In jailhouse interviews, Nevin Shapiro still talking about Miami, NCAA
In a comprehensive story in this week's Sports Illustrated, senior writers Pete Thamel and Alexander Wolff go inside the Nevin Shapiro case at Miami and explore how the NCAA mishandled it. Here is some additional information that doesn't appear in the story. For the complete magazine story and to buy a digital version of the issue, go here.
I once served on a jury for a drug case in which a number of dodgy characters took the stand. I remember one of the instructions we got from the judge before going off to reach a verdict: "You take your witnesses as you find them."
In this week's Sports Illustrated, Pete Thamel and I explore the NCAA's investigation into Miami athletics and the 'Cane mutineer at the heart of the case, notorious booster Nevin Shapiro, who lavished all sorts of improper benefits on athletes at "the U" between 2002 and '10. Our reporting uncovered a number of things:
Working on the story, I found myself thinking back often to that long-ago turn at jury duty and advice from the bench. If you take your witnesses as you find them, where did we find Shapiro? We found him in prison, where he had landed for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, and a guilty plea to charges of money laundering and securities fraud.
But you could also say that we found him at the very core of the Miami athletic program, on which he had dropped a serious dime to the NCAA. So we regarded him as the ultimate insider.
When I went to visit him at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, La., I quickly realized that Shapiro in prison isn't the same guy who spent the Oughts strutting around Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. The college football team he used to lavish with his passion and cash was once castigated for wearing fatigues; here, behind fencing and razor wire, Shapiro was clothed in standard issue khakis, looking the part he now played, field marshal commanding the defense of his reputation.
Don't laugh: The veracity of his story about Hurricanes athletics is the thing he clings most tightly to. As he wrote in April to Jonathan Duncan, Lach's interim replacement as head of enforcement, "For the NCAA to come even remotely close to botching this investigation is disgraceful and I will not allow my credibility to be destroyed by your group's incompetence."
Before his transfer on May 8 to another low-security facility, in Butner, N.C., his routine was simple enough. He played pick-up basketball, sometimes with fellow Oakdale inmate and former Michigan guard Rumeal Robinson, hero of the 1989 Final Four, who is in prison for bribery and fraud. And he worked in the prison library, a gig that helped him keep up with what was being said about him as well as nemeses like Emmert and Miami president Donna Shalala.
During 10 hours of conversation over two days, I found him to be glib, profane, charismatic and self-interested, except when he'd disarmingly flash some sympathy: "Ponzi-scheming vending machines taking your money," he cackled as he watched me lose quarters in the visiting room. "I ought to file a tort claim against the Feds!"
And, if there were to be a story, there was the matter of the cover. It's gotta be the cover, Shapiro insisted. (He sort of did make SI's cover, in that this week's story is billed there -- THE NEVIN SHAPIRO CASE: THE HURRICANE THAT BLEW THROUGH MIAMI FLATTENS THE NCAA -- above an image of the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.)
Nevin Shapiro is not an undercard kind of guy.
After I left, we kept our vows to stay in touch. Some of our communications were through the Bureau of Prisons' e-mail portal. Some were through the mail. And some were by phone. Shapiro is a fast talker, but when he called he'd talk even faster, to save as many of his allotted 300 phone minutes per month as possible.
Before my trip to Oakdale, Shapiro had shared with me dozens of photos from his days hanging out with the Hurricanes and otherwise owning Miami. Among that cache, one is a grip-and-grin with attorney general Eric Holder, snapped by a Miami Beach cop at a Shapiro hangout, Prime 112 steakhouse, during his living-large days. Along with a shot that Yahoo! Sports posted with its August 2011 expose, of Shalala accepting a huge check from Shapiro at a bowling alley, no image better captures the booster's role as a kind of darkside Forrest Gump.
When I crossed the threshold of the prison at Oakdale and saw a portrait of Holder on the wall, the irony hit me as hard as a mid-2000s 'Canes DB driven by a Shapiro sweetener whacking a wideout on a crossing pattern.
He crows that, with Jeffrey Loria and Fidel Castro, he made the ballot in a recent newspaper poll to determine the most hated person in South Florida.
And he made good on his pledge to substantiate some of what he told me. Through his lawyer, Maria Elena Perez, he delivered a stack of financial records filed with the trustee in his bankruptcy case. For the most part they show a trail of investor tears, with breathtakingly large sums of money pinballing in and out -- mostly out -- of a welter of accounts. It took several days, and subsequent e-mail exchanges with Shapiro, to make sense of them. (Is that Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez wiring Shapiro $350,000 in February 2006?) But rewards awaited me for taking the time to make the slog. (That is Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, who claimed he lost $1 million by investing in Shapiro's Ponzi scheme.)
In the end I found evidence to support Shapiro's claim that he won millions on those bets. And I found myself nodding when I saw that Sean (Pee Wee) Allen, the former Hurricane equipment room employee who became Shapiro's gofer, once likened his memory to Rain Man's.
It's striking how often Shapiro bet against the team he supported. But when players and coaches tell you that the Hurricanes had quit on head coach Larry Coker and, as Shapiro puts it, "[couldn't] wait to return to Miami early enough to go to the clubs," the head overrules the heart. If you were a Miami player in Shapiro's flotilla, the rising tide lifted your boat too. As he put it to me, after he "smashed" a game, "I just had a lot more cash on me because of them in order to spring for all that they needed."
Before a game at favored Virginia Tech in November 2005, Shapiro told me, five players and a coach had gotten in his ear. From them he knew that the game was likely going to be low scoring, and he collected after betting the under in Miami's 27-7 victory. While Shapiro contends that he wasn't party to point-shaving or game-fixing, he says: "When payday arrived I made sure to pat all the players who took part. [They] knew they would be reaping some financial love."
Miami's game at Duke in October 2006 wasn't on local TV, so Shapiro says he invited a couple of players who hadn't made the trip over to his Miami Beach home. They listened to the broadcast in the garage, on the radio of his Mercedes S65 sedan, because for all the luxury of his $6.1 million digs they didn't have an AM receiver. Though favored by 18, Miami won only 20-15. Shapiro says he won in the low six-figure range.
In some cases, Shapiro told me, a business partner who owed him money would wire him a sum. Shapiro would then relay the same amount to Adam Meyer, the tout who runs the Web site AdamWins.com and became Shapiro's betting buddy in 2005. Meyer would get down a winning bet, and the proceeds helped Shapiro's indebted associate pay down his obligation.
Bank records show several transactions during football season that make his story plausible. On Dec. 1, 2005, for instance, one of Shapiro's entities received a $60,000 wire from that business partner's company, and sent a $60,000 wire to Meyer's Real Money Sports the same day. A year later, on Dec. 8, 2006, $75,000 came in from that same entity; sure enough, within hours, Shapiro wired $75,000 to Real Money Sports. Meyer's lawyer says that Meyer would only place bets for Shapiro when his client was in Las Vegas.
By 2007 Miami had a new head coach, Randy Shannon, and relying on the judgments of two members of the coaching staff, Shapiro says that he placed a succession of bets on the Hurricanes' underperforming. Shapiro told me that, "[We] shorted Randy Shannon a lot."
Does he have an agenda? Shapiro never pretends that he doesn't have an agenda. He turned Miami in because he was bitter that most of the Hurricanes he had taken care of abandoned him after his fall. Amidst all the Pollyanna PSAs that air during the Final Four, and the blow-dried heads among "the membership" who ponder whether to steer the NCAA's course one degree this way or two degrees that, it's refreshing to get a blast of honesty in the Jerry Tarkanian, "I-like-transfers-because-their-cars-are-already-paid-for" sense.
His agenda in divulging the gambling is transparent. Shapiro hopes to do with the Federal government what he never got to do with the NCAA, because the enforcement division's arrangement with Perez, which Emmert called "shocking," stopped the Miami case in its tracks. He wants to walk investigators through those bank records. If the Feds look into Shapiro's gambling, they might find crimes adjacent to it that involve others. And by cooperating he might get his 20-year sentence reduced.
I spoke with Rich Johanningmeier, the retired NCAA investigator who conducted the first 50 hours of interviews with Shapiro, and bonded with him over the intensity of having Nevin Shapiro in your life. (Your phone rings on the golf course, and it's Shapiro, Johanningmeier told my colleague Pete Thamel.) Of course he had an agenda, Johanningmeier told me: "To us it's not relevant if he has an ax to grind. The point is, What are your facts and are they correct? Nevin falls into that category.
"Is he basically telling a true story? Yes. Is there some embellishment? Yes too."
He may be 5-foot-5, but Shapiro will be the largest personality in any setting, even if it happens to be the cooler. After his sentencing in New Jersey in 2011, the Bureau of Prisons routed him through a penitentiary in Atlanta for what was to be a brief stopover in transit to his ultimate destination. But the Yahoo! Sports report broke the day he arrived, and it touched off such an uproar among inmates there that he was quickly moved to another prison, in Tallahassee, and placed in protective custody.
He spent 11 days alone, and to pass the time, Shapiro told me, he shared his tale, through cracks in the doors, with another inmate, a college football fan and amateur hip-hop artist whom Shapiro has still never seen. That neighbor in the shadows recounted the story in rap lyrics that Shapiro has since reconstructed and calls "Deuces to the 'U.'" It includes these lines:
What it is and what it do
Throw up that peace sign and say goodbye to the U
It's about to be through
Compliments of the Jew
I'ma drag you, NCAA Black Flag you
I wash my hands with your tears
Pres. Shalala, after all these years and all them beers?
My heart won't veer as we depart right here
My story runs clear
La Kosher Nostra's unveiling is near
The U's about to disappear
"'Delusional and mentally unstable?'" Shapiro replied when I asked about that description of him, which Miami uses in its unavailing motion to the NCAA to dismiss the case. "[Shalala] would prefer that I be, because it would take the spotlight off how f----- up her own university is.
"If I wanted to make a point and run her football players into ineligibility, I could do so right now from prison ... Nobody knows who I'm in contact with on the outside and for what reason. You think that these coaches, assistant or head, could possibly control the needs and temptations of 80-plus kids on their squad? In that city? No way Jose, and I could prove my point if I had to."
For a long time to come, I'll think of Shapiro on the fourth of each month. That's when inmate #61311-050 would get his new allotment of phone minutes. And that's when UNKNOWN would reliably flash up on my phone.
If Nevin knew that, how insulted he'd be.