Throughout a season marred by the arrest of an assistant coach, the glare of a federal investigation and a one-game removal in the wake of a controversial ESPN report, Arizona coach Sean Miller always had his team. He had a group with elite talent, the expected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in Deandre Ayton, and enough momentum after a Pac-12 tournament title to be considered a trendy Final Four pick.
Coaches relish working in tunnels, and Miller always had the next game to prepare for, the next practice to script and the day-to-day logistics of running a top-25 basketball team. The tunnel offered an escape from reality, and it surrounded him with the familiar rhythms he’s known since growing up the son of a Pennsylvania high school coach.
On Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Sean Miller’s tunnel collapsed on top of him. No. 4 Arizona got blown off the court by No. 13 Buffalo, 89-68. And with the garish loss – “they overwhelmed us,” Miller conceded – the decisions surrounding Miller’s future are uncertain, unprecedented and precipitously more overwhelming. Now that the tunnel has collapsed, there’s no clean exit.
Miller and the University of Arizona wake up on Friday morning to the most vexing of crossroads, one of the thorniest and most complex coaching decisions in the history of college basketball. Miller is one of the 20 best coaches in college basketball. He’s won 77 percent of his games at Arizona and reached the NCAA tournament in six consecutive seasons. He’s beloved in Tucson and still embraced by the community there.
But there are so many questions looming around Miller and Arizona that it’s difficult to imagine him as the head coach at the University of Arizona in 2018-19. The school stuck by him after an ESPN report on Feb. 25 claimed FBI wiretaps captured Miller discussing “paying $100,000 to ensure star freshman Deandre Ayton singed with the Wildcats,” citing “sources familiar with the government’s evidence.”
(There was a one-game absence, but both Miller and the university rebutted powerfully – Arizona in reinstating Miller and Miller himself by calling parts of the ESPN report “false and defamatory.” ESPN corrected the report multiple times, and there’s still thorny questions over the details and timeline of the report.)
The trickiest part here is the timing. The federal investigation into basketball is ongoing, and the final of the three trials associated with it isn’t slated to begin until April 2019. (That final trial includes former Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson, who faces felony bribery charges after being arrested in September as part of the sweeping federal probe.)
Then there’s the NCAA piece of this, some of which may not be able to begin until after the trials. Full clarity on what Miller and Arizona may or may not have done might not come until the onset of the next decade. There are so many foggy variables tied to the case that it’s hard to conceive all the billable hours pondering them: What if Richardson turns over information on Miller to the feds? What if the FBI wiretaps are played during trial? What if they’re not? There are no easy answers here.
“It’s a large risk and an interesting situation,” said a source familiar with Miller’s situation at Arizona. “I’d put the whole thing at 50-50. And if I had to tilt it one way, he’d be back. The difficulty is significant. I don’t imagine he’ll pack it in without knowing what his next move is. I don’t know what that move would be at this stage.”
If Miller does come back, he’d have a roster decimated by attrition – all five starters are expected to head to the NBA or graduate. His recruiting class currently has zero players after two high-profile de-commitments in the wake of the ESPN report. Miller is a great coach, but all coaches need players. And what high-end players would commit to Arizona amid all the uncertainty? And how many are left on the board for next year?
Here are the options:
Could Miller just walk away? It’s hard to imagine any college president hiring him with all this uncertainty looming. This includes his beloved alma mater Pittsburgh, which is coming off an 0-18 ACC season. (There’s an argument for familiarity and mutual desperation there, but no administrators would be likely to risk it considering the severity of the unknown elements in this situation.)
Could the university fire Miller? Well, if it wanted to fire him for cause, it could have conceivably missed its window. Miller would be owed more than $10 million, and nothing has changed with Miller since the university decided to stick with him after the ESPN report. We’ve learned all buyouts are seemingly negotiable, and perhaps Arizona will pay Miller a few million and everyone walks away smiling and quiet.
Could Miller go to the NBA? Miller is an old coworker of Stan Van Gundy from their time at Wisconsin, which would make Detroit a possible landing spot. Since Miller has yet to be legally implicated in the federal case, there’d be little risk for an NBA team to hire him. At the college level – where Miller is thought to prefer to coach – the fickle hand of NCAA enforcement could loom over his career for a while. But would Miller really walk away from a college head-coaching job where he’s making $2.5 million to be an NBA assistant where he may make one-fifth of that? That’s only likely if it’s his sole option.
Could Miller be back? If Arizona doesn’t fire him soon, it’s realistic that he could be back. But this would essentially be a rebuilding job, and having UNC Asheville transfer Dylan Smith (4.5 ppg) and Duke transfer Chase Jeter as your bedrocks would make for a long season next year. Miller could certainly be back, as the administration has supported him enough to stick with him this long. Plus, it’s his most lucrative and highest-level option. “It’s unknowable right now,” said the Arizona source of Miller’s future. “It’s not something you can reliably predict because of the time frames.”
Both Miller and Arizona knew once the ball stopped bouncing there’d be hard decisions. They just didn’t expect them to come this suddenly, this raw and this, well, overwhelming.
Sean Miller just peeked out of his tunnel at the first day of the rest of his career. And the only certainty about what will unfold is that there’s no easy answer for either side.
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