CORAL GABLES – As far as comebacks go, Miami president Donna Shalala’s work to limit more crippling sanctions on her school resembles Richard Nixon’s ascension to the presidency, John Travolta’s return to the A-list and Steve Jobs’ reclamation of Apple.
On Oct. 22, the NCAA ruled Miami’s final penalty would be the loss of nine scholarships over the next three years. Shalala and her staff were commended on their cooperation, their self-imposed penalties of two bowl bans and an ACC championship game and suspensions to players. All basketball and football coaches involved in improprieties no longer are with the program.
NCAA committee chairman Britton Banowsky said those actions played a huge role, calling them “significant and unprecedented, really.”
“It’s a big deal, a very big deal,” Banowsky said. “The fact that it also prevented an ACC competition, a championship game which potentially could have led to a BCS bowl berth, those are very big decisions that were made by the university, and the committee appreciated those decisions.”
Rather than gloat or take pride that Miami’s scholarship losses were less than Southern Cal in its NCAA battle, Shalala admitted mistakes were made, expressed remorse and said the NCAA’s decision wouldn’t be appealed.
“I was glad that finally we got the report from the NCAA,” she told reporters. “We’ve been waiting for some time to get it. It was a relief to get closure here.”
The negative recruiting, the threat of more bowl bans, the uncertainty … is over.
The worst part is behind the Hurricanes.
“Every player committed now can’t wait,” said Larry Blustein, a South Florida recruiting expert. “They were excited before, but now they’re really excited.”
Don Bailey Jr. said he never doubted the former secretary for Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton.
“She’s dealt with world issues, national issues,” he said. “This is not the biggest issue, and it showed.
“The way she and AD Blake James and Al Golden handled the NCAA investigation is an example for the rest of the country. I don’t think people realize what we have here.”
What’s remarkable is the way Shalala is seen now. When Yahoo came out with its investigation 26 months ago, she couldn’t have looked much worse.
You remember the photo, right? The one with a smiling Shalala holding a $50,000 check with renegade booster Nevin Shapiro in the middle and former men’s basketball coach Frank Haith to his left. That came out the same time as Shapiro telling Yahoo that he lavished players with bounties, hotels, hookers, boat trips and even paid for an abortion.
Usually, a photo like the one Shalala appeared in is a textbook example of career suicide. From that embarrassment and humiliation, Shalala became the guiding force front and center, as well as behind the scenes.
Shalala, Nixon, Travolta, Jobs Link
So how do Shalala’s challenges at Miami compare to Nixon, Travolta and Jobs?
These people didn’t deal with adversity, loss and change for a few months. It was nearly a decade – or more. Yet they not only survived, but in many cases, they also became better for it. It’s a great study in human will and perseverance.
Nixon not only lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy, but he lost a race for governor of California in 1962. Not until 1968 did he run for the presidency and win.
Travolta’s acting career declined in the early 1980s as he took on film roles that flopped while he turned down others that became blockbusters. Not until Pulp Fiction (1994) did he truly resuscitate his career.
In 1985, Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he helped start. It wasn’t until 1996 that he returned and helped bring Apple back to profitability with the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
Jobs said, “I was out – and very publicly out. I was a very public failure.”
Nixon said in 1962, “You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
Travolta lent perspective. In assessing his dark years, he said, “You learn by your failures and you learn by your mistakes, but you don’t take them to heart or it takes the spirit out of you.”
Shalala’s decade-long problems came from two areas – moving to the ACC and letting Shapiro take one step on campus.
The Ponzi schemer began circulating among Miami athletes shortly after they lost a heartbreaker to Ohio State for the 2002 national championship. A little more than a year later, Shalala was involved in moving the Hurricanes from the Big East.
While the Hurricanes haven’t made an ACC title game in football since their arrival, the program also spiraled downward with Shapiro’s presence.
When the Yahoo story and photo appeared, many of her biggest critics wanted her fired. A week after the revelations, NCAA president Mark Emmert said, “If, and I say if, we have very unique circumstances where TV bans and death penalties are warranted, then I don’t think they are off the table, and I would be OK with putting those in place.”
But instead of bailing on Shalala, school officials rallied around her.
She rewarded the faith with tremendous leadership. She was proactive and cooperative, yet unflinching with the NCAA. She left open the possibility of filing a post-sanctions suit or hauling the NCAA to Washington when the organization made mistakes.
Wouldn’t you have liked to have tapped the phone line and listened to conversations between Emmert and Shalala, especially after his staff’s wrongdoings? Remember, Shalala once dressed down Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. She doesn’t back down from anybody.
She knew she had the NCAA in a tough position. She could bring retribution for perceived unfair sanctions. But she also knew the last thing Golden wanted was an appeal and more months of his program in limbo.
Best guess here is that Shalala and the NCAA reached a compromise, even to the point it was nine lost scholarships, not double figures. No more bowl bans from the NCAA, no appeal by Miami.
The Hurricanes leave purgatory, the NCAA avoids potential litigation.
All those years as a Washington, D.C., insider prepped Shalala well. As CaneSport columnist Gary Ferman wrote, she and her staff should write a book on crisis management.
Shalala apologized to the Hurricane family. “Thank you for standing with us,” she wrote.
And Miami is wise for standing with her.
With Ferman estimating Miami at between 74 and 77 tenders, Golden is fully prepared to deal with the scholarship losses. A non-penalized school is allowed to have 85 scholarship players on its roster.
“What Al Golden did was play like a capologist,” Blustein said. “I don’t think it’s gonna hurt that much. There may be a depth problem here or there.”
Blustein said he first-hand saw at least half a dozen cases where opposing recruiters would tell Hurricane prospects, “Why are you gonna go to Miami, they’re gonna be on probation.”
“I was at ground zero,” he said. “It was a monumental barrage.”
What amazed Blustein was that Golden has been able to assemble top-10 and top-five classes under this cloud.
“Everyone thinks they were going to Shangri-La while they were waiting,” he said. “But the average person doesn’t know what the ramifications were in interim.”
So what negative recruiting can be done now? The Graduation Success Rate? No. Miami came out at 86 percent in football.
“They now have a formula,” Blustein said. “Tap into local kids like you should and use their drawing power in the Northeast to get other kids.
“Since Donna Shalala has gotten here, they’ve taken very few kids who were risks back in the day. Holy Christmas. They don’t have those thuggy-type kids now.”
And there’s a lot to choose from. Last year, Blustein said there were 227 players from Key West to Palm Beach who received Division I scholarships.