NCAA Football: Miami still wonders how

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 20, 2011

By Tim Reynolds
Associated Press
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — A sports bar is packed with Hurricanes boosters, most of whom are wearing their team’s orange and green colors. They spontaneously break into chanting their unofficial anthem, “It’s great … to be … a Mi-a-mi Hurr-i-cane!”
As they sing, the sight of Nevin Shapiro running into an Orange Bowl end zone and getting chased off by a security guard pops onto nearby televisions.
Groans rise from the crowd.
For Miami football and its fans, there’s just no getting away from The Scandal. The sports bar scene happened at a long-scheduled gathering in Palm Beach County, where Hurricanes fans tried generating enthusiasm for the new season. A few days ago, that would have been easy. Considering this get-together came two days after Yahoo Sports published its report that Shapiro — the mastermind of a $930 million Ponzi scheme — provided money, sex, cars and gifts to 72 players over a nine-year period ending in 2010, it’s nearly impossible.
The NCAA is investigating what happened. There’s plenty to sift through. How did this happen? Who let this happen? Why did Shapiro have such access? Did anyone check his background? And perhaps most important, how did these secrets, if true, remain secrets for so many years?
Simple questions, lacking simple answers.
“It was one guy with a lot of money,” said former Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, who led the Hurricanes to the 1987 national title and is now a high school coach in West Palm Beach, Fla. “And it wasn’t his, so he was going to spend it freely. That’s the other part of it. It’s so difficult for an athlete. If some guy wants to buy you drinks, ‘Sure!’ You’re not going to say, ‘Who are you?’ And now the guy’s sitting in prison. In there, he can allege all he wants.”
Shapiro is serving a 20-year sentence for his crimes, with federal officials saying he is scheduled to be released in 2027. He already is serving his penalty. It could be months before Miami knows what penalty, if any, it will face for having a rogue booster first try to befriend, then bring down, dozens of Hurricanes over the span of nearly a decade.
“That’s my school,” said Maria Elena Perez, Shapiro’s attorney. “I didn’t want any of this to happen to my school.”
The current Hurricanes implicated by Shapiro in the Yahoo Sports story are quarterback Jacory Harris, safeties Vaughn Telemaque and Ray Ray Armstrong, receivers Travis Benjamin and Aldarius Johnson, defensive linemen Marcus Forston, Olivier Vernon, Marcus Robinson and Adewale Ojomo, tight end Dyron Dye, defensive back JoJo Nicholas and linebacker Sean Spence.
They have not spoken publicly about the matter. Their teammates who are talking say they don’t have the answer to that fundamental question — “How?” — either.
“It came out of nowhere,” center Tyler Horn said. “I can’t control it. And if I can’t control it, there’s no need to be worrying about it.”
Miami’s Hurricane Club has nine levels of giving, and each step up the ladder means better gifts and greater access to the athletic department. The top levels ($30,000 or more) provide just about anything a fan would want — sideline passes, VIP passes, exclusive reception invitations, even interacting with a student-athlete.
Shapiro promised plenty, including a $150,000 pledge for a student-athlete lounge that was supposed to bear his name. He made other donations as well, including $50,000 to men’s basketball.
Things like that endeared him to Miami, a private school of more than 9,000 undergraduates and an endowment in the neighborhood of $600 million, although the athletic department has long said it lacks the deep pockets of many schools it competes against. Shapiro became a highly valued donor. When he wanted something like seeing practice, typically someone would at least listen.
“The way it would work is, someone from the Hurricane Club or whatever would walk him to the field and tell the security guards and the coaches who he was and why he was there,” said an athletic department employee, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigations by both the NCAA and the university. “It didn’t happen a lot. One day, I was out there and saw the guy trying to get into a huddle. Never saw that before by anyone.”
That incident happened while Larry Coker coached the Hurricanes.
When asked about Shapiro on Friday, Coker told The Associated Press he knew about the former booster during his time at Miami but never interacted with him. He didn’t elaborate further.
“He’s a bad person,” Coker said.
Coker’s successor had the same sentiment.
When Randy Shannon took over as coach, Shapiro’s access to practice stopped. Shannon played at Miami in the 1980s and told confidants that he had seen people like Shapiro around the program before, warning assistant coaches that if he ever learned they interacted with the booster, he would fire them personally.
“Randy told everyone, players and coaches,” said a former football assistant coach, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he expects to be interviewed by the NCAA. “Deal with him at your own risk. He told me personally, ‘The guy’s poison. Bad news. Trouble.’ And we listened. So then the guy started trying to reach out to players directly more and more. They would come to us and complain that they’d go bowling and he’d show up. It was a running joke around here. We’d ask, ‘See your stalker last night?’”
Shannon, who was fired by Miami in November, declined comment when reached by The Associated Press. Another member of his staff, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Shannon was not an ally of Shapiro.
“Randy hated the guy,” the second coach said.
But, according to Shapiro, some players hung out with him anyway — a thrill for someone who has described himself as a lifelong Hurricanes fan. He was even featured in 1992 by The Miami Herald, which detailed his antics as he sat in the stands watching Miami play rival Florida State in a particularly close game not decided until the final moments. He screamed, “We are the gods of college football!”
Whether he still feels that way is anyone’s guess. This much is clear: He’s gone from fan to pariah in a hurry.
“We’ve overcome many, many obstacles over the years,” said former Miami player and longtime radio analyst Don Bailey Jr. “And we’ve proved five times, when people tell us something is impossible, it’s only their opinion.”
Until the scandal broke Tuesday, when Shapiro’s accusations were detailed by Yahoo Sports, some around the Hurricanes never knew who the short, brash, aggressive man was. Others knew his name, but didn’t know what he looked like until seeing images and videos that popped up in recent days. Many players denied knowing him whatsoever, even after they were accused by Shapiro of taking his money and gifts.
“I don’t know about everybody else. I can only speak for myself,” said one of those implicated, Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson. “I don’t really know what it is he alluded to.”
Shapiro’s lifestyle began unraveling a couple years ago, when the money started running dry and investors began thinking they’d been had. He never paid for the lounge. He stopped paying for his tickets. He even asked for the $50,000 he donated to the men’s basketball program back.
By then, the damage was done. Shapiro’s claws were deeply within the Hurricanes.
“It makes me sick,” said former Miami athletic director Kirby Hocutt, who now holds the same job at Texas Tech. “It makes me sick. I gave my being and every waking moment I had for three years to that program. So, yeah, it’s sad. It’s disappointing.”
Hocutt became aware that Shapiro was making threats more than a year ago. While the university said it looked into those claims, it appeared few, if any, took him seriously.
“It was allegations that a convicted felon was making from prison,” Hocutt said. “And we could not find any credible information. … We didn’t know what allegations he was making, how significant or insignificant they were. But from July or August (of 2010) through last Thursday, which was my understanding when the NCAA notified Miami, there was not another word about this spoken. It was a rogue booster and convicted felon saying things. There were more important things to focus on.”
Hocutt hired Al Golden as Miami’s football coach in December. Golden said he was unaware of the Shapiro story and threats until the Yahoo Sports piece was published, meaning he was not told of the looming problem during the interview process.
“There was no reason to,” Hocutt said.
All the reasons they couldn’t find then are staring them squarely in the face now, in the form of Shapiro’s allegations. Miami joined a growing list of schools with major football programs to be investigated by the NCAA for rule-breaking in the past 18 months. Others include Southern California, Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU.
And one of the principals involved in the USC matter, Reggie Bush — who lost his Heisman and saw his team stripped of a Bowl Championship Series title — even says something needs to change.
“Obviously a lot of things going on right now are terrible, moreso for the college players,” said Bush, now with the Miami Dolphins. “It’s tough when you can take a college player’s career and dream away from him at the snap of a finger. Something needs to be done.”
What remains baffling to many people, including some at Miami, is that when Shapiro was a big-wheel donor, anyone with a computer could have found that his background was not pristine.
Miami-Dade County court records show that not only was Shapiro guilty of felony aggravated battery against a club owner Peter Honerkamp in 1995, but ordered to pay $7,340 in a related civil case and serve 18 months’ probation. Honerkamp said Shapiro suckerpunched him during a dispute about cover charges and nearly lost sight in one eye.
Shapiro’s stepfather, Richard Adam, was indicted in Florida in the 1990s for allegedly helping operate a loan scheme that resulted in clients losing somewhere around $5 million in fees — a case with some obvious similarity to what Shapiro did years later, though on a much larger scale. After spending years in a Canadian prison while fighting extradition to the United States, Adam eventually reached a plea deal on a conspiracy charge.
Adam’s lawyer at the time: Maria Elena Perez, who now represents his stepson.
“We all thought he was spending his father’s money at first,” said the Miami athletic department employee, referring to Shapiro. “That’s what he said.”
Shapiro had a yacht, a multimillion-dollar home, fancy cars, jewelry, all the toys suggesting success. He sat courtside at Miami Heat games, even getting to be around Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade in some social situations.
That, too, seemed to all be a facade. Shapiro promised to buy more than $700,000 worth of tickets from the Heat. He never paid.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Wade said when asked about the Miami situation and Shapiro’s involvement with the Hurricanes. “I wish the best for Miami. I’m a big supporter of the university.”
Wade said nothing surprises him anymore when it comes to scandals, and Jack Hulse would agree.
Hulse, who now lives in Indiana and still lists a second address in Sarasota, Fla., lost nearly $500,000 in Shapiro’s scheme, thinking he invested in a grocery-distribution business. Instead, federal prosecutors said Hulse’s money — and tens of millions more, including about $1 million from former Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez (a close friend of Miami President Donna Shalala) and his family — went toward paying off at least $5 million in illegal gambling debts and a lavish lifestyle filled with excess.
“Nevin Shapiro used other people’s money to live a fantasy life built on false promises to unsuspecting victims,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
Hulse could not agree more.
“I met him one time at a birthday party,” Hulse said. “He just kind of seemed like he was full of himself. Somebody pulled me in and introduced me and that was basically it. He introduced himself and he wasn’t somebody I would be particularly thrilled to be around. A little cocky guy.”
Hulse doesn’t expect to ever recover his money through the forced bankruptcy proceedings, or the court order that Shapiro repay his victims nearly $83 million.
“Pennies on the dollar,” Hulse said. “If that.”
At the booster event, Walsh grabs the microphone and starts telling a story about the end of the 1985 season.
It’s a few days before the Sugar Bowl, and he and some Miami teammates are in a New Orleans bar. Someone offered to buy the Hurricanes some drinks and they accepted, never thinking twice about checking out who the man was.
“We didn’t care,” Walsh says. These were the big, bad Jimmy Johnson Hurricanes, after all. A team full of swagger that had just closed the regular season by embarrassing Notre Dame 58-7 and was beginning a run of what would become an NCAA-record 58 straight wins at home.
So on some of the things Shapiro alleges — the most minor claims — Walsh almost apologetically can understand how difficult it would be for anyone to turn the freebies down.
“I’ve never met Nevin Shapiro,” Walsh says, before adding, tongue in cheek, “he never bought me dinner, never bought me drinks. I’m jealous.”
A few people laugh.
“But in all seriousness,” Walsh continues, “you look at the source. The guy made a living, almost a billion-dollar living, by telling lies. … If the money went from his account to a player’s account, we’ve got problems. If the money went from his account to a player who signed with his agent, Miami’s got problems. That all remains to come out. Some people don’t have the best intentions. They want to be closer to the program and will do anything to get closer.”
And in this case, no one at Miami pieced together the entire Nevin Shapiro story in time to avoid maybe the biggest mess in program history.