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Preliminary notifications have been sent out to representatives of both Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller and LSU basketball coach Will Wade that they will be subpoenaed for the April 22 federal basketball corruption trial, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports. These notifications are essentially a courtesy to avoid a public spectacle for the coaches, like getting served in the middle of a game or a practice.
The impending subpoenas mark a potentially dynamic development in the college basketball corruption case. It creates the potential of two high-profile head coaches testifying in federal court about the granular detail of the recruiting underworld – something that never manifested in the initial federal trial last fall. It raises thorny questions for the public universities that employ them, as both the optics of potentially testifying in federal court about basketball recruiting and potential answers that could be given under oath will be a likely cause of consternation for Arizona and LSU administrators.
Both coaches have long been known to be on federal wiretaps talking to Christian Dawkins, the former low-level agent runner who was found guilty of multiple felony fraud charges in the first basketball corruption trail in October. The impending subpoenas also increase the likelihood that those tapes would be played at trial, as defense attorneys are likely to want to walk the jury through the realities of recruiting in college basketball’s underworld.
Miller, 50, is the most prominent college basketball coach on the West Coast and has been in the thick of controversy since the investigation first became public in September of 2017. One of his assistant coaches, Emanuel “Book” Richardson, has already pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. Another assistant coach, Mark Phelps, is also no longer with the team because of his role in an unrelated academic scandal. In early February, the university initiated the process to fire Phelps. A third former Miller assistant, UC Santa Barbara coach Joe Pasternack, was portrayed by Dawkins in emails as a conduit for ASM Sports agency, which employed Dawkins, to Arizona players.
Wade, 36, is in his second season as the head coach at LSU and has the Tigers in first place in the SEC and projected to earn a No. 3 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Wade hasn’t been under the level of scrutiny as Miller in relation to the scandal, but he did enter the crosshairs during the first federal trial in October. Wade’s name emerged as part of a conversation with Dawkins about a recruit named Balsa Koprivica. One of Adidas executive Jim Gatto’s attorneys read aloud a wiretap transcript where Wade and Dawkins were speaking about Koprivica. The attorney, Casey E. Donnelly, said that Wade and Dawkins were communicating to get him what he needs – “meaning money,” she said – in order to play at LSU.
Donnelly read the conversation this way:
“Would you want Balsa?” Dawkins asked.
“Oh, the big kid?” Wade responded.
“OK, but there is other [expletive] involved in it,” Wade said. “Wait, I’ve got to shut the door … I can get you what you need, but it’s got to work.”
Wade went on to tell reporters at SEC media day in October that he has “never, ever done business of any kind with Christian Dawkins.” But there’s an expectation that Wade will appear on wiretaps talking about recruits other than Koprivica. Wade has had recruiting success that’s historically anomalous, including luring top players from Connecticut (Tremont Waters) and New Jersey (Naz Reid) to Baton Rouge.
LSU spokesman Michael Bonnette said Monday in a text that the school declined to comment. When Wade was asked about it during his weekly news conference, he said, “I’ve been focusing on the team and our guys. I haven’t been following it.”
Yahoo Sports reported in February of 2018 that Wade had drawn NCAA scrutiny for his recruiting at both VCU and LSU. LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said the school had “no contact” from the NCAA, which is not abnormal in the early stages of NCAA inquiries.
The potential of both coaches taking the stand would place both Arizona and LSU in uncomfortable positions. First off, the optics of having a sitting head coach testify in a federal trial are uncomfortable for schools. The options for the schools offer a distinct dichotomy.
The coaches may have done nothing and could testify to that. But the other options are more complicated. They include the coaches trying to quash the subpoena – an unlikely legal quest – or taking the fifth on the stand. Both of those options would potentially portray the coaches and schools as having something to hide. Or, the coach could end up testifying to actions that amount to NCAA rules violations, which could give the schools the right to fire them for cause.
So far, LSU’s administration has appeared supportive of Wade. But the timing of a subpoena to appear in federal court while the Tigers are preparing for their first NCAA tournament bid since 2015 presents a problematic twist to the season.
The potential of Miller on the stand could end up as a tipping point for his future at Arizona, as there’s a certain risk and embarrassment that comes with the potential testimony. In the wake of a controversial ESPN story last year that accused Miller of discussing a $100,000 payment for future No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton to play at Arizona, Miller adamantly denied doing anything wrong.
“I have never knowingly violated NCAA rules while serving as head coach of this great program,” Miller said in March of 2018. He went to say that he “never paid” a recruit or anyone around them to come to Arizona. “I never have, and I never will.”
That Miller kept his job for a full year after that ESPN story has been considered a surprise to many in college basketball. This spring, Miller agreed to a revised contract that tacitly acknowledged the potential of rules violations by agreeing to pay a $1 million fine if he’s criminally charged or found guilty of an NCAA Level 1 violation. (The money would come from a $4.1 million longevity fund.)
When Arizona decided to keep Miller in the wake of the ESPN story last year, the Wildcats had one of the country’s top teams and was a contender for the national championship. But Arizona lost to No. 13 seed Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA tournament and things have fallen apart for the Wildcats on the floor. Arizona is 16-12 and went through a seven-game losing streak during league play. Arizona is 7-8 in the Pac-12, which is generationally bad this season, and in a three-way tie for seventh place. Arizona does have the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class slated to come in during the fall.
Arizona has been closely monitoring and investigating Miller’s situation. The school has spent more than $1 million in legal fees on the case and the Arizona Board of Regents has met multiple times in executive session about the future of the program. The latest meeting came in early February in closed session for “legal advice and discussion regarding University of Arizona Men’s Basketball.”
Miller has coached in 11 NCAA tournaments over his 15-year career at Xavier and Arizona. He’s 263-86 in 10 seasons at Arizona. While he’s never reached a Final Four, it’s reasonable to project that Miller was on a Hall of Fame coaching trajectory.
The impending subpoenas are not a surprise, as Yahoo Sports has reported their likelihood multiple times in the past month. But their impending arrival means difficult questions for both the coaches, athletic departments and administrations.
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