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NEW YORK — Amid one of the worst on-court seasons in recent school history, Arizona basketball had two significant victories this year. The first was that the Wildcats, despite the specter of coach Sean Miller’s involvement with the federal basketball investigation, somehow managed to land the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class. The second was a judge’s ruling that allowed Miller to avoid testifying in federal court, which helped he and Arizona avoid the awkward optics of a sitting head coach appearing at a federal bribery trial.
But in the span of seven FBI wiretaps played in federal court on Wednesday morning, both of those victories appear in imminent danger. Sean Miller ended up having his starring day in court, he just didn’t have to show up. Amid a flurry of information in what could be remembered as one the most significant days of college basketball’s corruption cases, Arizona administrators likely find themselves at a self-induced awkward crossroads about Miller’s future.
The wiretap testimony alleged that Miller was paying two Arizona players out of his own pocket — future No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and former guard Rawle Alkins — which would amount to NCAA violations of the most serious nature.
Former Arizona associate head coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson said to agent-runner Christian Dawkins that Miller was paying Ayton $10,000 per month, using the word “bought” to describe the transaction. Dawkins said: “He’s putting up some real money for them [racial slur]. He told me he’s getting killed.”
That was soon followed by a casual acknowledgement by Dawkins that Miller was paying Alkins as well, basically saying that Miller’s payment helped Dawkins’ business expenses: “You already know, Sean’s taking care of Rawle and them,” Dawkins said. “So it ain’t no expense to Rawle. So that’s easy.”
To most around college athletics, the decision on what to do with Miller’s future should be easy. There have been two days of wiretap testimony here painting Miller’s program on the forefront of the market of paying players, as Tuesday brought allegations that Miller “fronted” the deal for Ayton. Dawkins also claimed on a wiretap played last week that Miller told him: “I’m taking care of everything myself. I want to bring you in.”
Arizona finds itself in this conundrum over Miller’s future because their quest for a Final Four bid meant doubling down on Miller’s potential innocence. Seemingly, at this point, the only collegiate Board of Regents who could look at all this evidence and think Miller’s dramatic denial about paying players had a seed of truth would be one that consists of the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.
But this is Arizona, which channeled the spirit of Jerry Tarkanian-era UNLV and ignored obvious warning signs in the wake of an explosive — though flawed — ESPN report last year to cash in on the presence of Ayton and one of the program’s more talented teams this generation. Consider Wednesday’s testimony the piercing migraine of regret for risking the university’s reputation for a short-term March run instead of facing long-term realities. Arizona basically brought its institutional reputation to the blackjack table instead of investing in a 401K, and Wednesday will be remembered as the day school officials staggered back drunk and broke at sunrise.
Since coming out in support of Miller late last season, the school has publicly handled the situation with the equivalent of administrators holding their hands over their ears to block out the noise. School officials persistently ignore requests for comment and have essentially dared the NCAA to come and find information that their coach was in control of the program.
As the allegations have piled up and recruits have rolled in, Arizona has dueled with LSU as the country’s most outlandish bandit basketball program, the one that ADs whisper about on the phone and prompts coaches to wonder why there’s never any consequences.
The University of Arizona issued a statement late Wednesday, saying that it “takes the information presented in court today very seriously and remains committed to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct which includes competing within the rules of the NCAA and the PAC-12 Conference.”
Miller has had his associate head coach, Richardson, arrested by the FBI and plead guilty to a felony. That’s a sentence that would have been jarring two years ago but has been normalized in this environment. They’ve had another assistant, Mark Phelps, slated to be let go in an academic scandal. The Arizona board has discussed Miller’s future a handful of times in closed session and reportedly spent more than a $1 million in lawyer fees investigating on their own. (There were observers in court here the past two days on behalf of Arizona, furiously scribbling notes and likely leaving with writer’s cramp.)
To folks in and around Tucson, the past two days have felt like a tipping point. One source with deep ties to the university told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night: “Coach Miller has got to either walk to the center of this stage and start speaking clearly, or get off it altogether. An innocent man would have a forceful and convincing response.”
Miller hasn’t said a whole lot about the case since his denial in the wake of the ESPN report last season.
“I have never knowingly violated NCAA rules while serving as head coach of this great program,” he said in a statement. “I have never paid a recruit or prospect or their family or representative to come to Arizona. I never have and I never will. I have never arranged or directed payment or any improper benefits to a recruit or a prospect or their family or representative, and I never will.”
Miller has long since lawyered up, circled the wagons and, wisely, managed to last 15 more months and make about $4 million more dollars. If Arizona and Miller do part ways, it’s unlikely that Miller could clear that kind of revenue soon. He’s a fine coach, but not one who the NBA will be pining for, which means he’ll need a rehab NBA apprenticeship similar to what Kelvin Sampson went through after he was exiled from Indiana.
Credit Miller and his legal team for being crafty enough to navigate this far, as their strategy has been pragmatic and successful. But few outside Miller’s camp and Twitter truthers really thought he could keeping carry on like nothing happened, as this trail loomed with too many potential liabilities.
Don’t discount more issues coming Miller’s way on Thursday, with Dawkins on the stand for what is likely the entire day. He’ll finish getting questions from Mark Moore, Merl Code’s attorney, in the morning before what will likely be a blistering cross-examination from the government.
When you double-down on an untenable coaching situation to keep your coach for an NCAA tournament run, this type of crossfire becomes institutional karmic payback. That began when No. 13 Buffalo ran No. 4 Arizona off the court, continued through a listless season and was given an exclamation point today.
Without having to show up, Sean Miller managed to have his day in court on Wednesday. It didn’t go well, and the thorny questions Arizona punted down the road 15 months ago are staring them back in the face again. The noise is mounting for Arizona regarding Sean Miller’s future, and the question remains how long they’ll end up keeping their hands over their ears wishing their problems away.
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