A Shakey Machine

FIU hoops coach Shakey Rodriguez has surrounded himself with coaches and players with bad raps and worse reps -- and it's a losing combination

Two days later the judge gave him a pretrial release on the conditions that he stay away from Barton, not possess a firearm, not use drugs, and not engage in criminal activity. A month later Barnes was accepted into the Advocate Program, a pretrial intervention regimen of domestic-violence counseling; if completed, the state would drop charges.

He was still in the program when he enrolled at FIU in January 1999; later that month he was arrested for allegedly having beaten and abused Ebony Livingston again.

According to the Miami-Dade Police report, Barnes on December 20, 1998, "locked the victim in her room by using a chair to wedge the door shut, then threatened her with torture and death throughout the weekend. The defendant then threw the victim on the bed and after covering her face with a pillow, punched her about the face and arms. The defendant then grabbed her by the throat and choked her as he held her head against a wall. The victim further states that she could not yell for help because she could not breathe, due to the amount of force that was being applied to her throat by the defendant." She escaped, with Barnes in pursuit. He drove away in her Isuzu Rodeo. He surrendered himself to police on January 19, 1999; they charged him with false imprisonment and grand theft auto -- both felonies -- and domestic battery, a misdemeanor.

Shakey Rodriguez has led his team through what he calls his most difficult year in coaching
Steve Satterwhite
Shakey Rodriguez has led his team through what he calls his most difficult year in coaching

On February 19 Barnes entered a plea of guilty to the battery charge. The state dropped the two felony charges, and withheld adjudication on the battery charge, placing Barnes on one-year probation. The court attached the following special conditions: that Barnes perform 150 hours of community service, and complete a domestic-violence intervention program.

But when he was charged in the Livingston case, he violated his probation in the Barton case. On February 23, 1999, the Advocate Program booted him from his pretrial intervention in the Barton case and put the misdemeanor back on the trial calendar. In March 1999 the public defender's office entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf. Now, because Barnes missed his February 9, 2000, trial date, there is a bench warrant out for him. (This means that if police stop him for any other reason, they have the authority to arrest him.)

Is this the fault of the coaching staff at FIU? Barnes is an adult, after all. Even so Shakey Rodriguez and his staff were aware of Barnes's background when they signed him. At least verbally Rodriguez is quick to accept responsibility for his players' conduct, but he also emphasizes the toll this year's problems have taken on him personally.

"To be honest this has been my most difficult year in coaching, period," Rodriguez admits. "And it has nothing to do with winning and losing. With what happened with DC [Darius Cook, accused of stealing hubcaps], Lucas, Carlos and that silly incident in Hawaii, this has been a trying year. Despite all the things that I've done, my story has been a controversial success story. A lot of these are the kind of things you deal with and move on, but now it's gotten to a point where my integrity has been questioned. When that kind of stuff comes around, it makes you wonder if it's really worth it to dedicate your life to helping other people's kids."

Rodriguez says he accepts responsibility for everything that has happened under his watch at FIU, but is quick to dismiss and gloss over Jose Ramos's boorish behavior and lack of credentials. Of the similarly unqualified Bernard Wright, he says he was unaware of the two misdemeanor charges Wright has faced while an assistant coach at FIU. He says he doesn't see any connection between these coaches' dubious records and the misconduct of his players.

In fact Rodriguez's chief concern seems to be for his own legacy. "I've had a tough road to college life," he sighs. "If I'd gone somewhere else to coach, up to Orlando, I would just be 'high school legend.'" He says that staying in Miami, with all his old doubters and detractors still lurking around, his "legendary" career has come with strings attached. "Now, every time something goes wrong at FIU, these things come back haunting you."

Paul Gallagher says the disciplinary problems with the players have given a "black eye" to the university's reputation. The questions about Ramos and Wright's behavior and qualifications, and the grade changes, are even greater cause for concern.

"I will tell you that the university is looking very, very closely, as we need to, at all of these things as a composite," Gallagher says. "When you have a series of things, and if a pattern develops, then you've got a problem you've got to deal with. If we need to take appropriate action, we're going to take appropriate action."

All of these problems, of course, are inextricably linked with this talented team's mediocre season. The Golden Panthers enter this weekend's Sun Belt Conference tournament in Little Rock with a record of 16-13, 9-7 in conference. The team has no chance of making the NCAA tournament unless it wins that tournament, thus gaining the Sun Belt's automatic bid.

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