With NCAA investigation underway, Arizona's Sean Miller faces complicated future

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Pat Forde, Pete Thamel and Dan Wetzel
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Arizona has dropped its past three games and is 5-4 in the Pac-12 this season under head coach Sean Miller. (AP)
Arizona has dropped its past three games and is 5-4 in the Pac-12 this season under head coach Sean Miller. (AP)

As the University of Arizona basketball program slogs through a difficult season on the court, the school appears to soon be facing uncomfortable questions on the future of embattled coach Sean Miller. Sources told Yahoo Sports that Arizona is one of the schools tied to the federal basketball scandal where a formal NCAA inquiry has begun.

While Arizona has the country’s No. 1 recruiting class for next season, there’s a series of looming issues both with the federal probe and the ongoing NCAA investigation into the school that complicate Miller’s future there.

The issues begin with the upcoming trial of Christian Dawkins, the former agency employee who claimed deep ties to the Arizona program. There’s also potential NCAA fallout from the recent felony plea in federal court by former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson, which amplifies the question of how the NCAA will handle Miller’s responsibility for the actions in his program.

While there’s nearly a dozen schools expected to face some degree of NCAA scrutiny in the wake of the federal basketball investigation, Miller and Arizona are dealing with a confluence of complications that cast a shroud over Miller’s future there.

The thorniest of those issues appears to be the upcoming trial of Dawkins, which is scheduled for April. Dawkins is a former low-level runner for once-powerful NBA agent Andy Miller. Dawkins has already been found guilty in the first federal basketball corruption trial.

Dawkins’ lawyer, Steve Haney, told Yahoo Sports that his client has little desire to follow the path of the three assistant coaches, including Richardson, who’ve recently entered a plea deal. “We have no intention of pleading,” Haney told Yahoo Sports. “And we believe, factually, the indictment is incorrect and we intend to prove it at trial.”

There’s a strong expectation that Miller will be subpoenaed to appear at the trial, potentially within the next month. He could be one of many coaches, as all the coaches who were captured on wiretap with Dawkins are at risk of a subpoena. Part of the defense’s theory is expected to be based on showing Dawkins wasn’t bribing coaches. “My obligation here is to defend my client,” Haney said in a phone interview, “not protect coaches who violated NCAA rules.”

Haney has already taken Dawkins to trial once, back in October at the first of the three trials tied to the corruption investigation. Another appearance is expected because Dawkins was already found guilty of multiple felonies at that October trial, and he faces likely jail time. That makes him pleading out less likely in this trial.

In this Oct. 1, 2018, file photo, former sports agent Christian Dawkins arrives at federal court in New York. (AP)
In this Oct. 1, 2018, file photo, former sports agent Christian Dawkins arrives at federal court in New York. (AP)

Miller and Richardson were in frequent communication with Dawkins, according to multiple sources, which means there’s a likelihood that wiretaps of conversations between them could be played at the trial. Dawkins famously once boasted he attended Arizona practices “like I’m on the team.” In documents viewed by Yahoo Sports in February 2018, Dawkins was also in frequent contact with then-Arizona assistant Joe Pasternack, who is now the head coach at UC Santa Barbara, to broker deals to recruit players from Arizona to his agency. Dawkins wrote at one point to a colleague: “Joe told me verbatim he will help us get all the Arizona players, so put his feet to the fire.”

Coaches testifying in federal court looms as a potential spectacle that would make administrative officials at any university nervous. (LSU coach Will Wade was on a wiretap conversation with Dawkins discussing a player’s recruitment.) Considering all of the controversy and allegations that emerged throughout the trial regarding Arizona’s high-profile recruits and players, especially 2018 No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, it strains credulity to believe that none received extra benefits.

“Sean Miller is really in a box,” said a person familiar with the details of the case. “I don’t see how he can testify and it would stay consistent with his past statements. And I don’t see how he can keep the University of Arizona without exposure.”

Miller issued an adamant denial of paying prospects after a controversial ESPN story last year. He said in the wake of that story: “I have never paid a recruit or prospect or their family or representative to come to Arizona. I never have and never will.” (Miller did not return multiple attempts for comment. Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke could not be reached for comment.)

Further complicating matters for Arizona are the recent actions of the NCAA, which in August passed stricter penalties for rule breaking that could apply to Miller and Arizona. Those include longer postseason bans, longer head coach suspensions and longer employment limitations for coaches and staff. A spree of significant decisions from varying committees of the NCAA involving the federal basketball scandal — at Kansas, Miami and regarding Brian Bowen — underscore the seriousness the NCAA is taking regarding the case. “You have on the books two more trials scheduled for this spring and summer, including a trial in which at least one of the defendant’s legal counsels has said a substantial amount of additional information about colleges and coaches will come out,” said Stu Brown, an attorney who frequently works cases involving the NCAA. “There’s an uncertainty to what is out there. I think it’s too early to say anyone in particular is out of the woods on this thing.”

Richardson is one of three former assistant coaches — including USC’s Tony Bland and former Oklahoma State and South Carolina assistant Lamont Evans — to plead guilty to a felony. (There’s some similarities to USC’s predicament, as the Trojans have the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class.)

The felony pleas are a crucial part of what projects as the most vast and important set of infractions cases in the history of the NCAA. The fate of several high-profile programs outside of Arizona — including Kansas, Louisville, USC, N.C. State, Oregon, LSU, Creighton, DePaul, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Auburn and others — are expected to eventually come into the NCAA’s crosshairs. The October trial showed how much potential collateral damage can emerge, as text messages, wiretaps and testimony shrouded programs from coast to coast.

Arizona administrators, along with the nearly dozen other programs that could find NCAA scrutiny, have to go through the tricky calculus of figuring out whether they want to risk anything incriminating emerging or be proactive. Arizona has hired extensive outside legal help to investigate Miller’s role, including hiring Paul Kelly of the Boston-based law firm Jackson Lewis to investigate. Arizona has reportedly paid more than $1 million for 3,100 hours of legal work overall for the case, according to the Arizona Republic. Regents chair Ron Shoopman was quoted in the Arizona Republic in November saying the school was “aggressively pursuing the facts” in the case.

Arizona’s board has met twice in executive session to discuss Miller’s future, including as recently as Jan. 24, to discuss “legal advice” regarding “University of Arizona Men’s Basketball.”

The decision they might be weighing is attempting to balance the risk/reward of keeping Miller versus parting ways and attempting to preserve the impressive recruiting haul. The most prominent name of a potential replacement would be Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton, who has reportedly fallen out of favor of LeBron James and is dealing with reported friction in the Lakers locker room. Walton would be a prime candidate for both the open UCLA job and potentially the Arizona job. Arizona’s edge would be Walton graduated from the school and starred there for four seasons under Lute Olson. (There’s been no indication Walton desires to coach in college, as his only coaching experience came at the University of Memphis during the 2011 NBA lockout.)

The totality of allegations that Arizona could face once the NCAA begins to fully investigate appear daunting. The combination of the enforcement of stiffer penalties and NCAA rule, the head coach responsibility rule which has been strengthened twice in the past seven years, will loom over Arizona’s decision-makers. That rule states “a head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach. The head coach will be held accountable for violations in the program unless he or she can rebut the presumption of responsibility.”

Richardson’s felony plea would likely arise on the NCAA’s radar. Richardson worked for Miller for more than a decade and pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge after being accused of accepting $20,000 in bribes to steer players to a financial manager.

From there, according to federal court testimony, another former Arizona assistant, Pasternack, offered $50,000 for Bowen to attend Arizona. Former Arizona players Ayton and Rawle Alkins also were linked to allegations of illicit payments in both the trial and its aftermath. The recruitment of former Arizona commitment Jahvon Quinerly also received federal scrutiny because of a $15,000 payment to Richardson, a portion of which was supposed to go to Quinerly. (He never played for Arizona and is eligible at Villanova.) In total, that’s two implicated assistant coaches and at least four players or recruits the NCAA could potentially investigate.

Not insignificant in determining Miller’s fate will be the state of his program. Arizona (14-8, 5-4) has been gutted by the cloud of the scandal, as the Wildcats have little chance to reach the NCAA tournament and have no high-end NBA prospects. They host Pac-12 leader Washington (18-4, 9-0) on Thursday, as their dip has shifted the balance in power in the league to Seattle. Miller is considered one of the top 20 coaches in college basketball and has a record of 261-82 at the school. The Wildcats haven’t missed the NCAA tournament since 2012.

For now, Miller’s best asset is his top-rated recruiting class, highlighted by local guard Nico Mannion, the No. 14 overall player in the Rivals.com rankings. The five-man recruiting class shows Miller has the ability to lure top talent despite the scandal.

With the Dawkins’ trial looming, Miller’s future is one of the many high-stakes decisions that universities will be facing. For Arizona, Miller’s fate looks destined to come into focus sooner than others.

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