NCAA Investigation Brings Dark Cloud over University of Miami

Howard BurnsCorrespondent IAugust 18, 2011

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 11:  Quarterback Jacory Harris #12 of the Miami Hurricanes passes the ball against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on September 11, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Nevin Shapiro is a convicted cheat who took other people’s money and used it to portray a lavish lifestyle unbefitting of his diminutive stature as a person (he’s 5-foot-5) and human being.

Along the way he apparently entranced a coterie of awestruck student-athletes whose school now stands on the precipice of being hit with some of the harshest sanctions an athletic program can endure.

Shapiro, 42, is serving a 20-year prison sentence in New Jersey for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme. In an extensive interview with Yahoo! Sports, he claimed he gave money, gifts and other benefits, including prostitutes, cars and yachting excursions to at least 72 University of Miami athletes from 2002 to 2010, including 12 current members (10 potential starters) of the football team.

UM now finds itself squarely in the scope of the NCAA, which acknowledged it’s been investigating the allegations for five months.

There are so many moving pieces to this story that any rush to judgement would be foolhardy. Only a vindictive hanger-on like Shapiro would glibly bring up the notion of UM getting the so-called “death penalty” from the NCAA, as he did in the Yahoo! interview. While that is unlikely, what first-year coaches Al Golden (football) and Jim Larranaga (basketball) need to be most concerned about are the loss of scholarships and lucrative postseason appearances.

According to various reports, UM first contacted the NCAA in August 2010 when it first got a whiff of the allegations. It was then Shapiro told the Miami Herald he was writing a tell-all book in which he would disclose how UM had violated a long list of NCAA rules. Shapiro said he decided to write the book because he felt betrayed by former UM football players after they made it in the NFL.

Among the current NFL stars named by Shapiro in the Yahoo! story are Vince Wilfork, Antrel Rolle, Kellen Winslow Jr., Andre Johnson, Jon Beason and Devin Hester.

Maria Elena Perez, Shapiro’s attorney, claimed in an interview with WTVJ in Miami that former head football coaches Randy Shannon and Larry Coker (currently the head coach at the University of Texas-San Antonio) and former head basketball coach Frank Haith (now at the University of Missouri) each knew about the gifts.

Of the three, only Haith is implicated by Shapiro in the Yahoo! story, along with six former assistants. Haith said he has been contacted by the NCAA; Coker, through a UTSA spokesman, said he has not. Shannon hasn’t publicly commented.

Former UM athletic director Kirby Hocutt, who left the program in February after three years to take the same post at Texas Tech, told the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal he had no knowledge of any improprieties involving Shapiro and any UM players or coaches.

Hocutt also strongly denied an allegation in an Associated Press story in which an unnamed source said he approved much of Shapiro’s access to the program. As an athletic booster, Shapiro donated $150,000 to the program, a gift that earned him naming rights to a student lounge for a brief time.

“He was no different than any other donor at those levels,” Hocutt told the Avalanche-Journal. “At Miami, one of the higher giving levels is a ‘Golden Cane’ and there are over 200 Golden Canes within the athletic program.

“There are special events throughout the course of the year that Golden Cane members receive access and invitations to, so as a Golden Cane you’re going to receive those invitations. There was never any special access. There were never any special experiences provided to this individual that weren’t provided to other donors at his level. None.”

Hocutt said he didn’t know why the NCAA waited more than six months to begin a formal investigation, and added his decision to leave UM for Texas Tech had nothing to do with the Shapiro situation.

Texas Tech is standing behind Hocutt, who explained to the Lubbock paper why the Shapiro probe didn’t come up during the hiring process at Tech.

“It wasn’t on my radar screen, because seven months had elapsed from the allegations to the time that I came to Texas Tech, and there were no further allegations made or questions come forward relating to this situation,” Hocutt said. “It was accusations from a convicted felon that stole $930 million that was being made from jail. It wasn’t an active case. It wasn’t an open case.”

Meanwhile, UM insiders told the Miami Herald that Shapiro was more groupie than well-meaning donor. A member of Shannon’s coaching staff who asked to remain anonymous said Shannon met with Shapiro once, and was turned off by the booster’s arrogance. Shannon, the source said, warned his players to stay away from Shapiro and never had any further dealings with him.

“Randy ran him off from the program and he was still around these kids,’’ former UM quarterback Gino Torretta told the Herald. “He never liked him one bit. So, the head coach does that, but is there a follow-up to that?’’

The subject of the Shapiro investigation didn’t come up during Golden’s interview process either, according to the current coach, who was hired by Hocutt and UM president Donna Shalala in December after a successful stint at Temple University.

Golden has maintained tremendous reserve and focus in the wake of the scandal. Not only is he weeks away from beginning his first season as the Hurricanes’ coach, but he and his staff have secured 24 oral commitments for the 2012 season from some of the nation’s top high school players. Being non-binding, oral commitments are always iffy; under a cloud of sanctions, they are precarious.

The 12 current UM players implicated by Shapiro remain eligible and each was on the practice field Wednesday. Interestingly, players at other programs who were recruited by and/or played for UM and singled out by Shapiro have already been cleared of wrongdoing by their respective schools. They include Kansas State’s brother tandem of Arthur and Bryce Brown, Central Florida’s Jeffrey Godfrey, Florida’s Andre Debose and Purdue’s Robert Marve.

As UM cooperates with the NCAA on its investigation, it must determine how much access Shapiro actually had and how he got it. If any or all of what he alleges did occur, UM’s lack of adequate internal controls will cause great embarrassment and residual hardship to an athletic program that until this week looked ready to turn a corner with the arrivals of two highly respected and dynamic new coaches.

For his part, Golden said he is prepared to stay the course, ensuring that his players cooperate with the investigation while continuing to prepare for the Sept. 5 opener at Maryland. UM hopes he has the chance to build a winner, but Golden has to be wondering if he’ll be expected to do it with one arm tied behind his back.

The day is not far off when the legendary Joe Paterno, now 84, will finally step down as head coach at Penn State. A former Nittany Lion tight end and Paterno assistant, Golden will surely be on the short list of potential successors. It would be hard to imagine him turning down the Penn State job if offered. But if UM ends up losing a substantial amount of scholarships, it would be hard to blame Golden if he left for any major program.

It’s hard to dispute the need for dramatic changes in major college athletics. University presidents, NCAA officials and the media talk about it ad nauseum, but no one pulls the trigger. The money and the gifts and the favors have been institutionalized for decades and the only reason there aren’t more scandals—and there are plenty already—is that people don’t get caught.

Sure, you have empathy for the student-athletes who don’t receive even a token stipend while the institutions they play for are reaping enormous financial benefits that continue to soar with each new TV contract.

But at the end of the day, how can these athletes not fully appreciate and give value to a subsidized education and the opportunity for at least some to go on to the professional ranks and make the kind of living only a relative few can?

If the hammer comes down on UM, each and every individual implicated has to take a step back and consider what their actions (or non-actions, as the case may be) have done to their school and those who’ll have to pay the freight.

For a program like UM’s, which has been fighting to stay above mediocrity on both the gridiron and hardwood in recent years, harsh punishment by the NCAA will be nothing short of devastating.

Editor’s note: This writer is a graduate of the University of Miami, Class of 1983.

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