MIAMI -- When Nevin Shapiro pledged $150,000 to the University of Miami athletic department, he got a student-athlete lounge named after him. But the bigger perk was access -- to the football players he idolized, the stadium sideline, the coaches, even the team plane. Big-time college sports rely on boosters to bankroll escalating coaches' salaries and ever-expanding facilities, and those donors sometimes think of themselves as part-owners of the team.
The more they pay, the closer they get.
Anybody who donates $30,000 or more annually becomes a member of the University Club and is promised interaction with a student-athlete, two pregame football sideline passes, travel for two on the team charter to a road game, scoreboard recognition at Sun Life Stadium, four VIP hospitality passes, and a diamond lapel pin, among other things.
That, in a nutshell, is how Shapiro, a rogue Hurricanes booster later imprisoned for a $930 million Ponzi scheme, began to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the Hurricane athletic department a decade ago. A sideline pass here. A road trip there. Before long, he claims, he was a Hurricane sugar daddy, hosting players, and even some coaches, at salacious parties on his $1.5 million yacht, in his $6 million waterfront mansion, and in the VIP rooms at South Beach's hottest clubs. He says he showered his favorite football players with fancy suits, jewelry, TV sets, cash, and prostitutes. And, he says, he handed $10,000 to a Miami assistant basketball coach to pay off handlers for coveted recruit DeQuan Jones.
Shapiro is at the center of a scandal that has smeared the Miami program just when things were looking bright, rocked the campus and alumni base, and resurrected Miami Vice headlines around the country. If the allegations are true, it threatens to severely hurt -- if not completely destroy -- one of the nation's most successful athletic departments.
Could the whole mess have been avoided? Who is culpable? Where were the institutional controls at Miami, the stop signs, the red flags? Under the current NCAA system, is it really possible to control booster behavior and monitor athletes off-campus?
"Yes, absolutely, this kind of behavior can be controlled, but it requires hyper-vigilance and a zero-tolerance approach," said Donna Lopiano, who spent 18 years as the athletic director for women's sports at the University of Texas, and now runs a consulting firm that helps sports organizations solve integrity and growth challenges. "The stakes are so high, and the temptations are all around, especially in a city like Miami. The compliance office has to be really aggressive, and the coaches have to be serious about ethics. It seems, if this stuff is true, that someone at UM fell asleep on watch. From now on, they'll look under every rock."
She said the most effective way to protect athletes from boosters is for coaches to be more proactive.
"A team is just like a family. There are no secrets. Coaches, like parents, know their kids. The idea that these things went on and coaches didn't know is hard to believe. When kids don't follow rules in a family, you ask, 'Where's the parenting? Who's the disciplinarian?' The same is true in college athletics. The culture of compliance has to come from the top. If a coach has an inkling a kid is doing something wrong, that coach needs to sit that kid down and say, 'If I catch you, you aren't playing and your whole career is in jeopardy.'?"
Urban Meyer, the former University of Florida football coach, agrees.
"The NCAA can't legislate boosters, third-party involvement, or 7-on-7 football (summer all-star games run by non-sanctioned coaches)," said Meyer, now an ESPN analyst. "What they can legislate is administrators, coaches, players, and compliance officers. Eighteen-year-olds make mistakes, but professionals can't make those mistakes. There have to be enough checks and balances, so that if something is noticed, it is stopped immediately. Every big issue that occurred in college athletics last year could have been controlled if the proper things had been done."
Meyer says one solution is more severe punishment for those who commit infractions.
"When I hear the system is broken, it's not broken," Meyer said. "Part of the system is broken. Instead of a complete overhaul, they need to make the punishment so severe that if you break certain rules, you can't coach or play. Period. Not you miss a few practices, or a coach can't recruit for two weeks. No, no, no. If coaches knowingly and willingly were involved in these allegations they cannot coach again."
Meyer stressed that the source of the Miami allegations is a convicted felon, and he urged people not to rush to judgment. "But, if it is true, it will be devastating for the University of Miami, an excellent school."
Athletic directors all over America are paying close attention.
"There is not an athletic director in Division I sports who doesn't sleep with one eye open, who doesn't ask him or herself, 'Do we really know everything going on?' Because what you are seeing at UM could happen anywhere in the country," said Jim Phillips, the athletic director at Northwestern University. "You have 486 student athletes to oversee, a staff of over 200, alumni, season-ticket holders, boosters. There are too many transactions going on to have full control. You just hope you hire good people who make good decisions."
Miami, which has faced sanctions three times in the past three decades, is the latest major program to land in hot water in recent years. In the past 18 months, the NCAA has investigated and/or sanctioned the University of Southern California, Ohio State, Oregon, Auburn, Michigan and North Carolina.
Corruption in college athletics is nothing new.
On Oct. 23, 1929, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a 350-page study called American College Athletics. It made the front page of The New York Times. The headline? College Sports Tainted by Bounties, Carnegie Fund Finds in Wide Study. The report found that one in seven athletes was "subsidized," that college sports were "over-commercialized" and the study alleged that some of the nation's most respected universities -- Harvard, Princeton, Columbia -- had set up "slush funds" to compensate athletes.
The study covered everything from boosters to balancing academics and athletics to financial aid and payoffs for athletes, which it termed "the deepest shadow that darkens American college athletics."
Universities continue to struggle with those issues, and try to keep boosters at arm's length. Some schools don't allow boosters on the sideline at all. USC this season instituted stricter guidelines for sideline passes, and requires everyone who gets a pass from the vice president of athletic compliance to sign a detailed pledge not to violate NCAA rules. FSU has begun posting compliance tips on Twitter and Facebook, and distributes booster tips in the stadium suites and local businesses, and in alumni magazines.
Alonzo Highsmith, the former Miami running back and father of current Hurricane quarterback A.J. Highsmith, feels the onus is on the athletes.
"It's not Al Golden's fault, it's not Donna Shalala's fault, it's not the school's fault," he said. "The only people who can monitor this are the kids themselves. The kids have to have enough integrity to say, 'I'm not going to take any money, I'm not going to go on any free boat rides' -- because nothing is free. How are Donna Shalala and Al Golden supposed to monitor 85 (scholarship) guys after football practice is over?"
It may be difficult to keep up with the comings and goings of so many young people, but coaches and athletic directors do try. Former Miami Athletic Director Paul Dee, who left his post in 2008, said when he got calls "from people on the street" informing him that Hurricanes were at a strip club called Club Rolexx, he sent spies and then prohibited the players from visiting that club.
An ACC assistant basketball coach who didn't want to be named said his staff uses team managers, other students, bar owners and bouncers as "our antennae." He said if the coaches find out that a player was at a high-end nightclub three nights in a row or a fancy restaurant, they'll call him in and say, "We heard you were at such-and-such three nights in a row, and we know you don't have that kind of money, so how did you get in and who picked up your tab?" adding, "There are red flags, and you can figure things out."
Bobby Bowden, the retired FSU football coaching legend, said it is easier to police athletes in a small college town than a big city like Miami. "In Tallahassee, everyone knows everyone, so the players can't hide. Back in the day, I used to get calls from the police chief, saying, 'Coach, I got one of your boys here, come get him.' But Miami is so big, so many people, it's a lot more difficult to know what everyone's doing."
Bowden, who has been busy speaking and promoting his book, Called to Coach, also lamented the end of football dorms and training tables (team dining halls). The NCAA banned those to integrate football players into the campus population, but Bowden said it made it harder to keep tabs on the team. "I knew where they all were sleeping when they were in the same dorm, and I'd go do bed check. Now, they're all over the city in apartments and we can't oversee them as much. At dinner, I could check in on them, lecture them. Now, coaches can't do that."
Another problem, says Lopiano, is that football and men's basketball programs are often housed in separate buildings from the rest of the athletic department because they have their own facilities. At Miami, football is in the main building, but basketball has its own offices at the arena.
"I think all coaches should be housed in the same offices as the athletic director," she said. "The boss should be able to oversee everyone. But we've been told that football and basketball recruits want to see exclusivity. They want to see marble floors and leather chairs. It's ridiculous. We need to be most vigilant about football and basketball, and they are so often off on their own."
At the end of the day, Bowden said, cheaters will be cheaters.
"It's like dealing with drugs and crime," he said. "It gets down to individuals. If someone wants to cheat, I don't care how many rules you have, he's going to cheat."