CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The NCAA said Wednesday it has been investigating the relationship between a convicted Ponzi scheme artist and the University of Miami for five months, and the allegations — if true — show the need for “serious and fundamental change” in college sports.
Former booster Nevin Shapiro, now serving 20 years in federal prison, claims he treated players with sex parties, nightclub outings, cars and other gifts. Shapiro told Yahoo! Sports he provided improper benefits to 72 football players and other athletes at Miami from 2002 to 2010.
“If the assertions are true, the alleged conduct at the University of Miami is an illustration of the need for serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement.
The Hurricanes’ entire football team took the practice field Wednesday, even though Shapiro’s claims involve several current players. Coach Al Golden said it was too soon to take disciplinary action.
The Hurricanes open their season Sept. 5 against Maryland.
“Everybody is practicing,” said Golden, who is in his first season as Miami’s coach. “If it is determined somebody broke rules, then certainly they’ll be first dealt with. … As we get ready for Maryland, hopefully we’ll swiftly learn if errors were made. If there are guys that are going to have to sit out games, we’ll adjust our practice accordingly.”
Players weren’t permitted to speak with the media.
Last week, Emmert led a group of university presidents in drafting an outline for change in college sports, including higher academic standards, a streamlined rule book and new parameters for athletic scholarships. The group included Miami president Donna Shalala.
“The serious threats to the integrity of college sports are one of the key reasons why I called together more than 50 presidents and chancellors last week to drive substantive changes to Division I intercollegiate athletics,” Emmert said in his statement Wednesday.
The allegations against Miami — a program that once reveled in an outlaw image and dealt with a massive Pell Grant scandal in the 1990s — have sparked the latest in a string of NCAA investigations involving some of college football’s most high-profile and successful programs.
In the past 18 months, football teams at Southern California, Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU all have been investigated or sanctioned by the NCAA.
NCAA investigators were on the Miami campus this week in the wake of the allegations by Shapiro, and have interviewed Shalala and athletic director Shawn Eichorst. Shapiro was sentenced to prison in June for masterminding a $930 million Ponzi scheme, plus ordered to pay more than $82 million in restitution to investors.
Shalala said she was “upset, disheartened, and saddened by the recent allegations.”
“We will vigorously pursue the truth, wherever that path may lead, and I have insisted upon complete, honest, and transparent cooperation with the NCAA from our staff and students,” Shalala said in a statement. “Our counsel is working jointly with the NCAA enforcement division in a thorough and meticulous investigation.”
Golden said he’s eager to obtain answers quickly, in part so his players don’t repeat past mistakes.
“If they were exposed to Mr. Shapiro, clearly we have to make sure we prevent that going forward,” Golden said. “You do that by getting to the facts. How did this guy, if he did, get around our players like that? As a head coach, I want to know. I know our assistant coaches want to know. We want to make sure it never happens again. It shouldn’t happen.”
Current Miami players named by Shapiro as receiving benefits included quarterback Jacory Harris, Ray Ray Armstrong, Travis Benjamin, Sean Spence, Marcus Forston, Vaughn Telemaque, Dyron Dye, Aldarius Johnson and Olivier Vernon. Former Hurricanes quarterback Robert Marve, now at Purdue, also was named by Shapiro, Yahoo! Sports said.
Yahoo! Sports published its story Tuesday afternoon, saying it spent 100 hours interviewing Shapiro over the span of 11 months and audited thousands of pages of financial and business records to examine his claims.
“I did it because I could,” Shapiro said of his spending. “And because nobody stepped in to stop me.”
A person familiar with the situation said much of Shapiro’s access to Hurricane programs in recent years was approved by former athletic director Kirby Hocutt, who has since left the school for Texas Tech. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing joint investigation between the university and the NCAA.
Hocutt, the person said, allowed Shapiro on the sideline before football games at times during the 2008 season, plus invited him to select gatherings reserved for the athletic department’s biggest donors.
“That’s what Kirby did,” the person said. “His No. 1 job was to raise money and this Nevin Shapiro guy was one of the few people Kirby could get to write checks.”
Shapiro had been on the Miami sideline before games an unknown number of times before Hocutt’s arrival as athletic director in 2008.
Hocutt has declined comment on the Miami investigation.
Shapiro dubbed himself “Little Luke” in reference to Luther Campbell — aka Luke Skyywalker, the rapper who was a constant presence on the Hurricanes’ sideline during their 1980s glory days.
Campbell took exception to any comparisons.
“Nevin Shapiro wishes he could wear my shorts for one day,” Campbell wrote in a blog post. “That punk could never be me. First of all, I have never been a UM booster. I have never given a dime to the school. I have and always will support the players and the program out of civic pride, but I never violated any NCAA rules when I was the team’s biggest fan in the 1980s.”
Former Nebraska defensive end Benard Thomas told the AP he was on Shapiro’s yacht with two former Hurricanes players, Kellen Winslow Jr. and D.J. Williams, in 2005 when they had finished college.
“We all had money ourselves,” Thomas said. “We didn’t need anything from him.”
Thomas described Shapiro as “cool.”
“He was a nice guy,” Thomas said. “I’ve got nothing bad to say about him.”
Former Hurricanes in the NFL were reluctant to discuss the case. Said Devin Hester when approached at a Chicago Bears practice: “If this is about the Miami thing, I ain’t got nothing.”
Tennessee Titans rookie Colin McCarthy, who played at Miami, wore an orange Hurricanes’ T-shirt when reporters talked to him after practice Tuesday night. He responded “no comment” to four questions.
Shapiro began making his allegations about a year ago. Golden joined the Hurricanes in December after Randy Shannon was fired. Eichorst was hired as athletic director in April to replace Hocutt.
Golden said when he interviewed for the job, Miami officials did not tell him about Shapiro’s allegations.
“If they knew this was percolating, I believe they did have a responsibility to tell me,” Golden said. “I believe they have a responsibility to tell Shawn. But look, I’m happy here. My wife is happy here. We have great kids on this team.”