CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Speaking out for the first time since Miami football players were accused of getting cash, gifts and prostitutes from an ex-booster, athletic director Shawn Eichorst vowed Thursday that "a better day" would be coming for the Hurricanes. Some players also ended their silence to say the team is hurting because of the allegations.
Those messages came as the attorney for Nevin Shapiro, a convicted Ponzi scheme architect, defended her client’s accusations that he bankrolled a wild lifestyle for Hurricane players.
In a statement, Eichorst said the subjects of the NCAA and university investigation have his unconditional support. He urged a skeptical fan base to remain patient with a process that went on quietly for five months, then burst into the public eye Tuesday when Shapiro’s claims were published by Yahoo Sports.
"There are tough times ahead, challenges to overcome and serious decisions to be made, but we will be left standing and we will be stronger as a result," Eichorst wrote. "I understand there are unanswered questions, concerns and frustration by many but this Athletic Department will be defined now and in the future, by our core values, our integrity and our commitment to excellence, and by nothing else."
Even Shapiro’s attorney, Maria Elena Perez — a University of Miami graduate who proudly displays her diploma in her office — said she agrees with Eichorst that the Hurricanes will be "left standing" when this process ends.
"I think there will be a football program after this," Perez said. "If they shut down this football program, too many people will lose too much money."
But Perez said the allegations were not made up and speculated more could be triggered by Shapiro’s story. The attorney said Shapiro, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for masterminding a $930 million Ponzi scheme, is aware of the fallout from his claims made to Yahoo Sports.
"I believe inevitably there will be more," Perez said. "Whether that comes from Nevin or from outside sources who have additional information about this, I can’t tell you. But I believe that there will be more."
The Hurricanes went through two practices Thursday, and coach Al Golden said he’s hoping their focus is on football and nothing else. The team will hold its second scrimmage of training camp early next week, after which the depth chart and 60-person travel roster for the Sept. 5 season-opener at Maryland will essentially be set.
The NCAA investigation, though no one knows when it will end, is likely going to stretch for several more weeks, at least.
"If anything, it’s going to bring us closer together," Golden said. "Again, 90 percent of the guys have nothing to do with this as it happened in the past. For the most part, inside here, we’re moving forward."
Though Golden said his team decided on its own to limit usage of social media like Facebook and Twitter during training camp, some Miami players felt Thursday was the right time to speak out. Defensive back Brandon McGee tweeted before the morning practice, "Know this for sure everyone hurts! We all feel pain!" Between sessions, running back Mike James wrote "You have to appreciate the process and accept the struggle."
In Lubbock, Texas, former Miami athletic director Kirby Hocutt, who now holds the same job at Texas Tech, called the situation involving the Hurricanes "sad" and "unfortunate."
Hocutt said he has not been approached by NCAA investigators.
"If young people made mistakes, that’s unfortunate," Hocutt said. He added that in his time at Miami, the school was very aggressive when it came to educating players about the pitfalls that could come from interacting with third parties.
"It was a rogue booster and someone who was determined to go around the system," Hocutt said.
The Hurricanes are trying to get back to business-as-usual, but it’s a difficult task given the uncertainty around this season, the eligibility of a dozen players named in the Yahoo Sports report, and the potential repercussions the team may face once the NCAA investigation is completed.
Two of the current players implicated in the Shapiro scandal — quarterback Jacory Harris and defensive back JoJo Nicholas — were not in uniform Thursday morning, for reasons that school officials said didn’t involve the investigation. Harris was on the field in shorts and a T-shirt, whistle dangling from his neck, serving as a player coach for the morning. Golden has used several players in that role in recent days.
Nicholas was tending to a family matter and was excused. Harris was in uniform for the afternoon practice, which was closed to reporters.
"These are not times for pity and reflection," Eichorst said. "All of my efforts and energy are committed to ensuring the integrity of the NCAA investigation, demanding the full cooperation of our employees and student-athletes and providing unwavering support to our more than 400 plus student-athletes and more than 150 coaches and staff."
Shapiro is in the process of being transferred from federal custody in Atlanta and could end up in prison in South Florida, though his attorney said she’s still unaware where exactly he’s going and when he’ll get there. As part of his sentence, Shapiro has been ordered to pay nearly $83 million in restitution, and he plans to write a book to help raise those funds.
"We thought once this got out, inevitably, there would be someone interested in writing the book," Perez said. "That’s how he hopes to make the victims whole."
Miami joined a growing list of schools with major football programs to be investigated by the NCAA for rule-breaking in the last 18 months. Others include Southern California, Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU.
Shapiro began making his allegations about a year ago. He told Yahoo Sports that 72 football players and other athletes at Miami received improper benefits from him in the past decade.
More than a dozen former Miami players interviewed by the AP this week have either denied involvement or declined comment.
"The community, the coaches, the student-athletes and the University have my unconditional support as we move towards a better day," Eichorst wrote. "And there will be a better day."