CORAL GABLES, FLA. (AP) - At Miami, Friday began with two football players saying the Hurricanes were focused on the coming season and not any possible looming sanctions against a dozen teammates implicated in a scandal that prompted an NCAA investigation.
The day ended with the chairman of the board of trustees offering university president Donna Shalala a strong vote of confidence.
Leonard Abess‘ letter to the university community was released late Friday night, and he says it’s “especially important that the alleged misconduct not overshadow our current leadership and institutional values.”
“Without a doubt these allegations are troubling and demand a thorough and honest evaluation of Hurricane Athletics,” Abess wrote. “President Shalala has taken a strong position, insisting on full cooperation with the ongoing NCAA investigation. The process will be long, and in the ensuing months the Board of Trustees and the university administration will provide both leadership and unwavering support for our great institution.”
Shalala released a statement earlier this week about the scandal that was prompted by convicted Ponzi scheme architect Nevin Shapiro’s claims that he provided 72 players over a nine-year span with cash, cars, prostitutes and other gifts _ all of which could bring major sanctions by the NCAA, which has spent the past five months investigating.
In an interview posted online Friday by Miami’s student newspaper, The Miami Hurricane, Shalala said she plans to remain at the school “for a long time.”
“We must not allow our current crisis in athletics to diminish the excellence and hard work of generations in the UM family,” Abess wrote.
That was also the sentiment shared by two Miami players 14 hours before Abess‘ statement came out.
Miami’s decision to allow Horn and James to take the first questions posed to players since the scandal broke was not entirely coincidental. Not only are they among the most expressive Hurricanes, but neither is among the current players implicated in the report.
“Life is easy regardless,” James said. “We just know we don’t pay attention to outside things. We just focus on us, and that’s about it.”
Horn and James were the only two speakers before Miami’s practice Friday morning. Coach Al Golden opted to take a day off from briefing reporters, clearly weary of discussing the scandal. Golden was not implicated in the story, since all the events Shapiro detailed to Yahoo Sports allegedly took place between 2002 and 2010. Golden was hired in December, months after Shapiro was placed into custody for masterminding a $930 million Ponzi scheme.
Larry Coker, now the coach at Texas-San Antonio, was coaching the Hurricanes when Shapiro first became a booster at Miami. Coker said Friday he was “distraught” over the situation and he was not involved in what Shapiro alleges.
“It’s really very hurtful,” Coker said. “It really is. I’ll be quite honest about that.”
The scandal broke just days after NCAA President Mark Emmert led a group of university presidents _ including Shalala _ in drafting an outline for change in college sports.
“She’s been a terrific leader in higher education, and I have great respect for her,” Emmert told The Associated Press on Friday. “I can only imagine how much she’s struggling with this, like I would have been if this had happened on my watch.”
Shapiro is serving a 20-year prison sentence. He has also been ordered to pay more than $82 million to bilked investors. He was in the midst of being transported by federal officials from Atlanta to a still-undisclosed final destination _ possibly South Florida _ on Friday, according to his attorney, Maria Elena Perez.
Neither Horn nor James would say if they spoke to any of the current players who were implicated by Shapiro about the scandal. Shapiro claims he threw lavish parties at his home and on his yacht, provided cash to recruits and paid for 39 players to have sex with prostitutes. Among those named by Shapiro include NFL stars Jon Beason, Frank Gore, Devin Hester, Andre Johnson, Kenny Phillips, Antrel Rolle, Jon Vilma and Vince Wilfork.
Most of the NFL players named in the story have either declined comment or denied the claims made by Shapiro.
“I am concerned,” Rolle said this week. “I am concerned because this is bringing unnecessary drama to the program that doesn’t need to be. I am a Miami guy at heart and I always will be a Miami guy at heart. I just want these players to have the same fortunate career as I had and other people had. But right now there is a lot of drama going on and it’s all caused by one guy, one angry guy.”
The current Hurricanes listed in the story include 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 _ many of whom are expected to play key roles for the team in 2011.
All Miami players remain eligible to practice, though some are limited by injury.
Horn said players were not fretting about the possibility that some of those 12 implicated players might be deemed ineligible by the university for at least part of the season.
“The way we’ve been taught from the very beginning is that the depth chart’s in sand,” Horn said. “So we don’t even know who’s going to start the first game. All we can do is come out here and play as hard as we can.”
Added James: “We’ve got tunnel vision.”
Some around the program wonder if the distractions simply will be too much for the Hurricanes, in their first year under Golden and coming off a disappointing 7-6 season. Or it could bring the team closer.
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.
The NCAA’s four-year statute of limitations doesn’t apply when there is a pattern of willful violations that continues into the past four years.
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot and Associated Press Writer Paul Weber contributed to this report.