For $300, UM may get more trouble than it bargained for


IF THE UNIVERSITY of Maryland wants to become a national football contender, the Terps have to up the ante to buy players.

Maryland is only offering about $300.

That's why the NCAA is investigating the Terps' football program, for being cheap and stupid and for trying to exploit a young, black, poor athlete. Maryland tried to lure one of the nation's top players with chump change.

What's next, food stamps? How about some gold jewelry?

Where's the money?

According to a statement released by the university yesterday, the school is investigating an allegation that one of its assistant coaches improperly gave the money to Victor Abiamiri, a Gilman School defensive lineman.

The Terps didn't even offer market value.

If St. Vincent-St. Mary High school basketball star LeBron James gets a $50,000 Hummer H2 with three TVs through a privately financed deal, shouldn't the Terps have at least offered Abiamiri an old, beat-up Pinto? James gets two throwback jerseys valued at $845, so why didn't the Terps counter with Boomer Esiason and Randy White bobblehead dolls?

James wears custom suits and more gold chains than Mr. T, yet the Terps didn't even open a credit line for Abiamiri at Brooks Brothers.

Shame on the Turtles.

If you are going to get caught, at least go down living large, not at bargain-basement prices.

"Based on the information that has been collected and shared with the NCAA, we believe that the alleged violation is secondary in nature and that there would be no institutional ramifications arising from this review," the university said in a prepared statement. "Additional comment will be forthcoming when the review is complete in about two weeks."

The alleged offense may be secondary in nature, but the Terps' athletic department is embarrassed. Three hundred dollars may have brought this program a lot of trouble.

Nobody wants the NCAA bloodhounds sniffing around his program because you never know what they might uncover. They now will interview current and former players to see how they were recruited, and they'll interview new recruits to see if any other money - or food stamps - was exchanged.

There could be fallout in other ways.

Even without Abiamiri or Gilman quarterback Ambrose Wooden, the Terps still have a possible Top 20 recruiting class. But what happens now? Will the other recruits stay? Or will they go? It's hard to predict how parents will respond, much less a fickle 18-year-old.

All of this over $300.

The pressure had to be immense on Rod Sharpless, the assistant coach who apparently gave Abiamiri the money. He has been one of the most respected defensive coaches in the country during the past decade. The guy bleeds Maryland red. He played in College Park in the early 1970s. Even when he coached at other schools, he always talked about returning to Maryland and returning the Terps to the glory days.

According to a source at Maryland, Sharpless gave Abiamiri more than $300 in cash, but the youngster returned it. After learning of the payments, head coach Ralph Friedgen confronted Sharpless.

It's hard to see Friedgen knowing about the money beforehand. He has usually been upfront and honest. He's an honorable man. But there isn't any sympathy for Sharpless. Regardless of the outcome, he has done what so many other college scouts have done in similar situations.

Sharpless, an African-American, exploited a poor black athlete by dangling money in front of him. It's standard procedure. Offer tennis shoes, a leather jacket, a new suit. The amount of $300 may not seem like a lot to some, but it's a fortune for others. The money probably was offered to seal the deal.

College scouts had fallen in love with Abiamiri and Wooden. One pro scout recently said that Wooden had "NFL" quickness, which puts him in a rare class coming out of high school. Maryland needs these caliber players to become a national power, and Sharpless couldn't afford to have other colleges signing either one out of his own back yard.

But it has become more than just a lost recruiting battle now.

Since the incident, Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow has had a parade of lawyers in her office to map out strategy on how to address the matter with the NCAA. The Gilman coaching staff, administrators and their lawyers huddled yesterday.

This incident comes at a time when the football program had reached a new high. The Terps won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship two seasons ago and earned an Orange Bowl bid against Florida. This past season, despite lower expectations, Maryland finished with an 11-3 record, handily defeating Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. In two years, Friedgen has guided the Terps to an overall record of 21-5 and national acclaim.

But the record became stained yesterday. It's unclear where this thing is headed, but nothing is worth an investigation. It has become an integrity issue now, worth a lot more than just money.

Worth a lot more than $300.

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