Mizzou's Haith's Character Now Up For Debate In Light Of Miami Scandal
When Missouri brought in Frank Haith as its new men's basketball coach in April, the hiring was hard to justify. Rather than celebrate, the Tigers' athletic department had to engage in spin control, because while no one was calling the move brilliant, many were calling it inexplicable. Mizzou had just been rebuffed by a very good coach, Purdue's Matt Painter, and now it was turning to someone who was in jeopardy of getting fired from Miami? Mind you, Coral Gables is not an easy place to win, but it was hard to sell fans on Haith's 43-69 ACC record over six seasons, which included just one trip to the NCAA tournament, in 2008.
Tigers athletic director Mike Alden had to fall back on less quantifiable justifications. Alden spoke of his new coach's experience recruiting in the Big 12 as an assistant at Texas. But what the AD really focused on, in his early defense of Haith, were the words "integrity" and "character" -- saying that Haith's "entire reputation is based on building young men of character," and that "Frank has the character and integrity we are looking for." One prominent Missouri booster, in an early article about the hiring, still seemed skeptical. "In this case, the margin for error isn't as great," he said. "[Alden] rises or falls with how Haith does."
It is generally appropriate to wait a few years -- at least three, maybe four -- before declaring that a hire was a mistake. A new coach needs time to put in his system, sign his own recruits, and get them to buy in to the program. But now the Haith "era" may end before he coaches a single game.
Yahoo! Sports dropped an investigative bombshell on Tuesday, effectively ravaging the Miami athletic department with allegations of wide-ranging, major NCAA violations. The Yahoo! story details the claims of former booster Nevin Shapiro, who before being jailed for his involvement in a $930-million Ponzi scheme was involved in providing unconscionable amounts of improper benefits to Hurricanes athletes and recruits. Most of the allegations are related to the school's football program, but among the most stunning is that Shapiro gave a Miami assistant basketball coach, Jake Morton, $10,000 that was used to help secure the services of recruit DeQuan Jones -- and that the deal was "acknowledged" by Haith. Members of the Miami staff, including Haith, allegedly partied with Shapiro at a strip club, made calls to his cellphone, and appeared in photos with the Ponzi-schemer -- including two damning snapshots that ran in the Yahoo! report.
The NCAA is investigating Shapiro's claims, which have been laid out in great detail by Yahoo!. The Miami football program is likely to take the brunt of the punishment -- the death penalty is within reason, given that 71 football players are implicated -- but Haith and the basketball program will have difficultly escaping unscathed. For what it's worth, Haith issued a statement saying he'll cooperate with the investigation, and that Shapiro's allegations "are not an accurate portrayal of my character."
There's that word again -- character. It was all Missouri had to fall back on with Haith, and now it's being assailed. He was allegedly cheating at Miami, and he still couldn't win with any regularity. It could take years for the NCAA to rule on this case, but Alden needs to do his due diligence and decide if there's real merit to Shapiro's claims, which Yahoo! already felt were strong enough to include in its report. Typically an assistant (in this case, Morton) gets thrown under the bus to protect the head man, but with Shapiro fully cooperating with the NCAA, Haith faces the very real possibility of a show cause.
If Alden believes the odds of a show cause are strong, it's in his best interest to get out in front of the situation and put Haith on administrative leave. Doing so in the next few months would mean sacrificing a 2011-12 season in which the Tigers return enough talent to contend for a Big 12 title, but would be smart for the future of the program. Remember when, in May 2006, Indiana stuck with its freshly hired coach, Kelvin Sampson, despite the troubles that surfaced from his time at Oklahoma? That didn't work out for the Hoosiers. It doesn't make sense to hang on to a questionable hire who already has strikes against him, and it wouldn't cost Missouri much to fire Haith with cause: contract details that surfaced earlier this summer indicate that the price tag would only be $350,000.
There are a few parties to feel sorry for in this mess, namely the Missouri players, who just lost an excellent coach, Mike Anderson, to Arkansas, and will now enter a season with either a coach on the NCAA hot seat, or an interim coach who was thrown into the fire. The other sympathetic figure is Jim Larranaga, the longtime George Mason coach who surprisingly left for Miami in late April, taking Haith's old job. Larranaga, a beloved figure in Fairfax, Va., after leading the Patriots to the 2006 Final Four, could have coached out his career at the mid-major school, but wanted to take on the challenge of competing in the ACC before he retired -- and receive the heftier contract that came along with it. He didn't anticipate getting screwed by the misdeeds of Shapiro and Haith. At a school with no hoops tradition, it'll be nearly impossible to build recruiting momentum under the specter of NCAA sanctions.
Back in April, I wondered if I'd someday be writing a "Haith isn't working out for Missouri" column, and a "Larranaga regrets leaving Mason" column, maybe as separate topics in March 2014. Those would have been sad pieces. Being forced to already combine those subjects, in the wake of the great Miami scandal, is infinitely more depressing.