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Congratulations to Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke. He sat on a Zoom call in the wake of the firing of coach Sean Miller and successfully summed up the ethical compass of the Arizona athletic department.
Those five Level I NCAA allegations looming over Arizona? They weren’t such a big deal. The impending NCAA punishment that could handcuff Arizona basketball in the immediate future? That deserves a shoulder shrug. Those allegations of academic fraud and the head coach failing to monitor his staff? Those are just mild inconveniences.
But here’s where the real problem lies for Arizona basketball. Not winning an NCAA tournament game since 2017? Well, that’ll get you fired. No Final Fours in 12 years. Exit stage left. Get run off the floor by No. 13 Buffalo when you have DeAndre Ayton? That’s going to linger.
For a place as brazen as Arizona, the decision on Miller still proved a slow, tortured and controversial slog to arrive. It came 37 days after Arizona’s season ended, one that didn’t include the postseason because of a self-imposed ban. And it exposed that the university’s leadership is as rudderless and indecisive as they are ambivalent to those pesky NCAA rules.
Along the way, Heeke managed to articulate one of the great truisms of college athletics. He reaffirmed that losing games is a much greater sin in college athletics than being directly implicated in a major cheating scandal. “We have not been, on the competitive side, as successful as we wanted,” Heeke said.
Whoever lent Heeke their copy of the “Administrator’s Guide to Using Jargon to Avoid Specifics” should pat themselves on the back. He stuck to the vanilla talking points as they were plastered on his forehead like rubber cement.
“Move in a new direction.”
“There’s never a perfect time.”
“Evaluate all the factors.”
“Time for a fresh start.”
It was a master class in talking without saying anything. But in Heeke’s defense, what could he really say that wouldn’t get him laughed out of the next athletic director convention?
Arizona has paid Sean Miller well over $10 million in salary and retention bonuses since the federal basketball scandal became public four whole basketball seasons ago. They are giving him an additional payment — nearly $1.5 million — to leave, even though it’s highly unlikely Miller would have the desire or grounds to sue the school if they tried to fire him for cause. (Just imagine the potential witnesses for that case.)
Heeke reverted to empty clichés on the timing and reasoning for the firing because there are no good reasons without shedding light on the backroom fighting over Miller’s future. So he tap-danced, cliché spat and underwhelmed in a situation where there was little chance to overwhelm. Arizona has a heavy-handed president, Robert Robbins, and lightweight athletic director who are only bonded by how much their peers are snickering at them.
So what’s the takeaway here? Losing will always get you fired. That’s never going to change. The other is that the biggest loser of this entire federal basketball investigation continues to be the NCAA. Four full seasons after the investigation began, the scandal highlighted the NCAA’s chronic failures to both enforce its own rules and evolve other rules to a place where wide swaths of a billion-dollar sport aren’t vulnerable to a fast-talking college dropout in his early 20s.
The sport has only gotten more corrupt, the lack of enforcement incentivizing coaches to cut deals in a world where they’ve seen so many operate consequence-free for so long.
“Cheating is worse right now,” said veteran college basketball assistant. “Sean Miller is collateral damage from a system that isn’t changing.”
The NCAA’s inability to enforce its rules has been accentuated by the behaviors of athletic departments around the country. Kansas gave Bill Self a lifetime contract amid the specter of inevitable sanctions, which basically amounted to chancellor Douglas A. Girod screaming to NCAA enforcement chief Jon Duncan: “Bring it on.”
LSU has been exposed as so scandal-ridden and ethically deprived outside its basketball program that it wouldn’t be surprising if the overwhelmed leadership there has forgotten about Will Wade’s issues. The saddest part is there’s little optimism that many of these cases — especially LSU and Arizona — will be resolved by the next Final Four. More than four seasons after the feds bragged “we have your playbook,” we’ve constantly been reminded that the NCAA’s playbook is filled with nothing more than twiddling thumbs.
NCAA president Mark Emmert somehow established itself as more incompetent and irrelevant through all this. He brought in a blue-ribbon panel that essentially amounted to Condoleezza Rice distracting everyone from Emmert’s continued failures to manage issues in the only sport that matters to the NCAA’s bottom line. At this point, Emmert is so reliant on outside help and law firms it wouldn’t be surprising if the NCAA gets charged billable hours for Emmert’s lunch order.
Cheaters prosper in college basketball. That will always be one of the legacies of Emmert’s tenure. He managed to take a sport riddled with rule-breakers and somehow enable them. The black market will always thrive, and Emmert whiffed on his chance to be proactive and at least bring some of that money over the counter by controlling Name, Image and Likeness legislation. Now, those decisions have been taken out of the NCAA’s hands.
And that all brings us back to Wednesday, where the firing of Sean Miller came from Arizona basketball’s performance slipping under the specter of NCAA sanctions. Not the fact that he oversaw a program that’s the target of them. Miller will follow the Kelvin Sampson path to redemption, spend a few years in the NBA and someday return as a Kelvin Sampson 2.0 redemption story.
Until then, we wait and wonder. And wait some more. At least Arizona’s bit of bottom-line honesty offers an honest peek into bottom-line realities.
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