Sean Miller not penalized, Arizona hit with scholarship reduction as investigation ends

Dec 14, 2022, 10:05 AM | Updated: 12:45 pm
Director of Basketball Operations Ryan Reynolds, associate head coach Joe Pasternack, head coach Se...
Director of Basketball Operations Ryan Reynolds, associate head coach Joe Pasternack, head coach Sean Miller, assistant coaches Emanuel Richardson and Mark Phelps, Dusan Ristic #14 and Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats look on on November 25, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball program received added punishment, while former head coach Sean Miller will not receive any penalty for recruiting violations under his watch, the NCAA-appointed Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP) committee announced Wednesday.

“The hearing panel found no violation for the former head men’s basketball coach because the hearing panel determined that the former head men’s basketball coach demonstrated that he promoted an atmosphere of compliance and monitored two of his assistant coaches regarding the academic eligibility of men’s basketball prospective student-athletes, rebutting the presumption of head coach responsibility,” the IARP panel wrote in its decision.

The University of Arizona announced in December 2020 that it self-imposed a one-year ban on postseason games that season, among other penalties, as it hoped to avoid additional punishment handed down by the NCAA.

On Wednesday, the NCAA announced an additional $5,000 fine, a one-player scholarship reduction for the 2023-24 season and a seven-week recruiting ban during 2022-23, a source told Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

“While many of these allegations predated current athletics staff, we are appreciative of this process coming to an end after five years,” Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said in a statement. “Our athletics department will continue to maintain a culture of compliance as we live the Wildcat Way and develop academic, athletic and life champions.”

Here is the full list of penalties, both self-imposed and recently added:

Former assistants Emanuel “Book” Richardson and Mark Phelps will receive show-cause penalties of 10 and two years, keeping them from coaching in the college ranks for those periods.

Miller, meanwhile, is in his first season back as the Xavier Musketeers’ head coach.

“This has been a long journey and I am glad everything is finally finished,” he said in a release distributed by reporters. “I am excited to move forward. I’d like to thank my wife Amy and my entire family, President Hanycz and Greg Christopher for their support through the completion of this process.”

The NCAA’s IARP ended on Wednesday five years — or 1,905 days — after Richardson was arrested on fraud charges in September 2017. Assistants from four other Division I men’s basketball programs were also involved in the FBI investigation that went to trial.

In March 2018, ESPN reported that Miller’s voice was heard on an FBI wiretap with sports agent Christian Dawkins as the two discussed paying then-Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton, who became the No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick and is now in his fifth season with the Phoenix Suns.

For three years after that report, the University of Arizona stood behind Miller, who vehemently denied those allegations.

After the investigation, the university received the NCAA’s notice of allegations (NOA) in October 2020. The NOA listed nine items of misconduct, but Miller was not let go until his contract was not renewed in April 2021.

The NCAA’s IARP committee was already looking at Arizona’s alleged infractions at the time the school received the notice of allegations.

Head coach Tommy Lloyd replaced Miller before last season.

“I am happy for our basketball program that this process has come to an end,” Lloyd said in a release. “President (Dr. Robert) Robbins and Dave Heeke made it clear to me when I accepted this position how important a culture of compliance is at the University of Arizona. I am thankful that our program can continue competing for championships and representing Arizona.”

Level 1 charges received by the school in the NOA included “a lack of institutional control and failure to monitor by the university; a lack of head coach control by men’s basketball coach Sean Miller; and a lack of head coach control by Augie Busch, the women’s swimming and diving coach,” The Athletic’s Seth Davis reported in 2020.

The notice of allegations the Wildcats received from the NCAA’s enforcement staff five Level 1 charges, the most serious category, according to Davis and Forde.

The NCAA also said Arizona “compromised the integrity of the investigation and failed to cooperate.”

Davis reported that former assistants Richardson and Mark Phelps refusing to speak with the NCAA was listed in the NOA as an aggravating factor, as was 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 on May 1, 2019, included Richardson claiming Miller paid players, according to Yahoo! Sports.

The school said its self-imposed postseason ban was a “proactive measure.” It cast the blame on former staff members.

“The decision is an acknowledgment that the NCAA’s investigation revealed that certain former members of the MBB staff displayed serious lapses in judgment and a departure from the University’s expectation of honest and ethical behavior,” the school said in its statement.

“It is also in accord with the penalty guidelines of the NCAA for the type of violations involved. This decision also reinforces the institution’s commitment to accountability and integrity as well as serving the best long-term interests of the University and the Men’s Basketball program.”

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.

Scattered among seven wiretap audio recordings played, there were multiple instances where Richardson suggested to 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 Ayton.

The news followed 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 Ayton.

Immediately after the ESPN report broke, Miller stepped away from the Wildcats for one game, a 98-93 loss to Oregon. Arizona got 28 points from Ayton, who was cleared to play.

Miller later denied that he had broken NCAA recruiting rules and looked forward to continuing to lead the team. Those comments came in a press conference 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. 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.

Miller said he understood and fully supported the school’s decision to punish itself with a postseason ban.

Miller finished out 2020-21 with a 17-9 record (11-9 Pac-12) in a season shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Miller left the team just more than a month after the regular season ended on March 1.

That 2020-21 team included all five starters of last season’s 33-4 team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 under first-year head coach Lloyd.

The only coach retained from the Miller regime by Lloyd is assistant Jack Murphy, who was not hired until 2019.

Guard Kerr Kriisa, and forwards Azuolas Tubelis and Tautvilas Tubelis are notable players still on the roster this season who were recruited by Miller. All were members of the 2020 recruiting class, joining the Wildcats well into the NCAA investigation.

Arizona is 9-1 this season and ranked by The Associated Press as the No. 9 team in the nation.

Miller took a year off from coaching and was hired before this 2022-23 season to return as Xavier’s head coach. He served there as head coach from 2004-09 before joining the Wildcats.

After pleading guilty, Richardson began serving 90 days of prison time in 2019 and as of June was rebuilding his life as a high school coach in New York.

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Sean Miller not penalized, Arizona hit with scholarship reduction as investigation ends