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Opinion: To Suggest Miami Got Off Lightly Would Be Incorrect

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USA TODAY
October 23, 2013 Wednesday
First EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 12C
991 words
Miami didn't get off lightly;
Self-imposed ban, uncertainty were painful for Hurricanes
Dan Wolken, @DanWolken, USA TODAY Sports

Give or take a few scholarships, it's all over for the University of Miami. Nevin Shapiro's dirty money no longer hovers over Coral Gables, Fla., like a cloud, threatening to drag the Hurricanes football program into the abyss after years of funding assistant coaches and college athletes in blatant violation of NCAA rules.

Miami, it turns out, will be just fine.

But to suggest the Hurricanes got off easy for what the NCAA termed a decade of violations would be incorrect.

This might not be the NCAA of old, where schools feared TV bans and even the death penalty in these kinds of cases. The lawyers who specialize in fighting the NCAA these days are too good, the NCAA's investigative division too weak and the public's blood lust to bring down cheaters has lessened considerably.

Sure, for all the lack of institutional control fire and brimstone in the first third of the NCAA Committee on Infractions' report, there wasn't much by way of penalties. The shrapnel hit much harder for former coaches in football and basketball, some of whom received show cause penalties, but the biggest damage to the school itself was nine total scholarships over three years in football and one scholarship in each of the next three years in men's basketball. That's basically nothing.

But Miami paid a steep price. Just because it could have been worse doesn't mean it wasn't bad.

Whether this case was ever going to amount to more than we saw Tuesday, Miami has had to operate for two-plus years as if the program was on the verge of collapse. Two recruiting classes -- the lifeblood of the program -- were irreparably damaged. Two teams that would have played in bowls -- not to mention an Atlantic Coast Conference title game last season -- stayed home because of self-imposed postseason bans. As a byproduct, Miami wasn't able to hold December practices that bowl-eligible teams get, which any coach can tell you are crucial to building a foundation for the next season.

"It's a big deal, a very big deal, and the fact it prevented an ACC championship competition that would have led to a BCS bowl berth," Committee on Infractions chairman Britton Banowsky said. "Those are very big decisions that were made by the university, and the committee appreciated those decisions."

For better or worse, that's the new NCAA. When it doesn't have the authority or competence to hammer a school, the biggest weapon it has is uncertainty.

And maybe that makes sense. With hardly anyone left from Shapiro's days of lavishing coaches and players with trips to strip clubs and parties on his yacht, what more was there to punish?

To its credit, Miami understood those dynamics better than other high-profile football programs in the NCAA's cross hairs of late.

Yes, football coach Al Golden complained vociferously about the time the investigation took. And, yes, school President Donna Shalala was quick to cry foul when the NCAA acknowledged using Shapiro's personal lawyer to improperly obtain information.

But ultimately, Miami did what it had to do to avoid bigger penalties.

For all the continued whining coming from Southern California about how badly it got hammered (its two-year postseason ban and loss of 30 scholarships over three years makes Miami's punishment look like child's play), former USC athletics director Mike Garrett bungled things from the start. Instead of being proactive and cooperative, he stonewalled at every turn and all but dared the NCAA to come get USC -- and it did.

"We talked about it and decided what was best for our program, given our understanding of the facts at the time, our estimation of what the committee would come back with," Miami athletics director Blake James said Tuesday. "I'm glad that as hard as it was to do last year -- because, again, we took away an opportunity for a group of young men to compete in a bowl game that had earned that right -- it was the right decision for our program, and I think we saw that play out today."

Part of what will drive the sentiment that Miami got off easy is that its football team is 6-0 and No. 6 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll. But that belies how perilously close the program was to crumbling, thanks to the last two years of uncertainty.

When Golden came to Miami, he took what he thought was his dream job, unaware what was on the horizon. And once it hit, many advised him to take one of the many high-profile openings where there would be less NCAA baggage.

But as Golden explained in an interview this year, why leave? He lives five minutes from campus. He loves the weather, the campus and the recruiting base. And "when it's right" at Miami, as Golden said, how can you argue against five national titles in the last 30 seasons?

Had Golden seen it differently, Miami would have been in bad shape. Imagine trying to hire a coach under those circumstances, much less retaining players and recruiting new ones.

Only Golden's loyalty saved a long, incredibly painful climb back.

"He has been extraordinary, as has (men's basketball coach) Jim Larranaga," Shalala told USA TODAY Sports. "But Al, in particular, has gotten the brunt of this, and we all couldn't be more grateful. He's a class act. He showed both his toughness and his commitment to the university. He's a wonderful coach and a wonderful human being, and our whole community is grateful to him."

The news comes a little more than a week before Miami visits No. 3 Florida State. Golden said things started to turn last season after a 33-20 loss to the Seminoles. Though the Hurricanes were outmanned, they were competitive and finished the season with momentum, winning three of the next four.

Golden desperately wanted another shot at Florida State, which would have come in the ACC title game had the school not imposed the postseason ban.

Now he gets that chance in a huge game, on a massive stage, with nothing to worry about except a win or a loss.

Then again, Miami's biggest victory this year is in the bag.

October 23, 2013

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