CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The “rain and storm” that have pelted the University of Miami football program in recent weeks, in the words of new coach Al Golden, intensified Tuesday when the NCAA informed the Hurricanes that eight players who received nearly $4,000 in benefits from a jailed booster would have to sit out a combined 19 games, beginning with Monday’s opener against Maryland in College Park.
The NCAA further reported that it had discovered “some of the most serious recruiting violations” within its rules, citing three cases in which athletes received substantial inducements before they enrolled at Miami. That finding might be the most ominous, hinting that the program could face severe sanctions when the NCAA concludes its probe of the program in the coming months.
Among those sidelined for the nationally televised Atlantic Coast Conference matchup: last year’s starting quarterbackJacory Harris (one game); star linebacker Sean Spence (one game);defensive lineman Olivier Vernon (six games) and defensive tackle Marcus Forsten (one game).
“Our members have continually stressed that involvement of third parties during recruitment will not be tolerated, and there must be accountability for inappropriate behavior,” said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, in a release.
The NCAA’s decision on the players’ eligibility came two weeks after a convicted Ponzi schemer claimed in a Yahoo Sports report that he lavished money, prostitutes and alcohol on current and former student-athletes. Even amid the relentless drip of scandals in collegiate athletics in the last year, the charges levied by Nevin Shapiro managed to shock and resonate given their salacious nature and stunning breadth — Yahoo Sports claimed 72 current and former Hurricanes accepted improper benefits and that many coaches and assistants knew what was going on.
“To be honest, my wife has been walking around the house in a daze over it,” said Don Bailey, Jr., a former Hurricanes player who has been the color analyst on local broadcasts for nearly 20 years. “It’s been very deflating to a lot of folks. You can’t go anywhere without people wondering what’s going to happen. The good news is, I’m glad to see that this many people care.”
The scandal has shaken the entire school, a private research university with an enrollment of 15,000 that sits on the edge of one of Miami’s most upscale communities. Miami Coach Al Golden, hired last winter out of Temple after the firing of Randy Shannon, thought he was inheriting a program primed to return to the Hurricanes’ winning ways in decades previous. Instead, Golden got an uncertain roster and uncertain future.
He said during an early afternoon news conference Tuesday he personally called Maryland Coach Randy Edsall to explain that he couldn’t reveal his traveling squad because the NCAA had not yet ruled on the players in question. He promised Edsall that Miami wouldn’t play any games or keep any secrets, and would send a roster as soon as the school received a ruling.
“From an ethical and sportsmanship basis, I wanted to make sure I reached out to him,” Golden said.
By the end of the afternoon, Golden got more details than he probably wanted. The NCAA said Vernon received more than $1,200 in benefits before he had enrolled, including meals, transportation, drinks, access to Shapiro’s game suite and cover charges at night clubs. Aravius Armstrong and Dyron Dye, who will miss four games each, each received more than $700 in benefits, including five nights of lodging from “institutional staff” during unofficial campus visits before they had enrolled.
Adewale Ojomo, Travis Benjamin, Harris, Forsten and Spence received between $140 and $400 in benefits, including night club cover charges and entertainment at gentlemen’s clubs. Each will miss one game.
“We appreciate the diligence and understanding of the NCAA staff and its handling of the student-athlete eligibility issues in an expeditious manner,” Miami Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst said.
University President Donna Shalala, who before joining the university in 2001 was the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, offered no immediate comment. She has addressed the scandal only through a videotaped statement and a letter to the editor published in Sunday’s editions of the Miami Herald.
The Yahoo Sports story showed a photo of a grinning Shalala, who declined an interview request through a spokesperson, accepting a donation from Shapiro in a local bowling alley; that photo has left Shalala, who has vowed to get answers and hold people accountable, the subject of ridicule.
“I am deeply troubled by questions that have been raised about some current and former members of our athletics community,” Shalala wrote to The Herald.
Players not connected to the scandal said earlier Tuesday that they would be ready to play the Terrapins, regardless of which players lined up.
“We’re not going to let one another down; we’re going to play for our brothers,” said defensive back Lee Chambers. “From a team standpoint, we’re just more motivated this year.”
Sales of Hurricanes’ football merchandise have been down since the story hit, according to Harry Rothwell, the general manager of AllCanes, a vendor of University of Miami gear since 1959. Only the “#IStandWithTheU” T-shirt — which he described as a “band-together, stand-together” product — has been in demand.
As national media outlets have excoriated the program — for the second time since 1995, Sports Illustrated last week called for the Miami football program to be abolished — local callers have flooded talk shows, spewing frustration. They’ve lashed out at Shapiro, the NCAA, Shalala and all those around the nation snickering at the prospect of punishment for the Hurricanes.
“If people in the rest of the country believe the allegations are true, I think it’s only because it happens in their college programs as well,” said filmmaker Billy Corben, a Miami alum who directed ESPN’s college football documentary “The U.”
Despite the daily drama, Golden has striven to keep his cool, answering endless questions about the investigation without displaying annoyance. He admitted Tuesday that the last two weeks had been a “difficult time for everybody.”
“Are they holding up under the rain and storm?” Golden said about his players. “We can sit here and try to assess it, but there’s only one barometer in college football, and we’ll know it Monday night.”