While Nevin Shapiro was handing out small amounts of cash like candy to the University of Miami’s star football players, the Hurricanes booster was sinking a much larger sum — $1.5 million — into a budding sports agency fittingly called Axcess.
Axcess was hoping to sign many of those same athletes as clients and score huge fees on multimillion-dollar pro contracts.
Now his dual roles, as team sugar daddy and unlicensed sports agent, hang over the university like an anvil that is about to come crashing down on UM’s storied football program.
It’s a bigger deal than if the UM donor had just been secretly passing out goodies — Shapiro says he picked up the tab for booze, hookers and party voyages on his yacht (named after the sports agency) — in exchange for the chance to pal around with players.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is soon expected to issue a formal “notice of allegations” detailing Shapiro’s and the university’s recruitment violations.
Documents of Axcess’ business meetings, financial records and internal correspondence — recently obtained by The Miami Herald — provide a first-time window into Shapiro’s 2003 investment in the sports agency. They show that the Jacksonville-based company aggressively targeted the rich pool of Canes players as National Football League prospects, though Axcess ironically only landed two of them despite all of Shapiro’s shenanigans.
List of recruits
The records were presented as evidence in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case over the past year, when witnesses gave depositions with UM and NCAA officials present.
Axcess’ founder, Michael Huyghue, who brought in Shapiro as an investor and has kept a low profile during the NCAA’s probe since last year, said he knew nothing about his one-time partner’s payments to UM players nor his part as a rogue sports agent.
“Candidly, it was convenient for [Shapiro] to say Axcess was his sports company and it was involved with him,” Huyghue told The Miami Herald. “But Axcess was not involved in his recruiting scheme.”
When Axcess’ partners and employees met at an Orlando resort in May 2003, the agenda was dominated by a recruiting list of UM stars, including Vince Wilfork, Sean Taylor and 17 others. The roster was based on “only those with current leads.”
As part of the agenda, Shapiro’s first name appeared in italics among Axcess’ four-member recruiting team.
Miami lawyer Marc Levinson, who had gone to high school with Shapiro on Miami Beach, advised him on his new investment and role at Axcess. The idea was that “Nevin might be able to assist Axcess in getting athletes ... with his contacts down at the University of Miami,” Levinson, with the law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, said during a recent court deposition.
Levinson also testified in the October deposition, taken in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case, that the potential problem of Shapiro’s twin roles as a UM booster and Axcess investor came up as a legal matter. He said that his own law firm researched a Florida statute regulating sports agents who recruit college players. But Levinson said Axcess’ founder, Huyghue, “made it clear to me that they would be advising [Shapiro] on what was permissible and what was not.”
Shapiro, now a disgraced booster serving a 20-year prison sentence for running a $930 million investment scam, disclosed his alleged player-payoffs to the NCAA in March of last year. He made national headlines in summer 2011 when he became the centerpiece of an exposé published by Yahoo! Sports, which detailed his alleged impermissible gifts of cash, booze and prostitutes to at least 72 current and former Canes athletes.
Shapiro’s high school buddy, Levinson, said the UM booster invited a half-dozen players, including Taylor, the star defensive back, to the lawyer’s bachelor party at a Miami Beach hotel in 2002. Levinson said there were prostitutes at the party, but he did not recall whether any of the UM athletes used their services.
Huyghue, the high-profile sports agent who founded Axcess Sports and Entertainment in late 2001 and met Shapiro the following year through a mutual friend, denied the now-defunct agency pursued UM players as part of an overall business strategy.
In a court deposition, Huyghue, a former United Football League commissioner based in Jacksonville, said he sought Shapiro as a partner for his money — not as a means to tap into UM’s vast supply of potential NFL players. He said in the deposition, taken a year ago in Shapiro’s bankruptcy case, that the booster did not help Axcess recruit UM players.
Sean Allen’s role
But Levinson, who advised Shapiro on his Axcess investment, was directly asked in his deposition whether Nevin was involved in trying to recruit UM players. Levinson’s response: “That’s right.”
In his deposition, Huyghue said he hired Shapiro’s friend, Sean Allen, a 2005 UM graduate and former assistant equipment manager for the football team. He said Allen assisted in recruiting Canes players.
This fall, Allen told The Miami Herald that while he worked 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, said Allen, who has been questioned extensively by NCAA investigators.
Allen told The Herald that Axcess paid for some vacation getaways for some of the team’s top players. The NCAA asked Allen about at least two trips that Allen claims he, Huyghue and UM quarterback Kyle Wright took to the Bahamas and, on another occasion, to Detroit for a Snoop Dogg concert in 2005 when Wright was a sophomore.
Internal company documents obtained by The Miami Herald show that Axcess was actively pursuing UM players, including Wright, immediately after Shapiro invested in Huyghue’s company.
The documents show the agency’s first UM client was Wilfork, the defensive tackle who signed in the first round with the New England Patriots in April 2004. Huyghue said he came to know Wilfork through his then-girlfriend, Bianca Farinas, who is now his wife.
Wilfork, who paid Axcess $100,000 for its representation, eventually dropped the agency at the end of 2004.
In a Dec. 8, 2004, email, Huyghue wrote Shapiro about the loss of the agency’s first major UM client. “Bianca has gotten in the middle of our relationship [for a variety of reasons]. Just like she turned on you on that phone conversation she has done the same.”
“Of course we are helping Vince on the side with [personal matters] but it is what it is,” Huyghue wrote Shapiro. “Probably better to just move on.”
In the Yahoo! Sports story, Shapiro said that on behalf of Axcess, he gave $50,000 to Wilfork during his junior season at UM as a recruiting tool. (That figure dwarfed Shapiro’s typical handouts of $50 or $1000 to other players.) Shapiro also said he personally bought Wilfork and his future wife, Bianca, a pair of $50,000 Cadillac Escalades shortly after the lineman declared for the 2004 NFL draft.
In his court deposition, Shapiro’s then-lawyer, Levinson, said there was “some talk” at an Axcess business meeting about buying Wilfork an Escalade while the player was still enrolled at UM in late 2003. Asked who paid for it, Levinson said: “I believe Nevin did.”
A Caddy Escalade
Huyghue said in his court deposition that Wilfork received a Cadillac Escalade bought at a Jacksonville dealership after he had left UM and signed a contract with Axcess to represent him as a pro. He said he did not recall if Axcess loaned him the money, and then Wilfork repaid the agency.
“Are you certain that Axcess did not outright buy the car for him, the Escalade?” Shapiro’s current defense attorney, Maria Elena Perez, asked Huyghue during her client’s bankruptcy case.
“I don’t believe so,” Huyghue responded. “His wife was very particular about handling his business affairs.”
Perez did not ask Huyghue about the second Escalade that Shapiro claims he bought for Wilfork’s wife.
Nor did Perez ask him specifically about Shapiro’s alleged $50,000 lump sum payment to Wilfork.
In the same December 2004 email where Huyghue wrote about the loss of Wilfork, the sports agent also referred to two other potential Axcess clients: UM safety Antrel Rolle and halfback Frank Gore.
“Both Trell and Gore are aware and have no problem,” Huyghue wrote, referring to Wilfork’s formal letter terminating his contract with Axcess. “Originally, they said they would give us until the end of the year and then decide and then today I received this out of the blue.”
At the same time, Axcess’ documents show it had lost $783,000 in potential revenue in 2003, when UM wide receiver Andre Johnson went with another sports agency and signed with the Houston Texans.
Other Axcess records summarizing the company’s business meetings show in early 2004 that Huyghue had “concerns” about Nevin’s involvement and compensation “due to his booster status.”
Levinson, the lawyer, who also played the role of “secretary” at Axcess business meetings, noted one agenda item in January 2004 about “Nevin’s assistance in signing UM player.” Though not specified, that would be Wilfork.
Levinson also noted in an email to Shapiro another item to be discussed with Huyghue at the following month’s meeting: “Nevin is the primary reason Michael [Huyghue] has established contact and relationships with UM players. Axcess seems to be doing much better at UM than anywhere else.”
But the summary of a November 2005 business meeting suggested that Axcess was not prospering as a sports agency.
“According to Michael, Axcess’ original football business model was flawed,” Levinson’s notes said. “In the past, Axcess spread its resources too thin and unsuccessfully attempted to sign an unlimited number of players.
“Additionally, Axcess has been successful in appealing to, but not signing, football players such as Andre Johnson and Antrel Rolle and signing but not retaining others such as Vince Wilfork,” Levinson wrote. “Presently, Axcess has hired runners around the country with more of a ‘street approach’ to assist in signing players... .”
Axcess ended up representing only one more UM player: Jon Beason, a linebacker who was drafted in the first round by the Carolina Panthers in 2007.
Gone by 2008
The following year, Axcess was out of business — and Shapiro lost his original $1.5 million investment.
During its existence, between 2002 and 2008, no complaints were filed against Axcess, according to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Huyghue, however, was disciplined in January 2002 for unlicensed activity. But Huyghue said no disciplinary action was taken; however, a department spokeswoman confirmed that the sports agent was fined $1,000 and paid it in 2003.
As for Shapiro, he was never a licensed sports agent in Florida, according to state records.
And though the NCAA has yet to punish UM for the Shapiro era, his misconduct has already taken its toll on the university.
In November, UM school officials announced the Canes would, for the second year in a row, voluntarily forgo playing in any post-season games. Last year, the team suspended eight players who accepted gifts from Shapiro, including quarterback Jacory Harris.
The next phase of punishment is expected to come down three to six months after the notice of allegations arrives on the Coral Gables campus. Scholarship reductions and another year or two of post-season bowl bans are potentially in store.