Miami's presence at men's NCAA Tournament Final Four a testament to power of NIL

HOUSTON — The number hit UConn coach Dan Hurley the same way it hit a lot of people in his profession and throughout the larger ecosystem of college sports.

Four hundred thousand dollars a year?

Everyone knew that the ability for college athletes to earn money off their name, image and likeness had arrived and was going to shake up college sports for better or worse. Some of the changes were going to be entirely predictable, but the unintended consequences were still unknown.

And last April, Miami basketball was the epicenter for just how real it was about to get.

“NIL during last season was still like — I don’t want to say a rumor,” Hurley said. “But then that hit you — like, that sent shock waves.”

Nijel Pack was a good player at Kansas State last season but far from a household name, playing for a team that finished ninth in the Big 12. Suddenly, thanks to billionaire John Ruiz, he was the biggest story in college basketball.

Right as Pack’s commitment to transfer to Miami be came public, Ruiz announced on Twitter that Pack had signed a two-year endorsement deal with his company LifeWallet, which essentially started as a healthcare app, for $400,000 annually plus a car.

Whatever you thought about this arrangement — Was it a straight-up inducement to come to Miami? Was it just on the right side of the gray area? — it was the reality of the new world where college athletes could sign marketing deals without a lot of guidance in NCAA rules. And given Ruiz’s love of the spotlight and his interest in the Hurricanes, which now includes endorsement deals with more than 100 athletes, there were going to be a lot of eyeballs on Miami.

“I don’t feel like we were a groundbreaking school,” said Miami reserve Harlond Beverly. “It was just a little more public.”

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Nijel Pack averaged nearly 14 points a game for the Hurricanes during the 2022-23 season.
Nijel Pack averaged nearly 14 points a game for the Hurricanes during the 2022-23 season.

Beverly is right, of course. College athletes have been paid in one way or another for a long time. Heck, a dozen years ago, there was an entire scandal at Miami because a jailed former booster named Nevin Shapiro said he provided benefits like cash and lavish nightclub parties to dozens of athletes. The fallout from that one wrecked the football program for awhile. Years before that, in the midst of another scandal which revolved partly around Pell Grant fraud and player payments, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story that simply said “Why the University of Miami should drop football.”

Given that history, it’s fairly remarkable that we are here at the Final Four talking about these things openly with a Miami basketball team that is both extremely good and very well-paid. In addition to Pack, LifeWallet signed another transfer in big man Norchad Omier, who was the Sun Belt player of the year last season at Arkansas State. Along with Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller, who also have deals with LifeWallet, they make up the core of a Miami team that won the ACC regular-season title and have reached the Final Four for the first time in school history.

“It’s been a blessing, not just for me but for college athletes as a whole,” said Miller, who went 7-for-7 from the field and 13-for-13 from the free throw line in the Hurricanes’ Elite Eight victory over Texas. “Dealing with contracts, with professional businesses that want you to meet a certain time requirement, certain things, it really opens your eyes to the other side (more than) just athletics so it’s been a great experience for me and everyone who gets involved in NIL.”

But almost immediately, the potential trickiness of this new world began to surface. After Pack’s deal became public, an agent representing Wong, who had been the Hurricanes’ best player last year during their run to the Elite Eight, told ESPN that he would enter the transfer portal if his NIL deal wasn’t enhanced.

The next day, Wong posted a tweet disavowing those comments and calling it a “misunderstanding.” Wong said Thursday that there were no repercussions or issues that needed to be smoothed over with coach Jim Larrañaga or his teammates.

“I called coach the day that it happened, and he was comfortably fine with it,” Wong said. “He trusted me. He knew I didn’t make that (demand). So everybody was cool with me, and I didn’t really have no problems coming in with the team. Everybody accepted me, and we just all worked on the main goal and just kept playing basketball.”

But the public way that mini-drama played out seemed like a good test tube for whether the pursuit of NIL dollars — and the knowledge of how much money was available for high-profile transfers — would kill the chemistry in a locker room full of accomplished players who were already at Miami.

Needless to say, it seems to have worked out just fine.

"Obviously (Larrañaga) and their staff did a heck of a job like with this team,” said Hurley, whose UConn team will face the Hurricanes on Saturday. “Because I think when Pack got the money, and then I think some of the other guys were (like), ‘Where is mine?’ that's like some high-level leadership and coaching to be able to have this team in that position while some of that stuff — kind of the first big NIL stuff — was going on.”

Larrañaga insists that the public perception of what was happening at Miami last year wasn’t reality. He said Pack and Wong “became best friends overnight” and only wanted to win.

“My job was easy,” he said. “I just do what I do. I go into the gym and I coach ‘em, and I don’t worry about that other stuff.”

Other programs haven’t found it so easy. For every high-profile team that disappointed this season, you’ll see fingers being pointed at NIL. Or, conversely, you’ll hear coaches sounding the alarm about their players being tampered with by other programs with the allure of NIL deals.

It’s a messy environment, which is why the NCAA has gone to Congress hat in hand looking for a bill that will allow them to make more rules around NIL without the threat of being sued eight ways to Sunday.

But for now, NIL is just like anything else in college sports. Yes, it’s undeniably a factor in how teams are built. And some programs will handle it better than others.

How can you fault Miami for doing it bigger and better than its competitors? Because at the end of the day, this isn’t about a booster trying to buy a championship, which may or may not work in the first place. There are no guarantees.

The reason this had to happen in college sports is because refusal to share the wealth with the athletes who helped create it was not sustainable. And the NCAA’s refusal to compromise, even in the face of clear messages from the court system and state legislatures that it needed to, created a Wild West environment that not everyone likes but they sure as heck need to accept now if they want to compete.

A lot of the older, more successful coaches saw the complicated new world and decided it wasn’t for them anymore. Larrañaga, age 73, leaned into it and has been rewarded not just with a great team but a great time.

“They're just so much fun to be around,” he said. "The thing that makes me enjoy it so much is that it's not about whether a kid transferred in or we recruited him out of high school or he got an NIL deal. My job is to coach them and make them the best basketball team they can be. And these guys have bought into everything that I consider to be the Miami way.”

Ruiz’s involvement with NIL and the Miami program will continue to be a source of intrigue going forward. In February, the NCAA hit the Hurricanes with a series of minor sanctions centered around the women’s basketball team and the recruitment of the Cavinder twins, who transferred from Fresno State.

Yes, Ruiz and LifeWallet were in the middle of that one, too, thanks to a dinner at his house that he acknowledged on social media. The Committee on Infractions wrote that it was “troubled” the university didn’t disassociate from Ruiz, which is the typical way boosters are dealt with if they violate NCAA rules. But the committee didn’t actually take the step of penalizing Ruiz, which means he’ll keep paying college athletes to represent his company.

What’s the harm in that?

“I’ve known many players who go to sleep hungry, or not having many clothes besides team issued ones,” Beverly said. “Being able to give players an additional source of income that doesn’t come from the school, which is very little, is really a blessing. People be hungry. We’re told to lift weights and put on weight and it’s not much money to buy food. That’s been the biggest blessing to me that people care enough about the athletes, care about how we’re living and us wanting to pursue something outside of basketball and be businessmen and putting their trust in us to pay us a little bit in exchange.”

It may have been a shock to the system last April, as Hurley said, when Pack’s transfer set the market. But the system has long been in need of a shock. Miami just happened to be the right team at the right time to pull it off.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Miami at men's Final Four shows influence of NIL on college sports