University of Miami President Donna Shalala is an avid sports fan who raised millions for athletics programs and regularly attended everything from women’s tennis matches to baseball, basketball and football games.
But rightly or wrongly, Shalala’s tenure will be forever linked to a Ponzi schemer named Nevin Shapiro, a big-bucks donor whose allegations of paying and partying with players drew the school into a long-running NCAA probe that crippled the football program. One infamous photo caught Shalala, then unaware of Shapiro’s shady dealings, staring at a donation check from the now-imprisoned crook.
But in the end, it was Shalala who was ultimately credited with staring down the NCAA — strongly defending the school’s own self-imposed sanctions, including two bowl bans, as just punishment.
"We deeply regret any violations, but we have suffered enough," Shalala wrote in a statement the day the formal allegations were handed down on Feb. 19, 2013. With investigators also botching and weakening the case against UM, the NCAA finally imposed a relatively light loss of nine scholarships over a three-year probationary period, and no additional bowl bans.
UM athletic director Blake James on Monday said in a prepared statement that it’s "hard to imagine’’ UM without Shalala, whom he called the biggest supporter of athletics.
"She has meant so much to the U Family over the past 14 years and has been a tremendous visionary, leader and friend to our students, faculty, staff and alumni around the world,’’ he wrote.
Shalala came to UM just before the Hurricanes won their fifth national title in football. She led the way for UM’s move from the Big East into the Atlantic Coast Conference.
With her oversight, the university has raised millions of dollars to build and improve UM athletic facilities — including the BankUnited Center basketball arena, Alex Rodriguez Park baseball stadium and the Schwartz Center for Athletic Excellence — as well as funded athletic scholarships.
But the football team, source of so much university and civic pride, has increasingly faded out of national rankings. Shalala has often been a lightning rod for fans, criticized for her part in taking the football team from the iconic Orange Bowl to Sun Life Stadium. The school also hasn’t followed the national trend of shelling out increasing millions for coaching staffs. Some critics also blame Shalala’s tougher academic standards for athletes for hurting Hurricane recruiting efforts.
Then there is that Shapiro scandal, which erupted under her watch.
Still, ACC commissioner John Swofford called Shalala’s "impact on the [ACC] and collegiate athletics … extraordinary.’’