Sean Miller stands tall with Arizona's support, but a cloud of scandal still hovers
Miller can be right in 100 percent denying an ESPN report -- and still find himself in a tough spot later
Sean Miller sat there in a red shirt with an Arizona logo on it -- water bottle to his left, white piece of paper to his right -- and carefully read a statement Thursday afternoon during which he said the following: "Let me be very, very clear: I have never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the University of Arizona. [Any] reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false and defamatory."
So that's that, huh?
There's no wiggle room here. Miller is 100 percent denying ESPN's report from late Friday that alleged the Arizona coach was indeed caught on a wiretap discussing a pay-for-play scheme with Dawkins, the former runner for agent Andy Miller, involving Ayton, the five-star freshman who is averaging 19.9 points and 11.2 rebounds for a team that's just a win over Stanford late Thursday from securing at least a share of the Pac-12 title.
Miller will coach against Stanford.
And, boy, the ovation he'll receive during introductions from fans who believe ESPN inaccurately, and unfairly, damaged their school's brand and coach's reputation with a report that has been subsequently corrected multiple times is sure to be something. But it's also worth noting that ESPN quickly released a statement Thursday afternoon that said it "stands by its reporting on Miller and the FBI investigation" even though the timeline ESPN initially reported doesn't make sense, as SI.com has confirmed. Wild stuff. And so where this goes from here will be interesting for sure.
Can ESPN produce an audio recording that confirms its report? Will Miller sue? And what happens if Dawkins, who has been charged with multiple felonies, cooperates with federal authorities?
Would his own words help or hurt Miller?
Frankly, I don't know. But what I do know is that it's reasonable to wonder whether Miller can effectively run his program at an elite level going forward given everything that's happened -- which is why Arizona is, on some level, taking a risk and putting a lot of faith in a coach who, if nothing else, has a longtime assistant (Book Richardson) facing up to 60 years in prison for crimes allegedly committed on his watch.
Is everybody sure that's not a problem?
By allowing Miller to continue in his role, Arizona is, first and foremost, trusting he can still recruit with a cloud of uncertainty hovering above him -- and despite the fact that this scandal has already cost the program, and despite the fact that Miller's top recruiter was fired in January. That's an assumption, at best. And beyond that, the school is also essentially taking Miller at his word when he says he's "done nothing wrong" all while ESPN is still reporting, accurately or inaccurately, that Miller isn't being honest.
Plus, this FBI investigation remains a long ways from over.
And Richardson is still out there.
And like I've said many times on the Eye on College Basketball podcast, he is not some street criminal who lives by a code of "snitches get stitches." He's a college-educated man with a wife and children. And there's just no way he's going to spend more time away from his family than he's required to spend in the spirit of protecting a multimillionaire Pac-12 coach.
So he's going to talk.
And though it's only fair to acknowledge it's possible Richardson will have zero stories to tell when he talks, let me ask a question: Does that seem likely? Maybe. But it's hard to know for sure. Which is why Miller, long as we're being honest, remains at risk of being implicated in basically anything at any point -- or, at the very least, he's at risk of having one of his former assistants publicly acknowledge any number of problematic things -- as information the FBI has obtained, or will obtain, continues to trickle out.
Arizona is willing to deal with that reality, clearly.
But not all schools would.
And don't ever forget that the last big brand (Louisville) that stood by its scandal-ridden coach (Rick Pitino) ended up regretting it once the FBI uncovered he was allegedly involved in a pay-for-play scheme to get a five-star prospect (Brian Bowen) to enroll. Pitino was fired in October. And though he, like Miller, still claims he'll be vindicated, it doesn't seem to matter much to anybody but him.
Bottom line, you cannot unring that ESPN bell from last Friday. No matter what Sean Miller did or did not say on a wiretap, real damage was done in lots of ways. He's stained in many people's eyes -- if not forever then at least for a while. And it's why some thought it might've been in Arizona's best interests to, one way or another, just cut ties and move on. I'm not saying that would've been fair or right. I'm just saying it would've been understandable, all things considered. Because all Arizona not removing Miller now means is that Arizona might be forced to do it later if an incriminating wiretap, or something else, surfaces. And the only thing worse than doing it now would be operating ineffectively under a cloud of scandal for several more months or years and then, once some federal documents are actually released, having to do it later anyway, at which point the administration would face tough questions.
That's the truth.
But for now, Sean Miller will coach.
Innocent or guilty, Sean Miller will coach.
And, in just a few hours, he'll probably win a game and cut nets like a champion.
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