Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Nevin Shapiro, UM coaches and players benefited each other

The University of Miami learned its sentence Tuesday and discreetly declined to spike a football in the end zone but did breathe a sigh of relief.

No death penalty, which was the panicked forecast two years ago when booster Nevin Shapiro’s lengthy and unseemly list of favors to athletes first came to light.

The NCAA’s 102-page conclusion, which punishes UM by eliminating a total of 12 football and basketball scholarships over the next three years, contains no mention of prostitutes or abortions. But the report is chock full of embarrassing, dismaying and riveting details, including two dozen references to “strip clubs.”

It is clear UM used Shapiro as sugar daddy as much as he used UM to play out his sports groupie fantasies. They used each other, then turned on each other, and the entire tawdry saga, with its only-in-Miami backdrop, illustrates the most corrupt and greedy elements of college athletics.

The Committee on Infractions repeatedly criticizes UM for “lack of institutional control,” which means the athletic department failed to educate and police athletes and coaches who broke even the most common-sense rules.

While UM argued at its June hearing that athletes and coaches “got conned by a con man,” the committee disagreed emphatically, finding “an environment existed where student-athletes and staff were comfortable if not encouraged to develop relationships with the booster.” The committee was taken aback by lax monitoring and outright indifference over the course of Shapiro’s nine-year romp when “not one of the eight coaches or approximately 30 student-athletes ... reported a single violation.”

UM’s pre-emptive strike strategy of mitigating penalties by banning itself from two straight postseasons — especially last year’s ACC championship game — was the “significant, unprecedented” key, according to committee chair Britton Banowsky, to its relatively light sanctions. What hurt more was the past 26 months of uncertainty for the football and basketball coaches trying to woo recruits.

Remember that 20 percent of the case against UM was thrown out because it was obtained improperly during depositions by Shapiro’s lawyer in his bankruptcy case. Like the 18½-minute gap in the Nixon Watergate tapes, the discarded information would have provided more incriminating evidence.

But what the NCAA gleaned in 118 interviews with 81 subjects and collected in 15 binders showed Shapiro “freely entertaining numerous prospects and student-athletes” as a “significant donor” with a “visible presence.” Shapiro, now serving a 20-year prison term for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme, sprinted out of the tunnel and onto the field with football players. He was a Living Scholars sponsor paired with an athlete who was told to “rub elbows” with boosters like him because “they were presumed to be wealthy.” He had a UM athlete lounge named after him. UM athletes and coaches used his North Bay Road mansion as a hangout and his favorite Miami Beach bowling alley, nightclubs and restaurants as their playground. He hosted fishing competitions on his yacht, Axcess. He and his bodyguards commanded VIP sections for UM guests. He gave out cash, loans, airline tickets — even baby clothes, toys and a washer and dryer for the families of players.

In one instance he gave $150 to a player and his girlfriend so she could buy a new dress and they could all go out on the town together. The player decided to keep the cash and they ditched Shapiro, which shows just how cynical those with their hands out became. “I had hundreds of females in my company, all top-flight models and escorts; I had access to my own wealth ... unparalleled accessibility to every nightclub or restaurant in Miami Beach,” Shapiro wrote in a recent letter to me. “These UM kids were attracted to what I brought to the table — not the other way around.”

Young men falling to temptation you can see, but what is most damning in the report was the behavior of UM coaches. Shapiro was their buddy and facilitator. Assistant football coach and recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt, often communicating with players on his private “bat phone,” arranged for prospects to visit Shapiro’s home. He and assistant Aubrey Hill helped players obtain gifts, meals, lodging and transportation, then later misled NCAA investigators.

Former basketball coach Frank Haith is portrayed as a liar who changed his story three times and a manipulator who let his assistants do the dirty work. Haith escaped Miami for a better job at Missouri as the scandal was unfolding. Because of his “unethical conduct,” he will be suspended the first five games of the season, but two UM assistants left holding the bag have been blackballed from coaching.

The most comical example of a coverup in the UM case occurred when Haith wrote three “summer camp advance” checks to his assistants, who promptly cashed them at the same time at the same bank. Then Jake Morton, leaving a cellphone trail, delivered the $10,000 to Shapiro’s mother in order to placate Shapiro, who had been making calls from prison, threatening to expose Haith and Morton’s visit to a strip club and their $10,000 inducement — care of Shapiro — to a recruit. The assistants later lied to the NCAA about how they used the cash; one said it was for an air conditioner at his house.

Morton and Jorge Fernandez, out of ideas on how to entertain a prospect’s high school coaches, took them to Shapiro’s home one night confident he could impress them.

“Our business is corrupt,” Haith said when whining to NCAA investigators about the difficulty of getting five-star recruits to sign with UM.

UM president Donna Shalala and athletic director Blake James are talking now about the improvements in oversight and the “change in culture” at UM, where doing the right thing is the only thing and everyone is expected to be honest and vigilant.

“What surprises me is that no one came forward or raised a red flag,” James said. “We have to make sure the lessons are not forgotten after the probation ends. We need people to understand we want to be compliant. We need eyes and ears. If you see it, tell us.”

Nevin Shapiro was there for all to see, flaunting his influence, glowing like a neon sign on Collins Avenue. But no one said a word about the Great Corrupter of UM. That’s because the benefits were mutual.

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