When Nevin Shapiro was flying high as one of the University of Miami’s most influential boosters, Sean “Pee Wee” Allen went along for the ride.
It was intoxicating to be Shapiro’s personal assistant — or, as Allen puts it, his “gofer.” A UM graduate who had worked on the equipment staff for the football team, Allen was now tooling around in Shapiro’s Mercedes-Benz while hobnobbing with Canes players at strip clubs, house parties and yacht excursions — all paid for by the seemingly wealthy booster.
Allen had access, and the combination, to Shapiro’s cash-filled bedroom-closet safe. When he wasn’t picking up the tab for all the good times, Shapiro was handing out cash gifts — $50 here, $100 there — to dozens of UM players, and trying to recruit some of them to the sports agency he co-owned. It was the same agency Allen worked for shortly after graduating from UM in 2005.
Together, they broke collegiate athletic rules all the way, Allen told The Miami Herald.
“At first, I was a little concerned, ‘I’m going to get busted,’” Allen said in an interview at his bayfront condo last month. “After a certain amount of time went by, I was like, ‘Dang, I’m getting away with everything.’ ”
Today the party’s over. Shapiro, 43, is serving a 20-year sentence for running a nearly $1 billion Ponzi scheme, which is related to the UM football scandal only in that he used some of his tainted proceeds to pay for the alleged financial benefits to players. Allen, 29, is jobless, a pariah with Hurricanes fans and persona non grata on the Coral Gables campus.
Since March 2011, the NCAA has been investigating the university’s football program. Investigators have grilled Allen for hours about his part — and others’ — in Shapiro’s shenanigans at UM . The NCAA has also questioned Allen about how he allegedly helped current Canes coach Al Golden recruit high school players after he took over in December 2010 — months after Shapiro was behind bars.
A spokesman for UM’s athletic department, Chris Freet, declined to comment Saturday for this story. He said the university is cooperating with the NCAA in its investigation. The association also declined to comment.
Of all the central figures involved in the NCAA investigation, Allen’s perspective is the most unique. He has known all about Shapiro’s business for much of the past decade, while working under three different UM coaches (Larry Coker, Randy Shannon, Golden) and for Shapiro’s agency, Axcess Sports & Entertainment.
When the hammer falls on the university’s athletic department, as is expected, with penalties likely ranging from lost scholarships to bans on bowl games, Allen will have played a critical role, corroborating much of what the convicted felon first told the NCAA.
But there’s a stark difference between why he and Shapiro opened up about their rule-breaking. Shapiro said he felt betrayed by the UM players after he spoiled them. Allen, interviewed three times by the NCAA in the past year, said he stopped lying and told the truth after he was subpoenaed by Shapiro’s lawyer to testify under oath in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case in December 2011.
What has Allen said that’s new?
That while working for Axcess he gave some of his own money to potential NFL draft picks at UM while still hanging out on the Canes sidelines at games and practices. UM athletic department employees knew he worked for Axcess and did nothing to stop him, Allen said.
UM officials have maintained that they were unaware of Shapiro’s misconduct until NCAA authorities called the Coral Gables campus on a Friday in mid-August 2011. Tony Hernandez, senior associate athletic director, called Allen that day to say: “The NCAA’s coming in. They want to speak to you.”
That was just days before Yahoo! Sports broke Shapiro’s vendetta-driven account, in which the rogue UM booster claimed that he “provided thousands of impermissible benefits to at least 72 athletes from 2002 through 2010” — shaking up the football powerhouse with a reputation for swagger.
Among those named as receiving benefits were two future NFL Pro Bowlers: Vince Wilfork, a defensive tackle who allegedly received $50,000 and two Cadillac Escalades from Shapiro, whose sports agency represented Wilfork when he was drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots in 2004. And Jon Beason, a linebacker picked by the Carolina Panthers in the first round in 2007, who allegedly received benefits from Shapiro while being represented by his agency.
“The [NCAA] knows everything,” said Allen, who was questioned on three occasions for a total of 13 hours by the NCAA authorities, including in February and July of this year.
“I don’t think they can prove everything. But they know everything.”
The Miami Herald has spent hours interviewing Allen — and others — and obtained a copy of his nearly 180-page deposition in bankruptcy court to help unravel the tale of what went wrong, how Allen and Shapiro were able to operate in plain sight and how the university failed to exercise proper institutional control.
Pee Wee and Nevin: the beginning
The lives of Allen and Shapiro collided on the football field nearly a decade ago when the Canes were at the top of their game.
Allen, who stands 5-9 and weighs 150 pounds, was nicknamed “Pee Wee” by UM players the moment he stepped onto the practice field as one of the students who worked as an assistant equipment manager for the 2001 national championship season. “Apparently, I didn’t look like much of a football player,” Allen quipped poolside at his condo.
Among Allen’s duties: He would set up pads and sleds before practice and participate in drills with the linebackers by pretending to be a running back and taking hits from stars Jonathan Vilma, DJ Williams and Howard Clark.
In his deposition, Allen said that he remembers encountering Shapiro several times around UM because the latter would stop by the equipment room and purchase football jerseys from the football equipment manager, Revilla.
But it wasn’t until the Fiesta Bowl in January 2003, when the University of Miami lost the national championship to Ohio State in double overtime, that Shapiro really began zeroing in on Allen.
“He gave me a business card one day in the hallway,” Allen said. “He was like, ‘This kid knows all the guys and I’m going to teach him how to get closer.’”
Allen said that their friendship eventually blossomed when Shapiro gave him a 32-inch TV as a gift while Allen was sharing a $1,600-a-month, two-bedroom apartment with Canes defensive end Javon Nanton. Soon after, Allen said, Shapiro began talking to him about a potential job with Axcess Sports & Entertainment. Allen eventually switched majors from sports management to business management.
“I bought into it big time — hook, line and sinker,” Allen said.
Today, the New Jersey native who had considered the UM football team as family feels miserable, has trouble landing jobs and admits he’s battled heavy drinking. He reminisces about one of his prized possessions: a national championship ring from the 2001 undefeated season. He still has the TV Shapiro gave him in his condo overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Meanwhile, Shapiro is consumed with contempt for UM, a school he never attended. “That school is going down and there is nothing to stop that inertia,” Shapiro recently wrote in an email sent from a federal prison in Louisiana to a Miami Herald reporter.
He once dubbed himself “Little Luke,” in the image of rapper Luther Campbell, who had strutted his stuff on the UM sidelines during the bad-ass 1980s and ’90s.
This past week, Allen drew the wrath of Campbell, who once visited Shapiro at his UM suite at Sun Life Stadium to discuss starting their own sports agency in 2009 after the demise of Axcess. Campbell was upset with Allen for recently speaking to reporters at CBSSports.com and at The Associated Press.
Allen had met Campbell about a decade ago through the Liberty City Optimist football club in Miami when he served as a mentor in the Big Brothers program. Campbell eventually coached several of those same youngsters at Miami Central and Miami Northwestern high schools.
“It seems Allen can’t get enough media attention,” Campbell wrote in his weekly New Times column. “He’s only hurting people who trusted him.”
Allen says he understands the criticism, but “my intentions were to try to help.”
How Axcess got access to players
Allen said that he began working for Axcess Sports & Entertainment, headed by Huyghue, the principal agent, right around the time he graduated in the spring of 2005. Huyghue had sold a partial interest in the company to Shapiro for $1.5 million back in 2003.
“I really didn’t have much of a job description,” said Allen, whose first task was to babysit cornerback Adam “Pac Man” Jones, a first-round NFL draft pick for the Tennessee Titans. His other duties included creating Excel spreadsheets for analyzing players and contacting them on Facebook.
Allen said that he made $25,000 as the part-time manager of player relations for Axcess.
In the deposition taken last December, Allen said UM’s Revilla and Tony Hernandez, the athletic department’s assistant compliance officer at the time, as well as others on the football coaching staff, knew he was working for Axcess — although they did not know about the specifics of his illicit recruiting activities.
In the deposition, Allen said that he used his UM connections to help recruit at least eight Canes players with NFL potential by introducing them to Huyghue and Shapiro so Axcess could sign them. He named them in this order: Jon Beason, Devin Hester, Tavares Gooden, Frank Gore, Roger McIntosh, Orien Harris, Kyle Wright and Tyrone Moss.
Allen also said under oath that he gave at least $50 of his own money to Gooden, Hester and McIntosh.
Allen told The Herald there were also expensive trips to the Bahamas, where he claims that he and Huyghue took former UM quarterback Wright, then a sophomore, in 2005. That same year, Allen said, he and Huyghue also took Wright to a Snoop Dogg concert at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where they stayed at the Ritz-Carlton. After the concert, they went backstage to meet the rapper, who was a client at Axcess, Allen said.
Huyghue, a sports lawyer who recently worked as a senior executive with the Jacksonville Jaguars, could not be reached for comment after a Herald reporter left messages for him at his Ponte Vedra Beach home and on Facebook.
After Axcess: The party continues
Axcess, based in the Jacksonville area, filed its last annual report with the state in February 2008 and dissolved the next year, public records show.
Allen wasn’t working for Axcess by then. Instead, Allen teamed up with Campbell, and together they ran a business called Luke Sports and Entertainment out of Allen’s Brickell-area apartment. Allen was listed as the president and Campbell as vice president, with Allen’s father, Robert, serving as a director of the company.
When that venture petered out in 2007, Allen soon went to work for a brokerage firm for about a year. He stayed there until he became Shapiro’s personal assistant in 2008. The party kept going up until Shapiro’s business and legal woes began to take their toll in 2009. The one-time booster was arrested on securities fraud and money laundering charges in April 2010 for operating an investment scam through his wholesale grocery business, Capitol Investments USA.
In his December 2011 deposition, Allen spelled out how he worked as Shapiro’s personal assistant from 2008-09 and corroborated most of what Yahoo! first reported. Among the claims:
Allen also said in the bankruptcy case deposition that he saw Shapiro give some money to Tyrone Moss to help take care of Moss’ baby. Yahoo! reported the amount was $1,000. Moss admitted to Yahoo! he received the money.
“I think he enjoyed hanging out with those guys,” Allen said in the deposition. “And I think it also was an opportunity for him to develop relationships with them to eventually see if they would sign with Axcess.”
Allen told The Herald that Shapiro didn’t go that night because he wasn’t feeling well.
“I took charge of paying for the alcohol and making sure stuff was paid for,” Allen said in the deposition. “And the rest of the money I handed to them and said, ‘You guys, you know, do what you want to do with it.’ ”
Allen told The Herald that this was the only time he gave potential UM recruits money with the intent of steering them to the Canes.
Last year, the NCAA suspended eight Canes players for accepting impermissible benefits from Shapiro, including Armstrong and Dye. Debose did not go to UM. All of the UM players’ reimbursements were returned by the university to the bankruptcy trustee of Shapiro’s business in a December 2011 settlement. In total, UM’s settlement on behalf of most of the former and current players tainted by Shapiro totaled $83,000.
In the Yahoo! story, Shapiro did not break down how much he allegedly gave to UM players. Rather, he said he gave Allen more than $200,000 in cash and checks to distribute to the Canes players and to pay for their strip-club outings, restaurant meals and parties at his Mediterranean-style North Bay Road home. Shapiro also said some of that money went to pay for Allen’s salary and Shapiro’s gambling debts.
Allen, in his deposition, speculated that the total figure was “around $100,000 perhaps” — cash that he would get for Shapiro from the safe in his walk-in closet at the Miami Beach mansion or from a Wachovia Bank branch. Allen said that some of the money went to Shapiro’s housekeeper, Lilly, and two women who hung out at Shapiro’s Miami Beach home. The women were escorts, Allen said. But he did not say in the deposition why Shapiro paid them.
Allen also said he was paid $5,000 a month working as a personal assistant for Shapiro.
The big recruit and the $10,000
In his deposition last December, Allen was asked about Shapiro’s claim in the Yahoo! story that the UM booster gave $10,000 to assistant basketball coach Jake Morton to help lure Georgia high school recruit DeQuan Jones to the Canes.
According to the Yahoo! report, Shapiro alleged that “in the early summer of 2008” he was told by Morton that a member of Jones’ family required $10,000 “to ensure the player’s commitment to Miami.” Shapiro said that he agreed to put up the money and that Morton visited Shapiro’s Miami Beach mansion to get the payment. Allen said in the deposition that he recalled being in Shapiro’s home and playing pool with him and Morton, but that he doesn’t “remember the money changing hands.”
Allen told The Herald: “I just don’t remember that. Grabbing $10,000 was like grabbing $100 bucks [out of Shapiro’s safe].”
Jones was cleared by the NCAA in late 2011 and allowed to play for the Canes after being reinstated and missing the first two months of the season.
In the deposition, Allen said he socialized with Shapiro and the former UM basketball coaches when the booster treated them to dinner at Phillipe Chow, a trendy Chinese restaurant in Miami Beach, and at the Solid Gold strip club. Allen said Shapiro also hosted the coaches — Morton and head coach Frank Haith — at his Sun Life Stadium suite for Canes football games.
Shapiro gave a $50,000 donation to the school’s basketball program. In a now-notorious photo, Shapiro is pictured with Haith and UM President Donna Shalala as she clutches his check during a 2008 fundraiser at Lucky Strike on Miami Beach.
As part of another settlement with the trustee overseeing Shapiro’s bankruptcy case, UM formally reached an Aug. 20, 2010 agreement to return $130,307 that he donated to the school for the basketball program, a student-athlete lounge on the campus and other direct benefits to the university.
Back where Allen started at UM
UM rehired Allen as an assistant football equipment manager at $8 an hour in the fall of 2009. A year later, in December, the university named Al Golden as its new football coach, replacing Randy Shannon.
Golden didn’t know Allen at all. Allen said he met the head coach for the first time at Dan Marino’s restaurant in South Miami soon after he was hired. Golden and his coaching staff were meeting with Miami Northwestern High’s star quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater , on an “unofficial visit.” Allen said he swung by the restaurant and picked up Bridgewater after the player reached out to him for a ride home.
Allen told The Herald that Golden suggested he feed the hot prospect on the way home rather than eat with them at Dan Marino’s because it wasn’t an official visit and UM couldn’t pick up the tab. Allen said he took Bridgewater to Wendy’s. Bridgewater later decided to attend the University of Louisville.
It wasn’t long before Golden, the former Temple head coach, would discover that Allen had access to several top high school prospects in the Miami area’s crop of football talent. Allen was friends with them because of his volunteer work as a Big Brother. Allen said that he began mentoring kids in 2004 when many of them were in elementary and middle school playing Optimist football.
Allen said he started reaching out to potential recruits for Golden and his coaching staff — a no-no under NCAA rules because the assistant equipment manager wasn’t on the staff — only after the Bridgewater incident in December 2010.
In July of this year, Yahoo! reported it reviewed Allen’s phone records, determining he had contacted at least 10 Miami-area prospects being recruited by Golden’s staff. Allen said that while the story was generally accurate, it overstated his supporting role. “I don’t think this is a nefarious group,” Allen said. “But they were using my relationship with these kids to try and help them.”
Allen said the only time he may have crossed the line came in early January 2011, just weeks after Golden had taken over the UM coaching reins. Allen said that an assistant coach who coordinated recruiting efforts enlisted Allen to dissuade Devonta Freeman, a star running back at state champion Miami Central, from committing to Florida State University, where he was on the verge of starting classes.
“I had never asked a player to change schools,” Allen told The Herald. “I immediately felt bad about putting Devonta in such an uncomfortable situation. I actually called him the next day to apologize.”
Allen said that he made phone calls to Freeman and his mother, updating the assistant coach, Micheal Barrow, on the player’s status. At one point, Allen told The Herald he called the mother, and conferenced her in with the assistant, who put Golden on the phone. The head coach gave his best pitch, with no success.
After the second Yahoo! story ran in July, NCAA investigators flew to Miami to meet Allen for a third time. They showed him a list of 120 to 150 UM players and high school prospects suspected of taking cash or other types of gifts from Shapiro. They also asked him about Golden and his staff’s last-minute bid to recruit Freeman — and his role as a go-between, Allen said.
For his part, Golden, who says he knew nothing about Shapiro before coming to UM, issued a statement: “The inferences and suggestions in the Yahoo! story that my conduct was anything but ethical are simply false.”
Barrow, at the Hurricanes’ media day in August, declined to comment about the recruiting allegations.
The Herald story and the letter
The question that remains unanswered: How much did UM officials know about Allen and Shapiro’s misdeeds and when — if at all — did they decide to do something about the problem.
Allen said that he didn’t leave his part-time job at UM — on his own terms — until after he was first interviewed by the NCAA in August 2011. Nobody at the school asked him to leave, he said. He just didn’t think there was any point in coming back after Yahoo! published its first story.
UM athletic and school officials got their first public hint of the potential magnitude of Shapiro’s wrongdoing when Miami Herald sports writer Barry Jackson wrote an Aug. 29, 2010 story headlined “New book to allege violations made by University of Miami football.”
“Five months ago, UM’s website called Nevin Shapiro ‘an ardent, devoted, intense supporter.’ A student lounge was named in his honor,” the story began. “Now, facing years in prison for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme, Shapiro is writing a book about the UM football program in which he alleges former Canes players committed NCAA violations.”
Shapiro, who would plead guilty to federal charges that September, said from a New Jersey jail that he would not detail the allegations until the book was published. The planned title: The Real U: 2001 to 2010. Inside the Eye of the Hurricane.
After the Herald story came out that Sunday, Hernandez, who had been promoted to senior associate athletic director, held a closed-door meeting the next day with Allen. “That was like the ‘Oh [expletive]’ moment for UM,” Allen told The Herald. “What’s he going to write? What’s he going to say?”
Hernandez and Allen — who as friends, Allen says, would go out to dinner frequently — both knew what Shapiro’s tell-all book could mean for the university and its much-vaunted football program. It was no secret that Shannon, the head coach at the time, had never liked the UM booster going back to when Shapiro’s sports agency tried to convince Wilfork to leave the school early for the NFL draft in 2004.
“Michael [Huyghue] was convincing Vince to leave and that’s when Randy was the defensive coordinator,” Allen told The Herald. “He told Vince, ‘This guy is giving you awful advice.’ After that, he was very anti-Michael Huyghue and Nevin [Shapiro] because he could see they weren’t aligned with the interest of UM.”
But UM officials did not issue any warnings to Shapiro.
It wasn’t until Jackson’s story ran in the Herald’s sports section in late August 2010 that school officials contacted Shapiro and his attorneys, who “refused to provide any facts to the university,” the athletic department’s spokesman, Freet, said in the Yahoo! story. He also said that UM contacted the NCAA about the same time.
But the reality is Jackson’s story was not the first time that Canes football officials privately expressed concern over Shapiro’s suspicious gift-giving to UM players.
At the beginning of the football season in 2009, Revilla, the equipment manager, approached Allen to ask a favor, he said in his deposition. Revilla wanted Allen to write a letter to Shapiro — who was angry with Allen because he had crashed Shapiro’s Mercedes-Benz CLS550 twice — to attempt to resolve their differences.
Allen said in the deposition that he sensed that other officials in the UM athletic department had put Revilla up to prodding him to make peace with Shapiro in an attempt to put a lid on potentially bad news that could tar the university’s reputation. Allen testified “they thought that [Shapiro] being upset with me was going to somehow cause problems there.”
Allen emailed Shapiro on Sept. 1, 2009, and he replied the next day.
Shapiro’s lawyer pointed out that in the last paragraph of his note, Allen wrote: “The purpose of this email is truthful. It’s an apology and I thank you.”
“What were you thanking him for?” asked Shapiro’s lawyer, Maria Elena Perez.
“I don’t know,” Allen answered. “The purpose of this email was to do what I was told to do at the University of Miami.”