Miami Hurricanes’ NIL deals were hot media topic on eve of Final Four game vs UConn

The Miami Hurricanes are in the Final Four for the first time in school history, getting ready to play four-time national champion Connecticut Saturday night at NRG Stadium, but coach Jim Larranaga did not field a single question about strategy in his first on-site pregame media conference Thursday.

There were no questions about how the Hurricanes would deal with the Huskies’ formidable front court of Adama Sanogo (6-9) and Donovan Clingan (7-2). No mention of how UConn has rolled through the NCAA Tournament thus far, winning its four games by an average margin of 22.5 points.

Instead, the loquacious Larranaga regaled reporters with tales about Sir Pizza and smoothies. He recalled in detail the final 11 seconds of his 11th-seeded George Mason’s team’s upset of UConn in the 2006 Elite Eight.

And, for the fourth time in two weeks, Larranaga and his players found themselves defending their highly public Name, Image and Likeness deals. They dismissed any suggestion that UM booster John Ruiz’s Twitter post announcing Nijel Pack’s two-year, $800,000 deal hurt the Hurricanes’ locker room chemistry.

There were reports early last spring that Isaiah Wong was miffed by Pack’s deal and threatened to transfer if he didn’t get a bigger deal. He vehemently denied those reports at the time and did again on Thursday.

“I called Coach (Larranaga) the day it happened, and he trusted me,” Wong said. “He knew I didn’t make that accusation. Everybody was cool with me. We all just worked on the main goal and just kept playing basketball.”

Larranaga concurred.

“Even when all that stuff was going on with Isaiah, he called me and said, `Coach, I’m not going anywhere,’’’ Larranaga said. “So, the public perception is not reality. The media makes a bigger thing about it and I think it is a misconception of our program. There has not been a single day of negativity in our program based on NIL.”

Among the headlines this week: “Miami’s Final Four Run Shows Power of NIL Deals” “Nijel Pack’s Lucrative NIL Deal Pays Dividends” and “Miami’s Final Four Run and the Man Who Bankrolled the NIL Deals.”

When Pack sat down for his interview Thursday, the first question was about his NIL deal.

“All that mattered was my teammates accepting me, and they did that from Day One,” Pack said. “Everybody took me in as a brother. The reason this team is so good is because our bond is so strong, and nothing with NIL has ever affected us in a negative way.”

Miami’s NIL deals have been a topic of conversation since the tournament began. The questions started in Albany, New York, where the Hurricanes knocked off Drake and Indiana. They continued in Kansas City, Missouri, where they eliminated top seed Houston and No. 2 seed Texas.

UM made Sweet 16s and the Elite Eight before NIL existed. College athletes all over the country have signed NIL deals since the rule went into effect on July 1, 2021, many of them reportedly for more money than Pack. But the fact that Ruiz publicized Miami’s deals on Twitter “sent shock waves” through college basketball, said UConn coach Dan Hurley.

He said: “It’s a real shock to the system to see that and see how it was playing out publicly. Obviously, it’s where things are headed. These are incredible athletes who deserve everything they can get.”

Hurley went on to praise Larranaga for keeping his team united through NIL social media frenzy.

“Coach (Larranaga) and his staff did a heck of a job because I know there was a lot of public stuff when Pack got the money, and some other guys were `Where is mine?’ and that’s some high-level leadership and coaching to have this team in that position while some of that was the first big NIL stuff going on.”

Larranaga has not shied away from the questions. He believes it is an important topic that needs addressing.

Last week, Larranaga said: “First of all, here’s my philosophical belief: I think everybody should be transparent. Why is it hidden behind the curtain? Why? You can go on a website and check out anybody’s salary in the NBA. If there is going to be money involved in college sports, we need to know what’s going on.

“There are a lot of schools that do the same thing we do. We just don’t know about it because it’s not public knowledge. Why not? Why are we afraid of sharing that information?”

He went on to say that college athletes deserve to cash in on their name and image.

“I’ve told these guys from the very beginning. TV makes money, right? The shoe companies make money. The universities make money. The athletic directors, they run the program, and they benefit from their relationship with the shoe companies. And the coaches make a hell of a living.

“Well, what’s wrong with that filtering down? But I tell them -- and this is very, very important for everybody to understand -- their relationship with companies and who they get NIL deals with is just like Steph Curry doing his Subway commercials. I don’t think Subway is telling Steve Kerr what to do with his basketball program. I have nobody telling me what to do at our basketball program.”

Finally, Larranaga believes NIL deals can help educate young athletes on money management.

“I don’t know how many of these guys are spending every cent they get, but I know a lot of NBA guys did that and ended up bankrupt,” he said. “It’s a learning experience. That’s why you’re in college anyway.

“Does anybody complain about tennis players? Women tennis players 16 years old winning the U.S. Open. Tracy Austin, she was making great money. She had shoe deals, racket deals. These guys are the same. They’re great athletes playing on a national stage. The teams that make it to the Final Four, how many people are going to be there watching in the arena? 75,000? 80,000? To me that’s big time athletics and they deserve to make money.”