Pressure on Sean Miller building as Arizona moves to fire assistant coach Mark Phelps

Arizona head coach Sean Miller, left, and assistant coach Mark Phelps in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against Utah, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Arizona head coach Sean Miller, left, and assistant coach Mark Phelps in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game against Utah, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The pressure on embattled Arizona coach Sean Miller increased Wednesday night with the school announcing that assistant coach Mark Phelps was being suspended with the intent of firing him.

An Arizona statement said the school has “initiated the process to terminate” Phelps, placing him on indefinite suspension in the meantime. Yahoo Sports confirmed multiple media reports that the suspension was related to academic work by former Arizona recruit Shareef O’Neal, son of former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, who is now at UCLA.

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The school statement said, “this personnel action is not related to the federal criminal proceedings in New York or the NCAA’s review of the facts underlying the allegations of unlawful conduct.”

“Mark Phelps has done absolutely nothing in violation of NCAA rules,” his attorney, Don Jackson, told ESPN on Wednesday night.

As Yahoo Sports reported Monday, Miller’s future at Arizona already was cloudy — and that was before the Phelps news broke. He is now the third current or former Miller assistant tied to alleged NCAA improprieties.

A formal NCAA inquiry into the Arizona basketball program has begun, and a federal trial this spring could further ensnare the Wildcats and Miller. Earlier this year, former Arizona assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson accepted a felony plea in lieu of standing trial. Christian Dawkins, an aspiring agent, will be on trial in April and already has been found guilty of conspiracy charges in a trial last fall regarding corruption in college basketball. Dawkins claimed deep ties with the Arizona program.

Dawkins’ lawyer, Steve Haney, is adamant that Dawkins won’t follow the lead of the three assistant coaches – Richardson, USC’s Tony Bland and former Oklahoma State and South Carolina assistant Lamont Evans – in the case and plea. That means there’s a strong expectation that Miller would be called to testify. Sources have indicated to Yahoo that Miller is one of many college coaches on federal wiretaps speaking with Dawkins, which could lead to their conversations being played in federal court.

Last year, Yahoo Sports reported on Dawkins emails to ASM Sports colleagues proclaiming that he was tied into former Arizona assistant Joe Pasternack, who would help the agency land clients. In federal court, Pasternack was accused of offering $50,000 to the family of top recruit Brian Bowen for him to attend Arizona.

And now a third assistant, Phelps, is under scrutiny.

The felony guilty plea by Richardson increases the onus on Miller’s head coach responsibility – NCAA Rule 11.1.1.1 – that holds Miller responsible for actions in his program. Richardson is a longtime assistant to Miller, having worked for him at both Xavier and Arizona for more than a decade.

The uncertainty in the future of Arizona basketball has captured the attention of the Board of Regents of Arizona’s Public Universities. Part of the executive session on Thursday – according to the board’s website – will include “legal advice and discussion regarding University of Arizona Men’s Basketball.”

The Arizona board has discussed the future of men’s basketball in executive session multiple times, the last one coming on Jan. 24. It’s not considered unusual that the discussions are happening in the wake of all the issues around the program, but it does indicate the scope of difficult questions that university higher ups are facing regarding the future of Miller and the program. The Arizona Republic reported in November that the school has spent more than $1 million in legal fees related to the case. The university has had an independent lawyer investigating and fact finding for more than a year.

Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke issued the following statement Wednesday night: “The University of Arizona is committed to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct and our commitment to those principles is unwavering. The decision to remove Coach Phelps immediately is a direct result of that commitment. We strive to compete within the rules of the NCAA and the PAC-12 Conference, and we will continue to cooperate fully with the NCAA. Coach Miller fully supports this decision, which we agree is in the best interests of our men’s basketball program and the University.”

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