University of Miami

UM president Donna Shalala opens NCAA hearings with ‘pretty strong case’

Nearly three years after former booster Nevin Shapiro began spinning a web of allegations about providing impermissible benefits to former players and coaches, the University of Miami got an opportunity Thursday morning to begin defending itself in front of the NCAA and its committee on infractions.

Flanked by legal counsel and school staffers — including Hurricanes football coach Al Golden and basketball coach Jim Larrañaga (who had nothing to do with the allegations their respective programs are facing) — school president Donna Shalala led UM’s contingent at the hearings and apparently made an impression during opening statements.

About an hour after the hearing began behind closed doors on the second floor of a conference room at the downtown Westin Hotel — a short drive from where the NCAA is headquartered — three men in suits emerged from the meeting and one uttered to the others: “Shalala opened up with a pretty strong case.”

About 20 minutes later, Shalala walked out of the same doors chewing gum.

UM, which received its Notice of Allegations from the NCAA on Feb. 19 — including the charge of lack of institutional control — has said through its media relations department it will not comment publicly before, during or after the hearings.

But it is believed the school — and other individuals no longer at UM but charged with breaking NCAA rules — once again expressed its frustration with the NCAA enforcement staff in light of the admitted mistakes it made during its 23-month investigation.

In January, the NCAA announced that former enforcement staff members worked with Shapiro’s attorney to improperly obtain information. College sports’ governing body then hired an external review committee which tossed about 20 percent of the information that was deemed tainted because of the NCAA’s own “improper conduct.”

A source said lawyers for former basketball coach Frank Haith, charged with a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance during his time at UM, and the lawyers for former basketball assistants Jake Morton and Jorge Fernandez and receivers coach Aubrey Hill also took aim Thursday morning at the NCAA’s enforcement staff and its handling of the case.

UM’s contingent — along with Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford — began the day by meeting in a private room for roughly 15 minutes around 7:30 a.m. They then headed upstairs where the hearing began.

Louisville football assistant coach Clint Hurtt, facing allegations of receiving and providing impermissible benefits and the dreaded 10.1 rule of unethical conduct for providing false and misleading information during the investigation (Hill and Fernandez were also charged with unethical conduct), was one of the last people to enter the room.

The NCAA enforcement staff has alleged that Shapiro, now serving a 20-year sentence for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, provided $170,000 in benefits to players, recruits, coaches and others between 2002 and 2010, according to The Associated Press. It also alleged that about $90,000 of that was used to get UM defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and cornerback Antrel Rolle to sign with Shapiro’s sports agency, Axcess Sports.

The AP also reported that the NOA mentioned 48 players received VIP access and beverage service from Shapiro at Miami nightclubs; 38 were entertained at Shapiro’s home; 18 received invites to bowling alley events; and seven dined with Shapiro at Benihana.

Prior to the start of the 2011 season, the NCAA suspended eight football players for taking benefits from Shapiro: Olivier Vernon (six games); Ray-Ray Armstrong and Dyron Dye (four each); and Travis Benjamin, Marcus Forston, Jacory Harris, Adewale Ojomo and Sean Spence (one game each). Two basketball players — Durand Scott and Reggie Johnson — were also suspended.

UM has self-imposed postseason bans the past two years, including sitting out what would have been its first ACC championship game in 2012. The school has also said it has trimmed football scholarships but hasn’t detailed how many.

The hearings, which began with procedural issues Thursday, are expected to last through Saturday. All of the football allegations will be addressed in a marathon Friday session, and basketball charges will be dealt with Saturday.

The NCAA isn’t expected to render a decision after the hearings for at least six weeks or more.

NCAA president Mark Emmert was not at Thursday’s hearings. NCAA staff members said the president normally does not attend the infractions hearings because those are handled by conference commissioners and other members of the public.

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