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Maryland Recruiting Scandal Came Very Close To Avoiding Media's Spotlight

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
February 10, 2003 COLLEGE PARK — Deep in the bowels of the Gossett Team House, which now sits under the black cloud of an NCAA investigation brought on by an embarrassing recruiting violation, the question on the lips of every Maryland football staffer is this: What would possess assistant coach Rod Sharpless to give money to a potential recruit? Head coach Ralph Friedgen undoubtedly has asked himself that question over and over since being informed that Sharpless made a series of cash payments totaling between $300 and $500 to consensus prep All-American Victor Abiamiri, a dominant defensive end out of Baltimore (Md.) Gilman. In Friedgen's eyes, the whole sordid mess made no sense.

“Fridge said he felt like he was kicked in the stomach,” a Maryland source told the Sports Journal. “He was hurt by what happened, hurt by what he had to do (firing his long-time friend) and hurt for his alma mater.”

Sharpless, by all available accounts, is an honest and decent man whose recruiting record had been impeccable throughout a 25-year coaching career. Abiamiri, according to sources, already had made a silent commitment to Maryland prior to receiving the largest cash gift. Simply put, what Sharpless did over the course of several brain-dead moments sabotaged what had been a strong recruiting effort by him and the entire staff. It also put a huge black eye on the face of the Maryland football program.

Maryland had put four years of tireless effort into Abiamiri, successfully working the family angle by basically gifting scholarships to his older brothers Rob and Paschal, wide receivers who drew minimal Division I-A interest. In fact, it was pressure from his parents, particularly mother Rita, that led Victor Abiamiri to lean toward Maryland over Notre Dame and other suitors. Abiamiri, according to sources close to him, preferred the Fighting Irish for a variety of reasons but could not go against the wishes of his parents, who wanted to be able to see all of their sons play in the same place and close to home.

Once it became clear that Abiamiri likely was headed to Maryland, Friedgen even personally took steps to appease Gilman coach Biff Poggi, who according to some accounts never wanted to see his star player end up in College Park. Poggi is a firm believer that education takes precedence over athletics, and he reportedly was concerned that Maryland was more of a football factory that gave academics a secondary role in the lives of its athletes. Friedgen went out of his way to convince Poggi that wasn't the case, and he took some extraordinary steps — even pulling some strings to get Abiamiri admitted into the elite Maryland honors program, which welcomes very few freshmen, athletes or otherwise — to prove that Maryland would do right by Abiamiri.

Then, in one fell swoop, it all fell apart.

According to sources, Sharpless was (legally) out to dinner with Abiamiri and his parents one night when the player announced that he hoped to get an X-Box video game console for Christmas. Peter and Rita Abiamiri told their son there would be no video game, because it cost too much money and would keep him from doing his homework. Later on, Sharpless slipped Abiamiri $200 and told him to buy the game for himself. Apparently, it wasn't the first time Sharpless had given Abiamiri cash, but it was by far the largest single payment.

Obviously, what Sharpless did was dead wrong, and he deserved to be punished severely. As a career assistant and veteran recruiter, he knew full well that NCAA rules forbade him from giving one dime to Abiamiri, yet he voluntarily violated that most basic recruiting no-no. While some in the world of college football make light of so-called “pizza money,” the truth of the matter is that giving a high school recruit $20 here, $20 there over a period of time is a blatant act of cheating.

Even beyond the legal and ethical issues, though, Sharpless was an absolute fool for giving Abiamiri any money. He was flat-out stupid for handing the youngster $200 at one time and telling him to buy flashy merchandise that would immediately draw questions from his family and friends. Believe it or not, that is exactly how this house of cards came to fall.

Ambrose Wooden, Gilman's other nationally ranked prospect, reportedly found out that Abiamiri was planning to buy (or did buy) the X-Box with the illegal $200 from Sharpless. Wooden, who was headed to Notre Dame all along and often said he wanted Abiamiri alongside him, relayed the story to at least one other person. Eventually, all of the sordid details got back to the Gilman coaches and, much later, the media.

Poggi immediately called Friedgen, who was in Florida as one of the head coaches for a collegiate all-star game at the time, and alerted him to the problem.

By all accounts, Maryland did the right thing and quickly reported the recruiting violation to the NCAA, then initiated an internal investigation. Friedgen claimed the Terrapins immediately stopped recruiting Abiamiri, although there were some indications to the contrary. What was certain was that Sharpless did not officially resign until the allegations became public on Feb. 3, two days before high school prospects can sign national letters of intent. By not announcing Sharpless' resignation right away, Maryland obviously was hoping to keep the matter quiet. Schools report minor violations to the NCAA all the time, and they often quietly receive slap-on-the-wrist penalties months later, without the media ever getting wind of the story.

That might have happened in this case had someone — according to sources, someone connected to the Gilman football program — not leaked the news to the Baltimore Sun and/or ESPN.com on Feb. 3. That set in motion a flurry of events that resulted in the Maryland athletic department issuing a statement, Sharpless tendering his resignation and Abiamiri ultimately signing with Notre Dame.

Friedgen, who swears up and down that this is an isolated incident involving an out-of-control assistant who acted entirely on his own, has no one to blame but Sharpless for this terrible mess. Certainly, this ugly incident has forever tarnished the already-shaky relationship between the coaching staffs at Gilman and Maryland. In fact, it already has been stated inside the Gossett Team House that Maryland will never recruit another Gilman player, no matter how good he may be.

Lost in the shuffle was Abiamiri, who forfeited his right to choose a college for himself by matching Sharpless' terrible mistake with one of his own and accepting the cash. Outsiders may never know for certain what truly was in Abiamiri's heart, whether he indeed preferred Maryland over Notre Dame or vice versa. But it's a shame for him — and shame on the Terps — that his final decision was clouded in so much scandal and controversy.

The last time Maryland discovered significant violations in one of its major programs, the school's internal investigation found little more than a member of Bob Wade's basketball staff providing a recruit with rides to a junior college. Unfortunately for the Terps, the NCAA wasn't satisfied with the university's report and conducted its own probe. The result: a finding of major infractions, including the dreaded “lack of institutional control.” Among other penalties, the Maryland basketball program was placed on probation for three years and barred from postseason play in 1991 and 1992.

In the aftermath of the Abiamiri situation, Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow — sharp as a tack, and always with an eye on public relations — and other officials carefully and repeatedly portrayed the situation as a secondary violation. Yow also quickly hired the Kansas-based law firm of attorney Mike Glazier, who specializes in assisting universities that are dealing with potentially serious NCAA problems. That firm already has begun contacting numerous Maryland recruiting targets, among others, in an attempt to uncover any other improprieties. Ultimately, the Terps will produce a report for the NCAA.

In mid-February, there were no whispers to suggest that Maryland's problems went beyond one renegade coach making a serious of bad decisions with one particular recruit. Then again, nobody knows for sure, and the Terps will have to live with that uncertainty, at least for a little while. That, along with the negative publicity, is a pretty big penalty itself.