Self-imposed postseason ban could help Miami Hurricanes in the long run

The decision is moving in hard on Donna Shalala, pushing the University of Miami’s president into a corner. It could land on her desk as soon as this weekend. She will continue to hear input from advisors and lawyers, but don’t mistake this for democracy: Hers will be the only vote that counts.

The matter involves UM’s football program, where everything is about wins and losses except this one decision that will affect the team so profoundly. See, Shalala’s choice is no-win all the way.

It could be anger and disappointment that greets her choice, or it could be the sense that she has done what was shortsighted and popular but not what was smart and right. There will be no broad agreement, only irresolvable debate.

The issue is whether to allow the Hurricanes into postseason play, where the spoils could be a first-ever spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game with a berth in the Jan. 1 Orange Bowl at stake. Or whether UM should instead self-impose a postseason/bowl ban for a second consecutive year to further mitigate against looming NCAA sanctions.

The decision is near because the Canes, with a 5-4 record, are one victory from becoming bowl eligible, and that win could come this Saturday at Virginia. A year ago, the university revealed its self-imposed ban one day after its sixth win, so a repeat of that timing could mean an announcement as soon as this Sunday.

I don’t know what Shalala will do. She might not even have decided.

I do know what she should do:

She should make the hard choice, not the popular one.

She should make the decision that says Miami getting past this NCAA mess as quickly as possible is the driving imperative that outweighs any reward, no matter how well-earned, for the 2012 team.

Part of solution

This is bitter medicine. It is difficult to swallow. And it is hard to imagine that anything that causes pain can be a part of the cure. But another voluntary postseason ban by Miami would be just that — part of moving past this. Part of the cure.

I feel badly for coach Al Golden.

Winning the ACC Coastal Division and getting into the conference title game for the first time has been the carrot dangled before his team all season. Now, as that goal is so tantalizingly close, he knows his administration ponders whether to snatch away that very prize for which his team has worked so hard.

You know he wants the chance to play for that ACC crown.

But he can’t say it aloud.

“I’m sure it’s an issue. But it’s not my issue,” Golden said just Wednesday. “That conversation is between our president, our legal counsel and athletic director. I’m charged with getting my team ready this week. We got our focus squarely on Virginia. We’re trying to prevent anything external from interfering. We haven’t made any excuses.”

Golden refers a lot to the blinders against “external” distractions, and why wouldn’t he? They are all around him. He inherited them. He got blindsided by the allegations that renegade booster Nevin Shapiro (now doing hard time for a Ponzi scheme) spent years before his arrival breaking rules and casting in doubt UM’s control of its own program and players.

Penalties looming

The resulting, laborious NCAA investigation is expected to conclude and present its findings — officially its “Notice of Allegations” — by later this month or early December.

UM would then have 90 days to respond, followed by the handing down of sanctions likely by next summer.

Miami’s best response, beyond refuting allegations where possible, would be to demonstrate steps taken to assure no repeat of a Nevin Shapiro could ever happen again, and to emphasize self-imposed penalties upon which the NCAA could not help but look favorably.

Last year’s bowl ban was a start, but that was a 6-6 team that would have gone to a minor bowl.

This could be — quite possibly, based on the remaining schedule — an 8-4 team playing in a major-conference championship game for a shot at a BCS-level bowl game.

Giving that up would be a significant sacrifice to the god NCAA, and one that presumably would weigh that much more against future sanctions.

The whole idea here is that self-absorbed penalties gotten out of the way now would supplant future penalties.

In other words, what otherwise might have been a four-year bowl ban could now be a two-year bowl ban moving forward beyond this season.

(UM also could self-impose its own football scholarship reductions next year, another step the school should strongly consider.)

The rules state the school would have to declare its intentions prior to the Dec. 1 ACC title game. That and the subsequent bowl game are a package deal. In other words, Miami would not be allowed to play for the ACC title and, if it lost, then declare a self-imposed bowl ban.

That is another reason Miami should volunteer a postseason ban right after its sixth win. Being realistic, UM would likely face Florida State in the ACC title game, and be a heavy underdog. So the chances of the Canes reaching the Orange Bowl game would be much less than Miami ending up in, say, the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.

A clear vision

Golden reminded me again Wednesday that his vision for the Canes is clear.

“Put Miami back where it belongs: In the national scene, “ he described that vision. “I confront the facts. I know exactly where we are as a program. It isn’t where we want to be, long way to go – but we’re building.”

The issue now, the center of Shalala’s looming decision, is what helps that building process the most. What serves this program the best in terms of getting back to national significance fastest.

Playing in the ACC Championship Game would be nice.

But the priority should be to get beyond all of the coming sanctions as soon as possible, so that when Al Golden talks about his vision for Miami — and hopefully it will still be his then — he’ll see no obstacles in his path, only possibilities.