VAHE GREGORIAN

Missouri coach Frank Haith relishing opportunity to finally face the NCAA

Updated: 2013-06-13T15:00:49Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

From the instant two years ago that Yahoo Sports unfurled the jarring, exhaustive investigative report on University of Miami football that included a morsel about the basketball program, Frank Haith has felt a sense of being straitjacketed.

Largely stifled into silence by NCAA decree as it went about its own investigation of Miami, Haith was relegated to tweaking semantics to proclaim his innocence, an exercise in restraint that was particularly exasperating at a time his hiring away from Miami by Mizzou had been ridiculed because of his relative anonymity and his 43-69 Atlantic Coast Conference record

Even as Haith thrived through his first season at Mizzou, garnering multiple national coach-of-the-year honors, the anvil hovered overhead, never quite in focus but never far off.

And as he grappled with his second MU team last season, the looming issue zoomed in tighter, first with a seemingly strategically leaked and ultimately erroneous report in January that the NCAA would charge him with unethical conduct, typically a job-terminator.

Finally, a month later, the actual NCAA notice of allegations came distilled in the form of a 147-word puzzle stating Haith stood charged with “failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance.”

Yet Haith still was largely compelled to stay mum, only occasionally allowing his attorneys to present some muted version of what he wanted to shout out.

Small wonder, then, that with an appearance before the NCAA Committee on Infractions in Indianapolis set for today, Haith on Monday at Oakwood Country Club used the word “excited” to describe his state of mind.

“Absolutely,” said Haith, in town for a KC Tiger Club fund raiser. “It’s over two years (since the NCAA investigation began), so it will be great to have a chance to defend ourselves.”

Only Haith, his accuser — the convicted felon and former Miami mega-booster Nevin Shapiro — and perhaps two others truly know what Haith did or didn’t do. Anyone else is only guessing.

But the evidence against him, anyway, seemed curious from the start and dubious by the end.

And while MU athletic director Mike Alden says he doesn’t know what to expect from the proceedings in Indianapolis, he adds, “We’re very proud of him, we’re very proud of the way he represents the university, and we want to be there to be able to show that support physically.”

The Yahoo report sizzled down to Shapiro, serving 20 years for his role in a $900 million Ponzi scheme, accusing Haith of thanking him for giving $10,000 in cash to then-Miami assistant Jake Morton to provide to an unidentified member of then-recruit DeQuan Jones’ family to secure Jones’ signing at Miami.

But there were more questions than answers to the scenario laid out.

And not just because Shapiro said the money later was returned after he became angry with the coaches for not responding to his calls from prison — a statement that in itself demonstrates vindictiveness against Haith and his assistants and at least suggests the possibility of incentive to take them down.

According to the report, Shapiro gave Morton the money in early summer 2008, at least six months after Jones had signed with Miami. Later that month, Shapiro told Yahoo, Haith “expressed gratitude” for the payment, a vague notion … especially since Haith’s favorite term might be “Appreciate you.”

So maybe Haith was complicit in some such scheme. But maybe Shapiro is exaggerating or fabricating — and what is his word worth, anyway?

Too much, if you consider the way Miami president Donna Shalala put it in a statement after the formal notice of allegations against Miami was delivered in February:

“The NCAA enforcement staff acknowledged to the University that if Nevin Shapiro, a convicted con man, said something more than once, it considered the allegation ‘corroborated,’ an argument which is both ludicrous and counter to legal practice.”

That’s awfully bold stuff for someone of Shalala’s stature to say if the NCAA hadn’t, in fact, acknowledged that.

As for the notice of allegations against Miami, bear in mind that it also was tainted by the bizarre, discrediting revelation in January of unethical NCAA enforcement staff work that led to an external review and staff shake-up … but a proclamation just weeks later that essentially said, “Presto, we’re fixed.”

Out of that “new” NCAA came the formal allegation against Miami, including Haith, thrust thusly:

“Specifically, Haith was aware that Nevin Shapiro (Shapiro), a representative of the institution’s athletics interests, threatened that unless Jake Morton (Morton), then assistant men’s basketball coach, or Haith provided money to Shapiro, Shapiro would make public a claim that Shapiro provided money to assist in the recruitment of a men’s basketball prospective student-athlete.

“After learning of the threat, Haith failed to alert anyone in the athletics department administration about Shapiro’s threat, ask reasonable questions of Morton to ensure that Shapiro’s claim lacked merit or disclose the fact that Morton engaged in financial dealings with Shapiro.

“Rather, Haith gave Morton funds that Morton then provided to Shapiro.”

While the literal accusation is that Haith failed to report a threat, the subtext says more.

So never mind that it might be surmised that between Shapiro’s word and the NCAA enforcement staff’s dysfunction, many aspects of the case against Haith might be considered what lawyers like to call “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

Even if Haith welcomes his chance to defend himself, the fuzzy wording of the allegation is a reminder that the capricious NCAA has, can and often will divine conclusions that rely not on what it can prove but on what it thinks it knows.

So Haith may face more tribulations ahead when the NCAA releases its verdict, likely between six and 16 weeks from now, according to Alden.

But at least now he’s free to engage the accusations, a victory in itself after two years of being squelched.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868, send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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