerty—a jovial raconteur who's served as the grand marshal of Staten Island's St. Patrick's Day parade—told SI, "My biggest source of pride is that people trust playing here." With one notable exception, the pool ran very smoothly.
When the competition first started, Haggerty would stash the prize money in all manner of hiding places. "House safes, under beds, in attics," he says. "It was so innocent. I'd meet the winners outside and hand 'em the bag, and nobody knew what was going on." By the early '90s, though, the cash pot had grown. One year, when it was $240,000, he entrusted it to the care of a nun. Big mistake. "It was the only time I ever got robbed," Haggerty said. "She took maybe $16,000. She's not alive anymore, so I hate to badmouth her. She put money into convents and schools, but what went down, went down. I never talked to her again, but I can't say that when she died, I hated her either."
Haggerty (right, with pal Eddie O'Hare) organized the contest at histavern.