At the end of a day in which he defiantly declared his innocence, university administrators threw their support behind him and a new report cast more doubt on the allegations he’s facing, Sean Miller still can’t breathe easy.
The embattled Arizona coach’s path is still littered with obstacles and landmines as he attempts to repair his tarnished reputation and entrench himself in Tucson beyond this season.
Miller took a step toward both those goals Tuesday when he defiantly refuted last Friday’s ESPN story alleging that an FBI wiretap intercepted him discussing paying heralded prospect Deandre Ayton $100,000 to commit to the Wildcats. Two hours before university officials were scheduled to meet to discuss the status of his job, Miller read a prepared statement in which he insisted he has “never knowingly violated NCAA rules,” nor has he ever “paid a recruit or prospect or their family or representative to come to Arizona.”
Later in his statement, Miller directly addressed the ESPN report that he discussed paying Ayton with former ASM Sports Agency employee Christian Dawkins. Miller insisted that conversation never took place, calling any reports that it did “inaccurate, false and defamatory.”
“Let me be very, very clear,” Miller said. “I have never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the university of Arizona. In fact, I never even met or spoke to Christian Dawkins until after Deandre publicly announced that he was coming to our school.”
Miller’s forceful rebuttal only adds to the growing uncertainty about the accuracy of the ESPN piece. Questions have emerged about the timeline ESPN presented and about whether Dawkins had any real connection to Ayton.
Ayton committed to Arizona in Sept. 2016 and signed two months later, but during a TV report ESPN said the phone call the FBI intercepted took place during spring 2017. ESPN then issued a pair of corrections, the first stating the phone call between Miller and Dawkins occurred in spring 2016 and the second eliminating the spring designation.
In the wake of a 247Sports report earlier this week that Dawkins had his phone tapped by the FBI only from June 19, 2017 to Sept. 25, 2017, ESPN amended its correction a third time. The latest correction indicates that Miller and Dawkins spoke in 2017 and that ESPN “stands by the reporting of the story.”
Arizona announced Thursday that it intends to retain Miller as its head coach in spite of the ESPN allegations. University president Robert C. Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke said in a joint statement that Miller will coach the Wildcats on Thursday night against Stanford.
“Earlier this week, we met with Coach Miller at length and asked him direct and pointed questions. He was eager to speak with us and answered every question we asked. 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.”
The decision Arizona now must make is whether it’s wise to pin their hopes to Miller beyond this season. That might not be an easy call given the storm of uncertainty that has engulfed Miller the past few months.
For Arizona to back Miller long-term, it must be confident that:
• ESPN’s report is untrue.
• Emanuel “Book” Richardson acted on his own and did not notify Miller about the payments the FBI has said he allegedly made to recruits.
• No more information implicating Miller will emerge in the coming months.
• Miller can win back the support of scandal-weary Arizona fans and still effectively recruit.
Even taking the ESPN report out of the equation, those other three are significant hurdles.
The notion that Richardson went rogue seems unlikely considering how famously detail-oriented that Miller is. Richardson was Miller’s longest-tenured assistant and his ace East Coast recruiter going back to his days at Xavier.
There’s also no guarantee Miller won’t face more allegations in the FBI scandal either. Richardson has incentive to offer federal investigators information in exchange for a deal to avoid jail time, while fellow former Arizona assistant Joe Pasternack also is ensnared in this mess.
The possibility that the scandal could diminish Miller’s effectiveness as a recruiter may be the most significant concern for Arizona.
In October, Nassir Little committed to North Carolina over Arizona, Jahvon Quinerly backed out of his commitment to the Wildcats and fellow five-star prospects R.J. Barrett and Bol Bol both dropped Arizona from among their finalists. Forward Shareef O’Neal reneged on his commitment to Arizona in favor of rival UCLA earlier this week, leaving guard Brandon Williams as the lone 2018 prospect still tenuously committed to the Wildcats.
The lingering threat of the FBI scandal and potential NCAA sanctions arising from it will make it tough for Miller to generate recruiting momentum again. It also won’t help that prominent former Wildcats like Jason Terry and Andre Iguodala were critical of him on Twitter last Friday.
@APlayersProgram BearDown it’s time to clean house and bring home our own bloodlines to carry on Lutes Legacy. We have too much pride, too much tradition to allow outsiders to tear down what we built.
— Jason Terry (@jasonterry31) February 24, 2018
But Book got the cuffs…
— Andre Iguodala (@andre) February 24, 2018
In the past, Arizona has been quick to find reasons to keep Miller because he has won as consistently as any previous Wildcats coach including the legendary Lute Olson. Miller brought stability to a proud yet floundering Arizona program when he arrived nine years ago, leading the Wildcats to a 241-72 record, four Pac-12 titles and six Sweet 16 appearances.
How confident Arizona is that Miller can get back to winning at that pace could determine whether the school decides to back him beyond this season.
Yes, Miller issued a vehement denial of the ESPN report on Thursday. Yes, that piece appears to have some glaring holes in it.
But only after the FBI investigation is over will Arizona and Miller finally be able to once again breathe easy.
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