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Panthers being sold; The difference in UM's player development; Dolphins nuggets; Marlins, Heat



Wednesday update: Vinnie Viola, a prominent New York businessman, is closing in on buying the Florida Panthers from Cliff Viner, an industry source said today. Letters of intent have been executed, but the sale is not final and must still be approved by the league. The source said it's conceivable it could fall through but that is not expected to happen.

The Panthers' arena lease runs through 2028, so there are no plans to move the team.

Viola is a prominent hedgefund manager who previously was chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange and is now chairman of Virtu Financial.

He previously was a Brooklyn Nets minority owner.

Viner had been losing more than $20 million a year and has been quietly looking to sell in recent weeks. It was unclear whether CEO Michael Yormark would remain with the team.

Here's a bit more about Viola, from the Nets' web site:

Vincent Viola was born in Brooklyn in 1956 where he went to local schools, St. Cecilia’s elementary school in Williamsburg and Brooklyn Tech High School. He received an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point, graduating with a B.S. degree in 1977 as well as from US Army Ranger School. He served as an officer in the 101st Airborne following West Point. Viola and his wife, Teresa, now live in Manhattan after raising three sons in New Jersey.

What is the source of his wealth?
After leaving the Army, where he achieved the rank of major, Viola joined the New York Merchantile Exchange as a "local" trader, becoming a member of the exchange in 1982. That same year, he graduated from New York Law School with a J.D. degree. During his career, Viola served in various positions of leadership at NYMEX, serving as the Chairman of NYMEX from 2001 to 2004. He helped the exchange through the turmoil of the 9-11 attacks and took it public. Viola is a founder and principal of numerous successful proprietary trading and clearing firms and as such is one of the nation’s most successful commodities dealers. He is also a member of the New York Stock Exchange. He is currently the CEO of VirtuFinancial, an electronic commodities trading company and senior strategic advisor to NYMEX.

 Viola, who has been widely credited for his philanthropy, was discussed at length in a book by Leah McGarath Goodman. In the book, interviewee Ben Kaufman, the son of a big oil trader who interned at NYMEX, describes Viola:

"Viola was the street-smart Italian guy, always with a bunch of Brooklyn and Staten Island kids hanging around him. Vinnie had the influence and the intimidation factor going for him... He dressed and acted like a Mafioso don."



One of the encouraging signs of the UM football program’s resurgence has been better player development –- in other words, players improving significantly once they arrive. There wasn’t enough of that during Randy Shannon’s tenure. But this column is not about bashing Shannon.

In fact, though Shannon’s final UM class had a bunch of flameouts, he and his staff deserve credit for eyeballing a dozen two- and three-star players that Golden’s staff has deftly developed into key contributors (players that Shannon's staff obviously didn't have the time to develop because of his firing). Among those players, from Shannon’s 2010 class, the one before his final season:

### Stephen Morris: Don’t forget he was merely a three-star prospect from Miami Pace, with little interest from college football powers. Northwestern, Purdue, Virginia and Central Michigan were his next-best offers. His growth in the past year (14 touchdowns, one pick in last six games) has been dramatic, the second-half issues against UF aside. Now he’s in line to potentially become a mid-round NFL draft pick, or higher. (One scout said second round isn't out of the question.)

### Jimmy Gaines: A two-star player with very few offers (Buffalo, Syracuse), Gaines sent a highlight tape to UM, and Shannon offered him. Under this staff, Gaines has developed into a capable middle linebacker with a quick first step and an ability to decipher plays. His work against UF was among his best.

He’s “like a coach on the field,” defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said, “and he puts himself in good position to make plays.”

### Clive Walford: Shannon’s staff wisely offered the three-star tight end who had only three other reported offers: FIU, Indiana and Purdue. And this staff has helped mold him into a dangerous weapon, with 15 of his past 16 receptions for touchdowns or first downs.

Why has he become a better player since last November? “I’m paying more attention to details,” he said Tuesday.

### Jon Feliciano: With offers from only Akron and Indiana at the time, Feliciano waited outside the UM bus after the 2009 spring game to give his tape to then-assistant Tommie Robinson. Shannon offered him, and he has become a better offensive lineman that many expected.

“He’s got a little bit of the devil in him,” offensive line coach Art Kehoe said Tuesday. “If you are lollygagging around him, he will take you out.”

### Others: Shayon Green, Curtis Porter, Allen Hurns, Malcolm Bunche, Kacy Rodgers and Tyrone Cornelius were all three-star prospects signed under Shannon in 2009 or 2010, and all have become useful pieces here. Though Green isn’t much of a pass rusher, he’s very difficult to dislodge and was a major factor in the UF game.

And Kelvin Cain -- a two-star player with offers from only Portland State, San Jose State and Nevada -- has had an up-and-down career here but gave the Canes good work playing on the second team in the UF game.

Among recruits in Golden’s three signing classes, the poster child for player development – aside from three-star Olsen Pierre -- has to be two-star Thurston Armbrister. The coach at Hollywood Hills convinced D’Onofrio to look at Armbrister, whose only offer was from Northern Colorado.

Armbrister and Cornelius were tweeners –- initially too small for linebacker, too big for safety. This staff has sculpted both into assets, with Armbrister emerging as a surprise starter, and Cornelius thriving in pass coverage.

“Armbrister is smart, versatile,” D’Onofrio said. “In the past, Cornelius did a good job… on third down, but when he got in on first down, it was spotty. You weren’t sure he was going to be in the right spot or do the right things. Now, when you take Denzel Perryman out… there is not much of a drop-off.”

So why are players improving under this staff? For linemen and linebackers, adding weight had a lot to do with it; Anthony Chickillo has jumped from 235 as a freshman to 275 as a junior; Armbrister from 195 pounds to 230, among many others. Now 240, Gaines and Perryman “are knocking guys back” when tackling them, D’Onofrio said. That wasn't consistently the case last year.

Attention to detail has made a big difference; this staff requires players to do things over, especially with technique, until they get it right. Feliciano said players are drilled to be “perfect on footwork.”

But Feliciano points to this as the biggest reason players are developing better under this staff than the last one: “We’re learning the game better.” He said this staff has more meetings with players about “how to get better,” with emphasis on specific skills.

Bottom line: No longer can UM fans make the case, as many did four years ago, that most players don’t become appreciably better after they sign here. And that’s critical for a program that is still taking more two- and three-star players than UF and Alabama do.

D’Onofrio, filling in for an ill Al Golden at Tuesday’s news conference, said coaches take pride in the player development. But more so, “I’m excited for the players. They put a lot of work into this thing.”  

### Dyron Dye has joined Thomas Finnie and Jontavious Carter at Bethune-Cookman. All three were dismissed from the UM team.


### While the Dolphins have extended the contracts of potential 2014 free agents Reshad Jones, Koa Misi and John Denney –- and made a proposal to Paul Soliai –- 2014 free agents Brent Grimes, Richie Incognito and Chris Clemons say they haven’t received offers.

Now that Grimes has fully recovered from last September’s Achilles’ injury and is thriving, a multiyear offer would make sense. “I hope so,” he said. “That would be cool.”

(Randy Starks, another 2014 free agent, hasn’t received a multiyear offer since February.)

### How things change in a week: Mike Wallace said owner Stephen Ross made a point to tell him how “proud” he was of Wallace after Sunday’s game (Jeff Ireland also said something similar). And Wallace said this offense is more “fun” for him than Pittsburgh’s because he can run several more routes and he's allowed to move around more “so nobody can key on me. I was the deep guy there [in Pittsburgh]. But I always want to show people I can do more than deep routes. So this is fun for me.”

He said the Dolphins have lined him up in the slot several times, which he said Pittsburgh didn't like to do.

### Daniel Thomas had more snaps than Lamar Miller (36-30) Sunday – and started the second half -- despite Miller having the far more productive game. But Joe Philbin said he wants to keep their playing time comparable unless “one guy is breaking tackles left and right and taking the ball a long way, and the other guy is not being productive.” But as much as the Dolphins like Miller, they don't view Thomas as a clearly worse player.

### We hear Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was angry that manager Mike Redmond did not defend hitting coach Tino Martinez, Loria’s hand-picked choice, before Martinez was forced to resign over his verbally abusive conduct. There has been nothing so far to suggest Redmond’s job is at risk, but one close Loria associate cautioned that it's impossible to predict what Loria will do with managers. 

### Former FSU guard Von Wafer, who has averaged 5.3 points in 200 NBA games, is among players auditioning for the Heat this week. Wafer, who played in China last season, last played in the NBA in 2011-12, averaging 5.9 points in 33 games for Orlando.

Guard Julyan Stone, who played four games for the Nuggets last season, also has been auditioning, along with several other young undrafted players -- including Marquette rookie Vander Blue, who was invited back by the Heat for a second week.

### Former UM guard Trey-McKinney Jones will attend training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks.