It could have been so much worse.
In summer 2011, when Yahoo! Sports brought Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro's unseemly relationship with Miami athletics to the fore, Frank Haith was out in the open. Missouri athletic director Mike Alden had reached on a coach with one tournament appearance and a 47-69 career ACC record, and now, at best, that same coach was subject to an optics nightmare. At worst, Shapiro alleged, Haith arranged for a $10,000 payment to a prospect.
Either way, it wasn't good. Months earlier, Alden had proudly sold skeptical Tigers die-hards on Haith's "integrity" and "character." The new coach's contract included language that allowed the Tigers to cut ties with cause, if it came to that. All they needed was a finished NCAA investigation.
Instead, the NCAA's findings, released Tuesday, comprise little more than a glancing blow. The Committee on Infractions suspended Haith for five games, to be served at the start of this season, and he'll have to attend an NCAA rules seminar next summer. Neither will threaten his job at Missouri.
Haith's success since his arrival factors in that calculus. In his first season, he led former coach Mike Anderson's players to a 30-5 record and a Big 12 tournament title. The Tigers made the NCAA tournament again in 2012-13, and Haith's program has quickly become a destination for talented transfers.
But his security has much more to do with the NCAA's strange decision itself.
The Committee on Infractions said Miami athletics "lacked institutional control" for a decade, when it allowed Shapiro to entertain approximately 30 student-athletes "at his home, on his yacht and in various restaurants and clubs." But it did not hold up Shapiro's alleged payment to then-prospect DeQuan Jones or implicate Haith directly.
Instead, it pinned much of the basketball program's issues on assistant coaches. Two former men's basketball assistants "looked to the booster to entertain" recruits and their coaches. One assistant lent his airline miles to a high school coach and "did not follow NCAA ethical conduct rules when he provided false information during his interviews." One former Miami assistant coach, identified as Jorge Fernandez in an ESPN.com report Tuesday morning, was assessed a two-year show-cause penalty.
But the NCAA found that Haith's relationship to Shapiro and role in any violations was limited -- a product of bad management, not of bad acts -- even as he helped an assistant coach assemble $10,000 meant to quiet Shapiro's jailhouse threats.
The optics are no better here. When an incarcerated alleged Ponzi schemer starts threatening you and demanding money, paying him off is not the best way to showcase your innocence. But whatever can be read between the lines of those paragraphs, without a direct link in the NCAA's findings, Haith was able to claim the same relative ignorance of his staff's relationships as did former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who received a three-game suspension following the Nate Miles investigation in 2011.
How Haith was able to do so is a matter of some mystery. In its report, the committee makes "a factual conclusion that the former head men's basketball coach and former assistant men's basketball coach worked together to ensure that the booster received a large cash payment and that this payment would end the booster's threats."
Later, in a footnote, it states "the former head men's basketball coach told multiple versions about what he knew and what transpired in June 2010. In consideration of the three interviews and multiple versions surrounding the booster's threats, the committee largely bases its conclusions on information [Haith] reported during his first two interviews. The committee finds that information to be more credible and persuasive than the information [Haith] reported in his first interview."
Haith requested that third meeting, according to the report, but the committee didn't believe much of what he said. The confusing bit, then, is how Haith was able to avoid charges of misleading the NCAA, the same heavily enforced charges that have ended several high-profile coaches' tenures -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl and Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel among them -- in recent seasons.
If there is any good news, it's that Haith may be the last of his kind. Under the NCAA's new enforcement structure, head coaches are no longer afforded plausible deniability; rather, they are responsible for any violations their assistants commit on their watch. Miami's violations occurred before the new enforcement rules were put in place, so Haith isn't subject to them.
So Haith, in the end, will miss five whole games in November. Those opponents, with all due respect, are hardly can't-miss affairs: Southeastern Louisiana, Southern Illinois, Hawaii, Gardner-Webb and IUPUI. That's it. Haith's reputation may be bruised. No one in Columbia can feel especially good about this. The 2» years of investigative headache surely wasn't much fun. But that's it. Five whole games.
Compared to what might have been -- a "lack of institutional control,” the grim specter of a show-cause penalty and even seeing the Missouri job slip through his grasp after one or two seasons -- the damage Haith took Tuesday was little more than cosmetic. He got out clean, or cleaner than most.
A sigh of relief is warranted. A lucky rabbit's foot demands a hearty rub. Whatever Haith's preferred superstition is, he should thank it. For both him and his athletic director, this could have been -- and probably should have been -- so much worse.