She stands barely five feet tall, but she tackled healthcare and welfare as a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet. She played second base for the West Boulevard Annie Oakleys as a kid in Cleveland in the 1950s. She lived in a mud hut and coached soccer in Iran while serving in the Peace Corps in the 1960s.
It should come as no surprise, then, that University of Miami President Donna Shalala — a power-broker they call “Boom Boom” — was unafraid to take on the NCAA over the Nevin Shapiro booster investigation.
Tuesday morning, after accepting the NCAA’s sanctions against the Hurricanes athletic program and deeming them “fair,” Shalala told the Miami Herald “it was very clear we broke NCAA rules, and we admitted that and were penalized appropriately for it.”
She then apologized to the fans and community, shed light on how she handled media criticism, and explained what she and the school had learned from the scandal and how they are working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Shalala drew on her experience as a shrewd politician throughout the 2 ½-year saga, calculating every move with the help of her legal staff.
She firmly stood her ground from the start. When she had to, she went on the attack, criticizing the NCAA investigative process with pointed statements last February.
With each swing, the 72-year-old Shalala became more of a hero to the UM faithful, who revel in the Hurricane tradition of swagger and feistiness.
Tuesday morning, as news of the NCAA’s sanctions against the UM program began to spread, callers on sports talk radio praised Shalala’s toughness the way they would a Hurricanes linebacker after a memorable tackle. It was a far cry from the harsh criticism she faced when the scandal became public in August 2011. Then, many fans on the same radio shows called for her ouster.
A “Fire Donna Shalala” page showed up on Facebook that summer, with comments such as: “She ruined the athletic program and is going to stand quietly by while the kids take the fall. Who’s going to force her to answer for herself?”
Shalala was under so much fire that Leonard Abess, chairman of UM’s Board of Trustees, released a “vote of confidence” statement urging the university community to stand behind its leadership.
Shalala has been in politics long enough to know how to navigate the court of public opinion. Although she is friendly, she is not swayed by emotion. She was taught to be tough by her mother, Edna, who is 102 years old, practiced law until age 90, played competitive tennis well into her 80s, and was one of the first Arab-Americans to graduate from Ohio State.
Like her mother, Shalala, of Lebanese Catholic roots, has busted through glass ceilings her entire life, never caring too much about what people think of her. She was the first Arab-American to serve in a Cabinet position when Clinton named her secretary of Health and Human Services. She was the first woman to lead a Big 10 college — the University of Wisconsin.
“No one likes to be criticized, but I’m sort of used to being criticized,” Shalala told the Herald in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I’ve been in public office for a very long period of time. I don’t take it personally. I know people have our best interest at heart, and they were disgusted and upset. It’s part of the responsibility of a leader to take both the praise and the criticism.”