March Madness is on the basketball horizon and right there in the middle of it will be Arizona, which has enjoyed another solid Pac-12 season. And, against all odds, coach Sean Miller will be positioned behind the bench, directing traffic for the Wildcats.
Miller seemed headed for an exit or certainly a suspension when it was reported by ESPN that the FBI had wiretaps in which the coach discussed a $100,000 payoff to lure top recruit Deandre Ayton to Arizona.
When the story first surfaced, Miller was missing from the Wildcats’ bench for its game against Oregon. This is usually a bad optic for a coach whose seat has suddenly become a trifle hot.
Part of the problem for Miller was that Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book’’ Richardson was one of four assistants indicted last November on multiple criminal charges including bribery and wire fraud. You might say that the feds threw the book at Book.
Now in the world of college athletics, there is very little that goes on without the knowledge of the head coach. That is why Joe Paterno’s plea of ignorance about assistant Jerry Sandusky horrible shenanigans at Penn State sounded so hollow. And that is why Rick Pitino’s defense of the escapades at Louisville was dismissed by that university’s administration.
But if you believe Miller, he had nothing to do with Richardson’s alleged bad behavior and certainly nothing to do with any payoff offer to lure Ayton to Arizona. “I have never knowingly violated NCAA rules while serving as head coach of this great program,’’ Miller said. “I have never paid a recruit, prospect or their family to come to Arizona and I never will.’’
As for Ayton, clearly the young man, who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft, was attracted by the academic opportunities Arizona offered and nothing else.
Arizona’s administration believed Miller. President Robert C. Robbins issued a statement backing the coach. “We have no reason to believe Miller violated NCAA rules or the law,’’ he said. “We will continue to pursue every avenue of inquiry available to us during this active and federal investigation to fully understand the facts.’’
What he didn’t say was, in the meantime, there are games to play, maybe titles to win and money to earn for our fine university. Get back to the sidelines, coach.
So after going MIA for one game, Miller returned to the bench for a win against Stanford, welcomed back by a raucous standing ovation from the Arizona crowd. Miller was emotional about the crowd reaction, a moment he said he would never forget.
So what’s next?
Well, the FBI remains interested in college basketball and how high profile teams always seem to come away with the best recruits. The names floating around the investigation include the most prominent schools in the NCAA like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Michigan State. All are expected to be honored guests in the NCAA tournament along with Arizona.
And, oh yes, coach Sean Miller.