UM athletics

UM recruiting scandal scars assistant coach

 

mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

For the University of Miami, the Nevin Shapiro nightmare is over.

For former Hurricanes head basketball coach Frank Haith, it’s almost over. He must serve a five-game suspension, but continues to collect his $1.6 million annual salary from the University of Missouri.

For Jorge Fernandez, it may never end.

The sleepless, tearful nights continue for the 50-year-old former UM assistant basketball coach, and he fears he may never fully recover from the collateral damage of the two-and-a-half year NCAA investigation.

His West Kendall house is headed for foreclosure. He is without health insurance, because he could afford to insure only his two daughters, Alexa, 7, and Olivia, 3. The money that he and his wife, Maritza, had put away for the girls’ education “is pretty much all gone now.” He is driving his mother’s 2006 Altima, selling sporting goods and t-shirts, wondering if he will ever be hired to coach in college again.

How desperate did times get?

“It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, but we had to do a garage sale one week because we needed money to buy groceries,’’ Fernandez, who made $138,000 as UM’s lead assistant, told the Miami Herald on Thursday in an emotional three-hour interview. It is the first time he’s spoken publicly about the UM recruiting scandal.

Fernandez expressed “tremendous regret’’ for his mistakes, revealed that he called the Hurricanes basketball office on Wednesday to apologize, broke down when describing how it has affected his family, and talked about the pressures of college basketball recruiting that lead coaches to bend and break rules.

Assistant coaches like Fernandez and former UM football assistant Aubrey Hill often take the biggest fall in NCAA investigations, wind up professionally marooned, while their bosses — sometimes equally or more guilty — land cushy jobs with handsome paychecks. Hill, now coaching at Carol City High, declined to be interviewed for this story.

When former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was dismissed in 2011 after committing NCAA recruiting violations, he got a $1 million buyout and a job as an ESPN analyst. His assistants, Steve Forbes and Jason Shay, wound up spending two seasons at North Florida State junior college in Niceville, before getting hired at better programs a few months ago.

“You can make fun of coaches, say, `Well, he’s a cheater and he got what he deserved,’ and that’s fine,’’ Fernandez said. “I’m a big boy. I can handle you saying that. I made a mistake. I’m accountable. I paid a steep price. But, there are real criminals out there, child molesters and murderers and rapists. I’m not a criminal. I broke an NCAA rule, and now I’m shut out of my profession and can’t provide for my family.’’

Fernandez then paused, buried his head into his hands and wept.

“My wife didn’t sign up for this,’’ he said, wiping his tears. “I feel awful for what it’s done to her and my kids. I’ve had my daughter ask me for some money to buy candy or a toy, and I don’t have it to give to her. That’s when you feel you’re not a good husband, not a good father. Anybody who has lost their job knows what I’m saying.

“That’s the part that bothers me. People don’t see that. There were a lot of nights when I would get up at 2 or 3 in the morning and cry. I didn’t want my wife to see, or my kids. It’s tough. Fans can be great, but they can also be very cruel. I stopped listening to radio after a while. They make you seem like you’re the worst thing that ever existed.’’

Fernandez was investigated and punished by the NCAA for redeeming his personal airline reward miles for three plane tickets — two in August 2010 for player Durand Scott and his high school coach, and one in August 2011 for the mother of player Reggie Johnson. The New York-Miami tickets for Scott and his coach were valued at $955 each, and the Greeensboro-Miami ticket for Johnson’s mother was worth $483. Scott received a six-game suspension for the impermissible benefit, and Johnson was suspended one game.

The tickets had nothing to do with Nevin Shapiro, but were discovered by the NCAA in the course of the investigation because the athletic department’s phone and e-mail records were audited and the airline confirmations went to Fernandez’s UM e-mail address.

Fernandez was also cited in the 102-page NCAA report for “knowingly furnishing false or misleading information about his involvement and knowledge of those violations’’ during his interviews. He initially denied knowing about the tickets for Scott and his coach, but later fessed up, admitting he had lied to protect them.

“When those situations came up, I was thinking about helping that kid, that coach, and that Mom, who didn’t have the means to travel,’’ Fernandez said. “There was no recruiting advantage in either case because those kids were already in our program. I’m not making excuses. I knew it was a rule, and I broke it. Under NCAA bylaws that’s wrong. But if you do that in your normal life, you transfer your frequent flier miles to someone in need, people would be applauding you.’’

He regrets that he wasn’t completely forthcoming with the NCAA.

“I didn’t want to hurt the kid, I didn’t want to hurt the coach,’’ he said. “I didn’t handle it right. Big mistake. I regret this. If I could go back, I’d change things. But the punishment I got is disappointing. I feel like I ran a stop sign and they gave me a 30-year jail sentence.’’

The NCAA hit Fernandez, who has been out of coaching for 17 months, with a two-year “Show Cause’’ penalty, which means if a school wants to hire him over the next two years, it would have to appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions, show cause to hire him, and agree to restrict his responsibilities. Most colleges don’t want to hire a coach under such conditions, so it makes it virtually impossible to get a job until the show cause order expires.

Meanwhile, the other two basketball coaches in the investigation — Haith and assistant Jake Morton — are free to coach. Haith can resume Nov. 28, and Morton received no penalty at all, even though, according to the report, Morton and Haith attended dinners, a concert and strip club with Shapiro; Morton took a $6,000 gift/loan from Shapiro; and, Morton admitted he delivered $5,000 cash to Shapiro’s mother on the booster’s behalf when the imprisoned Shapiro threatened Morton and Haith about revealing potential program violations.

The report read: “Coach A [Morton] admitted that he provided the booster’s mother with an envelope of cash. He stated the amount in the envelope was $5,000 ($3,200 summer camp advance received from the former head men’s basketball coach the same day and additional $1,800 cash he had at home].’’

The NCAA ruled that Haith “failed in his duty to promote an atmosphere for compliance…Specifically, the former head men’s basketball coach knew that the booster made threats about a potential violation in the program, the former head men’s basketball coach took steps to assist former assistant men’s basketball coach A with funds to pay the booster, rather than report any concerns to the athletics compliance office.”

Haith, in a statement, accepted responsibility “for all actions in and around that program,” but also said he “strongly” disagreed with the report and “the inference on how the program was run at the University of Miami.”

“This has been an excruciating ordeal for my family,” he said. “An appeal, which would likely drag further into the season, would only prolong what has already been a lengthy and trying period of time for our student-athletes, the University of Missouri and our fans, and it’s time for closure.”

Nobody from the Haith regime is left at the UM basketball program, which was ordered by the NCAA to give up one scholarship each of the next three years. Fernandez called Hurricanes assistant Chris Caputo on Wednesday to say he was sorry for any hardship he caused.

“They’re getting punished for someone else’s mistake, and I have to take responsibility because I was part of that,’’ he said. “I regret tremendously what happened, but I also know what type of person I am and I know I can put my head on my pillow at night. I’ve been loyal to my profession as an assistant coach. Nobody can ever say Jorge Fernandez was disloyal to the profession.’’

Former Florida A&M coach Ron Brown, who has known Fernandez a long time and is now out of coaching, said Fernandez’s unwavering loyalty wound up hurting him.

“I told Jorge, `You know when you get on an airplane and they tell you, ‘In case of emergency, put your oxygen mask on first and then help others?’’’ Brown said. “Jorge looked out for others before thinking about himself. Look where it got him. Jorge is loyal to a fault. Loyalty didn’t just bite him, it ran him over.’’

Although some coaches he thought were friends have not returned his texts, the coaching fraternity, for the most part, has rallied around Fernandez. ESPN national recruiting director Paul Biancardi, who spent more than two decades coaching, is among the dozens of coaches who have reached out to Fernandez. One Division I football coach mailed Fernandez $3,000 to help cover some bills, and asked him to keep the donation private. Hill, who also received a two-year Show Cause order, has become close friends with Fernandez through it all.

Others who lent moral support include Forbes, former Miami Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton and assistant Stan Jones, Florida head coach Billy Donovan and assistant coach John Pelphrey, Central Florida coach Donnie Jones and assistant Brendan Suhr, South Carolina coach and longtime friend Frank Martin, Marshall coach Tom Herrion, Cincinnati assistant Larry Davis, and Iowa assistant Kirk Speraw.

Biancardi resigned as head coach of Wright State in March 2006 after the NCAA banned him from recruiting for violating rules while an assistant at Ohio State. After his Show Cause penalty expired, he was hired as an assistant at St. Louis University, and in 2008 joined ESPN as the national recruiting director.

“I know exactly what Jorge is going through, and it’s brutal,’’ Biancardi said by phone on Friday. “For two years, he’s been stressing about the unknown, wondering how it’s all going to play out, sitting in no-man’s land wondering if his career is going to end. You feel defenseless ... I’ve known Jorge since 1989 and he’s as loyal and hard-working as anyone in the business, and a great evaluator of talent. I believe he’ll bounce back. My advice to him was, ‘It’s over. You can’t change the outcome. Can’t change what was true or not, or what people said about you. Don’t get bitter, get better. Move on.’”

Fernandez said he felt some shame in how he was portrayed, especially in his hometown, where he played at Miami Killian High and coached at Coral Park High and Southridge High. His father, after reading about the investigation in the newspaper, asked if he could end up in jail. “I said, ‘No, Dad, I’m not a criminal.’ You almost want to hide.’’

When Haith left for Missouri, he did not take his staff with him. Fernandez got a job at Marshall University, where he said he was treated very well. But as the UM scandal escalated, he decided to resign for fear he’d become a distraction for the Marshall team.

“I feel bad for the guy I’m working for, he has to indirectly deal with this, too, which is why it’s so hard to get a job after a Show Cause,’’ Fernandez said. “The media and fans start saying `What kind of guy did you hire?’ People start questioning your integrity.’’

“The Show Cause is as close to a career death penalty as you can get, especially if you’re an assistant,’’ said Van Gundy. “The head coaches seem to do OK, like when Eddie Sutton had the scandal at Kentucky, he was hired right away by Oklahoma State. Assistant Dwane Casey took the brunt of it. He had to coach in Japan for a while. The anonymous assistant has no recourse, no resources to fight, and nobody takes up their cause. It’s a travesty what happened to Jorge, an overwhelming penalty for a minor offense.’’

One longtime former college basketball coach who did not want his name used said “the lowly loyal assistant gets whacked the hardest. The head coach will get a four-, five-game suspension. The assistant gets two or three years.

“Don’t tell me a head basketball coach doesn’t know what his assistants are doing. You are talking about a four-man staff recruiting maybe a dozen players. You travel together, eat together, ride rental cars together, have meetings together. If something happens, you as the head coach are either directly responsible — you asked your loyal assistants to do it and they did it — or you found out about it soon thereafter and didn’t do anything about it. You should be held accountable in all three scenarios.’’

The pressure to land the big recruit and keep players happy has intensified in recent years, as college sports become more and more of a big business. Players come out of high school with their hands out, and expect to be pampered. If you don’t take that kid, your competition will. If you take him and don’t give him early playing time, he and his handlers complain.

“When there’s a lot of money and the pressure to win, things are going to happen. It’s unfortunate but that’s just part of the business,’’ Fernandez said. “We all have to make decisions sometimes. What road are you gonna take? Are you gonna break a rule or not break a rule? When you see a violation, you’re supposed to report it to Compliance. If you do, you’ll probably be fired and other coaches will view you as a rat.

“At the end of the day, you have to fall back on your values and the values of your program. Recruiting is the key in basketball, because a couple guys can make a difference. There are going to be situations, depending who you’re recruiting, who the circle is around that specific kid. There are always signals if they want favors, what they tell you, the questions they ask. Some people have asked for money, some a little more tactful than others.’’

The assistant coach wants to please his boss and deliver the player. He wants to please the player so he’ll commit to the school. It isn’t always easy.

“I got into coaching because I love basketball and I wanted to help direct young men, many of whom don’t have father figures,” Fernandez said. “But at the end of the day, at most Division 1 universities, your job depends on if you win or lose. Obviously you want them to graduate, that all sounds fine and dandy, but a lot of times, you don’t get judged on that, you get judged on wins and losses.’’

Finding a new profession has proven difficult. He tried car sales. Didn’t work out.

“When you look at my résumé, I’ve been a basketball coach for 25 years, period,’’ he said. “You just don’t reinvent yourself that easily. Everyone kept telling me, `You’ve got to reinvent yourself.’ Well, that sounds fine in theory, but the reality is it doesn’t work that way.’’

Through his brother, he landed a job at OLC Solutions, a sporting goods company owned by Dave Benson, an assistant football coach at Cardinal Gibbons High. He drives around Miami-Dade and Broward, peddling sporting goods. On the side, he does private coaching for youth basketball players. His wife is a manager at a dentist office. Between them, they are scraping by.

“I don’t think Jorge sleeps much,’’ Benson said. “He worries a lot about his wife and kids and how he’ll provide for them. His life has been on hold for two-and-a-half years, and you can tell it’s taken its toll. He admits he made a mistake, but the punishment definitely doesn’t fit the crime. He doesn’t deserve what he’s gone through. The only salvation for him has been the extra time he gets to spend with his daughters.’’

There are days Fernandez craves the return to coaching. Other days, he’s not so sure.

“Part of me says, ‘You’re a coach. That’s what you love. That’s what you’re good at.’ But I also know what it’s like out there. After what I’ve been through, I won’t let that happen again. The price you pay is too high.”

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