Arizona coach Sean Miller fired in wake of NCAA charges

Apr 7, 2021, 9:45 AM | Updated: 10:36 am
Arizona NCAA college basketball coach Sean Miller arrives for a press conference in Tucson, Ariz., ...
Arizona NCAA college basketball coach Sean Miller arrives for a press conference in Tucson, Ariz., Thursday, March 1, 2018. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP)
(Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP)

Sean Miller has been fired as the Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball coach on Wednesday, a month after the school released the Notice of Allegations for the men’s basketball program’s NCAA recruiting violations.

Miller, who spent 12 seasons leading Arizona, had a year left on his contract.

“After conferring with (athletic director) Dave Heeke since the season’s end, it has become clear that our men’s basketball program – and our University – needs to write a new chapter in our history, and that begins with a change of leadership,” said University of Arizona president Robert C. Robbins in a release.

“Arizona Basketball means so much to so many and, as stewards of the program, we must always act in the best interests of the university. I believe our future is bright, and I look forward to welcoming a new head coach to the Wildcat family.”

The school said a search for Miller’s replacement will begin immediately and that assistant Jack Murphy will serve as the interim coach.

“We appreciate Sean’s commitment to our basketball program and to the university,” vice president and director of athletics Dave Heeke said. “After taking the many factors involved into account, we simply believe that we need a fresh start and now is the time. I want to thank Sean, Amy and their sons for their service to the university and wish them the very best in the future.”

According to an earlier report of the Notice of Allegations (NOA) from The Athletic’s Seth Davis and Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde, the NCAA said Arizona “compromised the integrity of the investigation and failed to cooperate.”

Arizona on Friday, March 5, released the Notice of Allegations it received from the NCAA last fall, which included five Level I violations. Four involve Miller’s program.

University of Arizona president Robbin Robert said days later that he wanted to wait out the Accountability Resolution Process (IARP) for the violations to conclude.

“They could have new findings,” Robbins told reporters, according to the Arizona Daily Star. “We just have to wait and find out what the final word is going to be. They could also very well eliminate some of those allegations that come forward as they look at, discuss some of the things that are in the allegations. They can be reduced.

“So we have to wait … so that we can get past this as a university, coach Miller, his family, the basketball program and look forward.”

USA Today’s Dan Wolken in a column published March 10 added more clarity to the situation, reporting that two sources said the standoff is as stale between the coach and the school as it seemed from the outside.

Wolken’s sources told him that a meeting after the Wildcats’ season ended between Robbins and Miller was “brief.” The reporter added that Robbins told Miller he could not get a contract extension approved by the Arizona Board of Regents.

A source “familiar with Miller’s thinking” told Wolken that the head coach believed that Robbins preferred that he ultimately leaves the program.

The charges against Arizona include a lack of institutional control by the men’s basketball and swimming programs, and unethical behavior by assistant basketball coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson for accepting $20,000 in bribes.

Richardson was among 10 people arrested in an FBI investigation into college basketball and served three months in prison.

The Notice of Allegations also charged Miller with failing to promote compliance, and unethical behavior by former assistant coach Mark Phelps for asking a player to delete texts related to an impermissible $500 loan.

For the basketball program, Level 1 violations could result in postseason bans or other punishments. The team had a self-imposed ban that prevented the Wildcats from postseason play this season despite a 17-9 record.

Arizona had previously announced that it received the notice of allegations in October 2020, but did not release the notice until Friday, March 8, when a judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by ESPN.

Davis reported that former assistant coaches “Book” Richardson and Phelps refusing to speak with the NCAA is listed in the NOA as an aggravating factor, as is Arizona declining to supply a report produced by a law firm it hired to conduct a private investigation after Richardson was arrested.

Wiretap audio collected by the FBI and played in the federal college basketball corruption trial Wednesday, May 1, included Richardson claiming Miller paid players, according to Yahoo! Sports.

Scattered among seven wiretap audio recordings played, there were multiple instances where Richardson suggested to former runner Christian Dawkins that Miller had paid or promised to pay high school recruits. One mention recorded in June 2017 involves Richardson claiming Miller agreed to pay or had paid $10,000 to eventual No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Deandre Ayton.

Speaking to Dawkins, Richardson also alleged Miller discussed personally taking care of guard Rawle Alkins, who attended Arizona for two years. There were also discussions between the two about former recruit Jahvon Quinerly asking for $20,000-$25,000 from Arizona. Quinerly decommitted from Arizona after Dawkins and Richardson were arrested in September 2017.

The wiretap evidence was played before Dawkins, a defendant, decided to take the stand to testify.

Video evidence presented in the trial included an FBI recording of Dawkins claiming that he and Miller discussed potential payments to Ayton, who was then a recruit. Witness Marty Blazer also testified that Dawkins told him Miller admitted to paying players.

The news follows a Feb. 23, 2018, report from ESPN’s Mark Schlabach that alleged Miller was heard on an FBI wiretap discussing a payment of $100,000 to ensure a commitment from now-freshman Deandre Ayton.

Miller allegedly was speaking with Dawkins, who was linked to a sports agency that has been implicated in the college basketball scandal that began with 10 arrests. Dawkins and Richardson, who has since reached a plea agreement rather than standing trial, were among those arrested in September 2017 on charges of fraud and bribery stemming from the recruitment of high school players.

In the first round of the federal trial that found Jim Gatto, Merl Code, and Dawkins guilty, Arizona was a topic of conversation among those standing trial.

Transcripts of FBI wiretaps included Dawkins’ mentions of working with the Arizona staff. Phones linked to Dawkins and Miller made contact at least 13 times over a course of several months in 2017, ESPN reported.

“(Former Arizona assistant Joe Pasternack) told me verbatim he will help us get all the Arizona players, so put his feet to the fire,” one of Dawkins’ texts read when revealed in the first trial.

The Wildcats were linked in several instances to prospects Quinerly and Brian Bowen.

Pasternack and Richardson were named in the initial trial.

Arizona later began the process to fire current assistant Mark Phelps after he was found to have committed recruiting malpractice in unrelated circumstances.

After the ESPN report broke, Miller stepped away from the Wildcats and did not coach them in a 98-93 loss to Oregon the following day, despite 28 points from Ayton, who was cleared to play.

Miller denied on March 1, 2018, that he had broken NCAA recruiting rules and added he looked forward to continue leading the team.

Miller’s comments in a press conference came six days after the ESPN report.

“There was no such conversation,” Miller said of an alleged phone discussion with Dawkins. “These statements have damaged me, my family, the university, Deandre Ayton and his entire family.”

Miller read a prepared statement without taking questions at his press conference.

“I cannot remain silent in light of media reports,” he said, adding the report by Schlabach was “inaccurate and completely false.”

Shortly thereafter on that same day, the Arizona Board of Regents, Robbins and Heeke all pledged their support of Miller following a meeting. The group also worked in a clause in Miller’s contract that would penalize him $1 million for any serious recruiting violations that were found.

“At this time, we have no reason to believe that Coach Miller violated NCAA rules or any laws regarding the allegation reported in the media,” Robbins said.

At Arizona, Miller went 302-109 (.735) as head coach after arriving in Tucson from Xavier in 2009.

He won the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award three times (2011, 2014, 2017) and took the Wildcats to four Pac-12 regular season titles and two Pac-12 Tournament championships.

In the NCAA Tournament, he three times led Arizona to the Elite Eight and twice took his team to the Sweet Sixteen.

Immediately upon arriving at Arizona, he found recruiting success. Currently, he has commitments from a class ranked No. 23 in the nation by 247 Sports.

Recruiting class (Per 247 Sports) National rank
2009 6th
2010 32nd
2011 4th
2012 3rd
2013 11th
2014 3rd
2015 3rd
2016 9th
2017 3rd
2018 22nd
2019 6th
2020 5th

Miller’s departure comes to a university athletic department that has been hit with controversy involving its top revenue sports over the past few years.

The Wildcats fired head football coach Rich Rodriguez in January 2018 following a harassment scandal.

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