The tip that launched a Yahoo! Sports investigation into former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro was enough of a story on its own. The booster, now in federal prison for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme, was a co-owner in a sports agency that had represented two former Hurricanes taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
But when Shapiro finally told his whole story to Yahoo! Sports reporter Charles Robinson, what unraveled was a tale of millions of dollars in impermissible benefits given to Miami athletes in the form of cash, prostitutes, entertainment, expensive dinners and trips to nightclubs, travel, jewelry and more over a span of eight years.
"We knew immediately we had some traction on what could be a pretty solid story," Robinson said.
Yahoo! Sports published the bombshell story Tuesday, with sources and thousands of pages of documents corroborating Shapiro's story of his involvement with the Hurricanes program. He told of at least 72 athletes who received illicit benefits and seven coaches who either received the benefits themselves, witnessed Shapiro providing them or played a role in his activity.
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Robinson's first meeting with Shapiro, serving a 20-year federal prison term, gave him a sense of the story's magnitude.
"It was like 40 minutes of me saying almost nothing and him laying out a lot of what he was involved in," Robinson, a former Orlando Sentinel reporter, said. "Once we started to dig in a little bit, within a matter of weeks, I realized, 'OK, there's a lot of validity to what this guy's talking about.'"
Robinson and fellow Yahoo! Sports reporter Dan Wetzel began working on the story in August 2010, trying from that point on to get Shapiro to speak to them. Even before he agreed to that in December, the reporters had found Florida district filings tying Shapiro to former agent and now UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue.
Shapiro alleged Huyghue had also provided impermissible benefits to players, which Huyghue denied. He did represent Vince Wilfork and Jon Beason when they were drafted.
Robinson said the story broke open in December when Shapiro decided to speak with Yahoo! Sports. His motivations were clear. After providing for dozens of former players, none would take his calls or give him money he requested after his arrest, he said.
"This was about reaching out and touching guys who he felt like had completely abandoned him," Robinson said. "He had an axe to grind and he was clear up front that speaking to us was part of that."
It took nearly 100 interviews with other sources, 20,000 pages of financial and business records from Shapiro's bankruptcy case, more than 5,000 pages of cell phone records, 1,000 photos as well as interviews from his federal case to corroborate what the booster said.
Robinson said he told Shapiro that he needed full access to financial records, passwords to email accounts, all photographs and other documentation to substantiate his claims.
"I essentially told him, 'I want everything that proves you were a person who exists for the past 10 years,' and he agreed," Robinson said. "And almost immediately after we had that conversation in December, I began receiving boxes and boxes via Fed Ex of documents and phone records, credit card bills that all told were in the millions of dollars, bank statements that were in the millions of dollars, business records. It was literally an endless stream of paper."
Yahoo! Sports' investigation has many wondering how Miami officials didn't know about Shapiro's dealings with players. In what seems to be the broadest case of violations in NCAA history, many speculate the punishment could be the harshest for any school since SMU was given the "death penalty" in 1987.
"Something was breaking down in whatever oversight there would have been for this guy," Robinson said. "It wasn't just him concealing things. He was too public in South Beach with these guys."