A Shakey Machine

There's no way the game should be this close. The Florida International University Golden Panthers men's basketball team is head and shoulders above the visiting Broncs of the University of Texas-Pan American -- literally. The Panthers' frontline consists of forwards Sylbrin Robinson (six feet eight) and Jabahri Brown (six feet ten), and center Darius Cook (six feet eight). No UTPA starter stands taller than six feet five.

It's also clear UTPA is at a disadvantage in skill as well as size. Brown and Robinson are both slender, athletic players with quick feet and tremendous leaping ability. Cook is a burly tank of a pivot man with some sweet back-to-the-basket moves. And yet, as point guard Carlos Arroyo sinks a half-court heave of a three-pointer at the buzzer, FIU is only up by ten points. The team's performance has been listless, unfocused.

Coach Marcos "Shakey" Rodriguez, a compact 47-year-old in a black button-down shirt, brightly patterned tie, and khaki slacks, has shown his frustration, earning himself a technical foul while arguing with referees. Coaches don't automatically get T'd up for arguing, but Rodriguez cut loose with one too many "fuck yous" for the zebra's liking. But even that outburst has yet to inject any fire into his uninspired team, or the sparse crowd of 800 or so, which includes university president Modesto "Mitch" Maidique, acting athletic director Jose Sotolongo, and university vice president Paul Gallagher, the administrator who's been running the athletics department since the last real athletic director left more than a year ago.

They're all probably wondering the same thing: Why is such a talented team floundering? The obvious answer is bad judgment and bad luck. Between suspensions, academic shortcomings, injuries, and players leaving the team outright, Rodriguez has not once had a full twelve-man roster. Arroyo missed eight games, suspended after punching a team manager at a tournament in Hawaii. Cook missed five games, suspended for allegedly stealing another student's hubcaps, then cursing out campus police. Small forward Lucas Barnes was suspended for five games, not because of charges he punched and choked two ex-girlfriends, but for improperly using a friend's meal card.

"Obviously you wish these things hadn't happened," Rodriguez says of his team's travails. "To some degree these things are a little bit of a reflection of society. Someone makes a mistake, and it proves very costly. But I don't think it's reflective of them being bad guys. As a university we've taken strong sanctions so that they learn their lesson."

But many people associated with FIU basketball -- including current and former athletic department employees, players' parents, even the players themselves -- have begun seriously questioning whether Rodriguez and his coaching staff are in a position to teach their players anything about ethical behavior and integrity. According to one FIU athletics administrator, three men's basketball players have received questionable grade changes within the past three years.

Accusations of misconduct are nothing new to Shakey Rodriguez or his coaching staff. Rodriguez's five state championships in thirteen years as the head coach of the Miami Senior High School Stingarees boy's basketball team earned him a shot at running a Division I hoops squad, a rare opportunity for a coach with no college coaching experience. The FIU job, which he accepted in 1995, also offered him a chance to distance himself from the less-than-savory aspects of the Miami High program. Even though Rodriguez never got caught breaking the rules, accusations of improper recruiting dogged him throughout his career. Then in 1998 his hand-picked successor got busted for allowing the kind of recruiting violations many in Miami-Dade County athletics had long suspected Rodriguez of as well. The school was stripped of its 1998 basketball state championship after state investigators found that Miami High had broken the rules against recruiting players from other high schools. The basketball team's violations were first revealed by New Times ("Dream Team," March 5, 1998).

These factors make it doubly amazing that Rodriguez has chosen to re-create the Miami High program, warts and all, on the big-time college level. Among the fans spotted at FIU men's basketball games this year have been Big Ed Peguero, a blunt pyramid of a man who served as equipment manager for the tainted 1998 Stingaree squad, and Rosie Faz, a Miami High employee whose improper housing of an MHS player was one of the factors that helped strip the team of its championship.

Maybe these two were there to root for the numerous ex-Stings populating the FIU bench. Fifth-year senior shooting guard Marshod Fairweather has played for Shakey Rodriguez his entire scholastic career -- four years at Miami High, and now five at FIU. Freshman forward Sylbrin Robinson was a member of the ill-fated 1998 MHS team.

Two of Rodriguez's three assistant coaches also come from Miami High; both have checkered pasts, and neither has any previous college coaching experience. Jose Ramos, whom Rodriguez hired in 1996, played for Rodriguez at Miami High in the late Eighties before embarking on a fitful college career. Ramos was kicked out of two Division I basketball programs as a player. In both instances he not only had a personality conflict with his head coach, but was found to have violated NCAA rules: first for having an invalid SAT score, second for having accepted an improper car loan from a university booster.

Bernard Wright, hired at FIU in 1998, had been an assistant coach under Rodriguez at Miami High, and was still an assistant when the program was busted. That same year he left his full-time job as a caseworker at the Department of Children & Families, where his competency was publicly questioned after a three-year-old girl whose case had been assigned to him was beaten to death. Wright also has a criminal record, having been charged with two misdemeanors last year. He is part-owner of a liquor store and bar in Allapattah, on a corner police characterize as a hotbed of drug-related crime. (The other assistant coach, Tyrone Hart, who joined the program in 1998, came with more than twenty years of college coaching experience at the Division II level.)

Add in this year's turmoil, his assistant coaches' behavior while at FIU, and the fact that only four basketball players have graduated from the university during Rodriguez's five-year reign, and a certain word leaps to mind to describe the entire program: shaky.

Despite his boorish behavior off the court, and his often selfish play on the court, point guard Carlos Arroyo remains the coach's pet. Rodriguez calls Arroyo his "quarterback." In his efforts to keep the Puerto Rican signal-caller on the court, Rodriguez has created a caste system on his team, in which there are two groups: the quarterback, and everybody else.

Outwardly at least, Rodriguez's treatment of Arroyo has appeared to be one of tough love. The coach suspended Arroyo on December 17, 1998, "for academic and basketball reasons." He told the Miami Herald the suspension was indefinite, and could last for the entire season if the player didn't straighten himself out. "I felt I did what I had to in the best interest of this team and program, but, more than anything, Carlos Arroyo," Rodriguez said then. "Obviously it's not in my best interest as a coach not to have him on the court. He's a great player and we need him. But I think our job as coaches entails more than just trying to win basketball games."

What Rodriguez didn't say -- and, given the privacy rules surrounding student grades, was not allowed to say -- was that Carlos Arroyo's grades were so bad that he had flunked out of FIU.

The university has a kind of "three-strikes" system for dismissing students. All students (not just athletes) must maintain a 2.0 cumulative grade-point average, a C grade, to stay in. If a student's GPA drops below 2.0 at the end of any semester, he gets an academic warning. From there another sub-2.0 semester places the student on probation. If a student begins a semester on probation, then fails to achieve a 2.0 average for his classes in that semester, his status becomes dismissal.

According to grade records obtained by New Times, Carlos Arroyo entered the fall 1998 semester on probation, with a 1.952 GPA -- close enough to the line that anything above a C average would have gotten him out of hot water. But he didn't come close. His grades for fall 1998: an A- in Skills and Practice of Basketball; C- in Leisure in Your Life; a D- in Introduction to Micro Computers; F in the Evolution of Jazz; and an incomplete in Introduction to Sociology. Even after the incomplete was changed to a C-, his GPA for the semester was only 1.761, his cumulative 1.898. A computer printout of his records for that semester lists his academic status as dismissal.

And yet his suspension from the team lasted just two games. At the beginning of the spring 1999 semester, he was still a student at FIU, and still a member of the basketball team. One athletics administrator explains it is possible, after a student is dismissed from school, for that student to appeal to the appropriate dean for a one-time reinstatement. In Arroyo's case, as a sophomore with an undeclared major, he would have had to appeal to the dean of undergraduate studies.

Rodriguez says he learned that Arroyo had been dismissed, and sent him back from a team road trip to appeal the dismissal. Other than that the coach says he had no involvement in Arroyo getting his second chance.

But Arroyo was still on probation, and if his grades in any semester dropped below 2.0, he would be dismissed again, this time for good. In the first semester of Arroyo's second chance, though, something suspicious happened. A printout of his grades for the spring 1999 semester, dated October 7, 1999, shows that he finished with a 2.077 GPA for the semester. His cumulative stood at 1.943, so he remained on probation. On November 11, 1999, however, his records show that his F in The Freshman Experience had been changed to a C+. This brought his semester GPA up to 2.256, and his cumulative to 1.988 -- still on probation, but not by much.

Rodriguez remembers that grade change. He says the professor made a mistake. FIU vice president Paul Gallagher explains there were many different sections of the Freshman Experience in spring 1999. Arroyo attended the wrong one by mistake and earned a C+; the professor in the section he was supposed to be in saw that Arroyo was permanently absent and gave him an F. Gallagher says fifteen students had similar problems with that class. Again the coach emphasizes he had no direct involvement in convincing the instructor to change the grade.

Changing grades is not unheard of; that's why FIU has a change-of-grade form. One athletics administrator says the system is set up so a professor has the discretion to correct an error in grading, or in some cases, give a kid a break. This practice is not confined to athletes, but in reference to the men's basketball team, the administrator, who asked not to be identified, says Rodriguez's players have received more than their share of grade changes. Specifically five changes involving three players over three years. "That's abnormally high, and some of them have been as late as six months after the fact," the administrator says.

Gallagher notes the basketball team as a whole currently has a 2.2 cumulative GPA: dead last among all sports teams at FIU. Rodriguez's players also rank last in the number of hours spent in study hall.

Assistant coach Jose Ramos has many things in common with Carlos Arroyo: Both are (or were) six-foot-two point guards, and both are of Hispanic descent (Ramos is a Miami-born Cuban American). Judging from their respective conduct during the past year or so, they also are foul-mouthed hotheads. "When Ramos first came to FIU, he was very humble, very happy to be a part of something," says an ex-FIU employee. "But that kinda changed after a while. He got cocky."

His temper surfaced in public after an away game at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock last year. Rodriguez approached one of the two officials and began screaming at him about calls made in the game. According to one witness, Ramos pulled Rodriguez away, then proceeded to scream at the official himself. A Little Rock supporter in the front row jeered at Ramos; the assistant coach turned and swung on the fan, without hitting him. Players and coaches swarmed to separate the two. Ramos faced no official consequences, but he did not accompany the team on its next road trip.

He also, according to several sources close to the team, has had a tendency to use the word nigger, sometimes directly in reference to black players.

Word of this got back to Gallagher, who wrote a stern memorandum to Rodriguez on November 15, 1999. "Any further incidents involving the use of the word 'nigger' by one of your assistant coaches will result in severe action," he wrote. "It matters not how such language 'may be used on the street,' it is totally unacceptable at Florida International University."

Shakey Rodriguez remembers that letter from Gallagher quite well. "We discussed the situation, and [Ramos] wrote a letter in response," Rodriguez says. "I never in my life heard that word from him. I met with the players, and every one of them said no one had ever heard that from him. Any kind of slang based on nationality or the color of a man's skin, I wouldn't have that in my staff, but I've known this guy for years, and I never heard him say that." New Times has interviewed six people who confirm that Ramos routinely has used the "n-word."

Rodriguez considers that issue closed, but Ramos's temper has created still another public-relations nightmare. The team travels on commercial flights through agreements with Delta and American airlines. While the team was en route on an American Airlines flight from McAllen, Texas, to Dallas-Fort Worth on January 25, a male flight attendant either bumped into or stepped on Jose Ramos. The assistant coach began yelling at the steward, accusing the man of kicking him on purpose. According to one witness, the flight attendant didn't back down, instead "getting in [Ramos's] face." They appeared ready to come to blows when another passenger -- not anyone in the FIU party -- separated them. Shortly thereafter, according to the flight attendant, the captain came back and admonished Ramos, telling him if he heard another outburst from the coach, he would have Ramos arrested when the plane landed in Dallas.

On February 8 FIU president Modesto Maidique and acting athletic director Jose Sotolongo received a letter from the flight attendant, informing them of Ramos's conduct, and stating that the airline and the flight attendants' union had been notified of the incident. The fallout from this has yet to be determined. "I'm in the process of looking into that right now," says Rodriguez. "I was in that airplane, but I don't know anything."

Paul Gallagher says the university's inquiry into the matter is still going on, but he's received information that leads him to believe the flight attendant exaggerated his story. Even so, this type of behavior sounds exactly in character for Ramos, especially given his track record as a college basketball player.

Jose Ramos certainly looks the part of a Division I men's basketball coach. One night he's wearing the sharp, pale-gray suit over a black T-shirt, with a glint of gold from the neckline. Other nights it's a wheat-color suit, with a shirt and tie of barely deeper shades of brown, a nice monochromatic effect. And every night the 30-year-old Miami native's dark hair is slicked straight back, Pat Riley-style.

"Although he has been in the coaching profession a relatively short time, he has quickly become one of the most talked about and respected young coaches in the nation," the FIU men's basketball media guide states.

They got it half right. Talked about? Absolutely. Respected? No.

"Jose has been kicked out of pretty much everywhere he's been," says one former FIU athletic-department employee. "He's not had a great reputation. It's not like he could go anywhere and interview [for a coaching position] and get the job. There's too much baggage there."

The aforementioned freight has been shipped all over the Western Hemisphere, from Nebraska to Venezuela. It includes two personality clashes with two high-profile coaches, two violations of NCAA rules, and two ignominious departures from Division I programs. But he picked up his first carry-on bag while playing point guard for Shakey Rodriguez at Miami Senior High School.

During his senior year at Miami High, he and forward Cesar Portillo signed letters of intent to attend the University of Florida in Gainesville on basketball scholarships. In 1988 they both joined the Gators as freshmen.

A former UF athletics employee recalls UF head coach Norm Sloan had just given the team a dressing-down about too much trash-talking. "The next day the team was having practice in Athens, Georgia, and Jose started mouthing off to another player," the source says. "Coach Sloan was like, 'Hey, hell with this shit. Didn't we just have a meeting about this?' He got in Jose's face, actually, and Jose sort of took offense. He said something like, 'Don't you fucking touch me, old man, I'll kick your ass!' Sloan was like, 'You don't have to worry about that anymore.'" Numerous news accounts at the time confirm the exchange. Ramos was suspended from the team immediately.

What followed made his departure from UF inevitable. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), questioned the test scores of both Ramos and Portillo. Specifically they questioned whether the players actually had taken the tests while they were Rodriguez's players at Miami High, or if someone else had taken the tests for them. Although it was never conclusively proven they cheated the first time, both players retook the SAT, and the ETS invalidated their original scores. That was enough for UF. Both players lost their scholarships.

Ramos transferred to Central Florida Community College, where he played well enough to earn a second chance on the big stage, this time at the University of Nebraska.

But the NCAA never forgets. Ramos had played in twelve games at the University of Florida before anyone found out about his bogus SAT score. Because Ramos had been ineligible to play in those games in his freshman year, the NCAA forced him to sit out the first twelve games of his junior year at Nebraska.

Despite the head start his teammates got, Ramos became a key contributor to the Nebraska team of 1990-91, a year in which the team was almost good enough to rise above its second-fiddle status in the land of Cornhusker football. Ramos joined the backcourt rotation, even starting a few games at point guard. That team reached the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round, but by that time, Ramos was off the team -- for eerily familiar reasons.

According to newspaper reports, Ramos and Huskers head coach Danny Nee got into an argument at the Big Eight Conference tournament. Although rumors of a more serious confrontation abound, Ramos told a local reporter he left the team before the tournament because Nee had confronted him about taking two entrées at a team dinner the previous night. Whatever the reason Ramos walked out of a team meeting and never returned to the Nebraska bench. Then, just like at Florida, a more substantive charge emerged.

Before the NCAA tournament, the university ruled Ramos ineligible to play because he and Huskers forward Tony Farmer had received improper gifts, including a car loan, from a Nebraska booster; these constituted clear violations of NCAA rules against players receiving extra benefits.

For a few months, Ramos told the press in Lincoln that he intended to work for his reinstatement at Nebraska. By November 1991, though, he had enrolled at Georgia Southwestern State University, an NAIA school in Americus, Georgia. (The NAIA is a collegiate athletics organization separate from the NCAA. Its members are mostly smaller schools that have fewer sports.)

The FIU media guide says Ramos went on to play professionally in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Colombia. In 1995 he received a bachelor's degree from Regents College, a "distance-learning" program that gives credit for life experience as well as class work. Later that year he returned to Miami, working as a substitute teacher for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. In 1996 he hooked up with his old coach.

Jose Ramos did not return calls from New Times seeking comment for this story. Shakey Rodriguez says he was aware of the problems Ramos encountered during his playing career. He says he tried to help steer Ramos in the right direction. "At Florida there were some allegations and different things," he remembers. "When a player calls me on a situation like that, I'm going to help him relocate and regenerate his career. Sometimes kids are kids and are liable to make a mistake in some issues." He remembers what happened at Nebraska as "a difference of opinion" between Ramos and Danny Nee. "Until now I never heard about the car loan," he adds.

Helping a troubled kid find a second, third, and fourth chance as a player is one thing. Offering a coaching job to a guy who has twice violated NCAA rules is another. Why did Rodriguez hire Ramos in the first place? "I know Jose Ramos well enough to know he's a person of character," Rodriguez says. "I know him more than anyone. I know his family, his parents. I know who he is. All of these things were allegations. I don't know if he did them or didn't do them. I know people are going to make mistakes. I'm not interested in what looks bad or looks good; I'm interested in what kind of character he is." Despite the "nigger" memo and the letter from the flight attendant, and the fact the team is having a near-.500 season, Rodriguez declares that Ramos "has done a wonderful job at FIU."

Others are not as willing to overlook Ramos's flouting of the rules. (Violations that Rodriguez dismisses as mere "allegations" also cost the University of Nebraska one basketball scholarship for the 1991-92 academic year.) Upon hearing that Ramos was on Rodriguez's staff at FIU, one Lincoln, Nebraska, sportswriter who covered Ramos's brief-yet-eventful career as a Cornhusker cracked, "What is he, the extra-benefits coach?"

Traffic court was typically packed on Thursday morning, February 10, 2000, in courtroom 5-1 of the Richard E. Gerstein Building. Judge Caryn Canner Schwartz was cruising through her calendar with all due alacrity.

At roughly 9:30 a.m., a silver-haired, gray-suited figure glided among the prosecutors and public defenders at the tables in front of the judge. After a murmured conference with prosecutors, the attorney declared to Schwartz: "Your honor, I'm here on behalf of Bernard Wright."

Almost as quickly as he stated the name of the FIU assistant men's basketball coach, a fresh-faced, blue-suited assistant state attorney droned, "State announces nolle pros." As in, the state has dropped the petty-theft charge against Wright. Miami cops had stopped the 41-year-old coach in his 1987 red Nissan truck on December 12, 1999, near NW 154 Street and 82nd Avenue, because his tag was listed as having expired in 1998. The 1999 decal on the truck had been reported stolen from another vehicle in 1998. According to the police report, at the time Wright "stated unknown persons placed the decal on his truck, but he drove it anyways."

Judge Schwartz offered sardonic kudos to Wright's legal counsel. "Boy, you are some great lawyer," she said with a wry smile. "Great job." With a friendly chortle, the attorney sidled out of the cramped courtroom as quickly and silently as he had entered. (Reached later, Schwartz couldn't remember who the attorney was, and noted that his name was not in the case file. She added that prosecutors routinely drop stolen-decal cases, because intent is almost impossible to prove.)

Thus ended Bernard Wright's latest brush with the law. Last year he was charged with two misdemeanors. Although his record was clean in June 1998, when he applied for the third assistant men's basketball coach position at FIU, even a token effort at due diligence should have raised serious questions about his fitness to coach college basketball.

Like Jose Ramos and Shakey Rodriguez, Bernard Wright is a Stingaree, though his sports were football and wrestling. He went on to attend Grambling State University, graduating in 1980. He returned to Miami, where he spent three years coaching the Bucktown Buckaneers, a semipro football team. In 1984 he became an assistant basketball coach at Miami Carol City High School, under head coach Ernie Bell.

Those Carol City teams gave Rodriguez's Miami High squads some stiff competition, becoming state champs in 1988 after beating MHS in the playoffs. The Stings got the better of the crosstown rivalry the following year. Then in 1990 Ernie Bell was charged with vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident causing the death of a three-year-old pedestrian. Bell was acquitted of the homicide charge, and pleaded no contest to the lesser charge; he spent a month in Dade County Jail and a year on probation. He continued to teach at Carol City High before moving to his current post at Carol City Middle School, but never returned to coach the basketball team. The high school squad never regained its former glory.

In 1993 Bernard Wright returned to his alma mater, joining Shakey Rodriguez as an assistant coach for Miami High boys basketball. Oddly enough, for a man of his stature (a homuncular five feet five), Wright worked mostly with the frontcourt players; according to Rodriguez he continues in this role with FIU. But two sources say he played a far more important part in the Stingaree juggernaut: He was a recruiter.

"He always would come up to me and tell me, 'Got a chance of getting another kid,'" says one former FIU athletics employee. "'Got a chance of getting this kid for Miami High.' That was his whole thing. That was all he was supposed to do. I heard people say he would start at five in the morning, and he'd be picking up everyone on the damn team, driving them around." Another source contacted by New Times, who demanded anonymity, confirmed that Wright would, in fact, make recruiting trips to meet promising basketball players within other schools' boundaries.

When Rodriguez left Miami High for FIU in 1995, Wright stayed with the program as an assistant to Rodriguez's successor, Frank Martin. Wright was on the coaching staff of the Miami High team that lost its 1998 championship because of recruitment violations.

Wright denies ever having actively recruited students. "Kids love a winner, and they want to go where they can attract major-college attention," Wright says. He adds that he and other assistant coaches actually spent time turning away the legions of wannabe Stingarees.

He left his part-time coaching gig and his full-time job in 1998. Beginning in 1981 Bernard Wright had worked off and on in various capacities for the Florida State Department of Children & Families (DCF), formerly known as the department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. His record there is marred by numerous reprimands for things such as absences without leave, insubordination, and poor management of his case load. By 1998 his primary responsibility was to monitor child abuse; but in one instance, his work was, at the admission of his superiors, shoddy at best.

Her name was Ashley Smithson. On September 3, 1998, her mother's boyfriend allegedly beat her at the breakfast table. She died a month later. She was three years old. Even though Wright had resigned from DCF in June, he had in March allowed Ashley to be sent back to the home where she would eventually receive the fatal beating. The then-administrator of DCF in Miami, Anita Bock, publicly criticized Wright's handling of the case. Wright points out that other caseworkers took it over case after his resignation. "I diligently carried out my duties in that case," he asserts.

By that time Shakey Rodriguez already had hired Wright as the third assistant coach at FIU.

Bernard Wright in particular, and DCF in general, were among the many public assistance entities that failed to protect Ashley Smithson. But FIU could have done a much better job of protecting itself from Bernard Wright.

In addition to the 1999 stolen-tag beef, another misdemeanor charge has to do with Wright's other source of income. In November 1993, shortly after he had joined Rodriguez's staff at Miami High, Wright and two partners formed a corporation called Triple Dollars, Inc. Slightly more than two years later, this firm made a major purchase: a two-story building at 4368 NW Seventeenth Ave. The building cost them $60,000 in February 1996, and they've owned it ever since.

It's a package liquor store and lounge, a garish green edifice that often features a handful of patrons seated along an outside wall on plastic chairs and milk crates, sipping beers out of paper bags. The name is spelled out in illuminated red letters across the top: Three Fingers Lounge. Shakey Rodriguez knows about his assistant coach's small-business venture, but says he's never been to the lounge (which stands eight blocks north of Miami Jackson Senior High School).

He's missing plenty of excitement. Within the past year, Miami police have responded to that address 63 times, making a total of 45 arrests, according to dispatch records. One call was for a drive-by shooting, an incident that police told the Miami Herald was drug related. Another call led to misdemeanor charge number two on Bernard Wright's record: "Limitation on Adult Entertainment or Adult Service Establishment" and "Doing Business Without an Adult Entertainment License."

"While checking [Three Fingers] lounge ref. complaint of females providing nude entertainment for paying customers, [undercover] officers entered establishment and observed two nude females dancing on stage," Miami police wrote on June 23, 1999. "As take down units entered establishment, ten females were observed walking around the bar nude. [A sergeant] contacted owner [defendant] Wright (blue shirt & pants) and asked to see license for exotic female entertainment. Owner was unable to produce license."

Wright says he and his partners had applied for the license, but didn't have it in hand in time for that evening's festivities. On October 26, 1999, the state dropped the charges against Wright and his partners after they donated $500 to Kristi House, a charity for abused children.

FIU vice president Paul Gallagher says he had no idea that Wright has a record. His reaction? "It doesn't make me happy."

"Lucas Barnes," intones Judge Bertila Soto. "Do I have Mr. Barnes here?" She waits for a few seconds. No one in the domestic-violence courtroom on the second floor of the Courthouse Center building in downtown Miami answers her call.

"State, call your case. Mr. Barnes is not here."

"Victim is present, three out of the four officers are present," an assistant state attorney responds.

"Bench warrant, $10,000," Soto declares, then moves on to the next case on her February 9, 2000 docket.

Though recent stories have portrayed FIU small forward Lucas Barnes's criminal problems a thing of the past, that is simply not true. While Barnes was a sophomore at the University of Miami and a starter for the Hurricanes, his ex-girlfriend Ebony Livingston accused him of hitting and threatening her in January 1998. No charges were filed, but UM coach Leonard Hamilton suspended Barnes indefinitely on January 22. On February 5 Barnes quit the team and withdrew from school.

On March 13, 1998, another woman, Katherine Ann Barton, came into the Doral station of Miami-Dade Police to report that Barnes had beaten her. Barton told police that "herself and [Barnes] were involved in a verbal altercation when [Barnes] proceeded to choke her, punch her, and when she managed to escape his grasp while she was running to the door, [Barnes] kicked her in the back." She called police the next day to tell them Barnes was returning to her apartment; they met him there and arrested him on a misdemeanor domestic battery charge.

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.

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.

Gallagher says that's beside the point. "Athletics is not necessarily about winning basketball games alone," he declares. "It's about running a program that's of the highest integrity, that's going to help young men get a college degree so they can become productive members of society. That's what the ultimate goal of this institution is. And if there's anything in conflict with that ultimate goal, then changes have to be made."

Staff writer Robert Andrew Powell contributed to this story.


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