It was under Sean Miller’s watch that the Arizona Wildcats found themselves caught up in an FBI sting and an NCAA investigation, but it will be someone else who sees them through to the finish line.
Per Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, Arizona fired Miller after 12 seasons on Wednesday, parting ways with the third-winningest coach in school history despite one year left on his contract. The decision comes more than a month after the 2020-21 season ended, with athletic director Dave Heeke and school president Dr. Robert C. Robbins remaining publicly silent on the topic throughout while dozens of other Division I programs made coaching changes.
Sean Miller met with both Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins and AD Dave Heeke last night for more than an hour with no conclusion, source told @stadium. Then met again this morning and decided to part ways with Miller, who is owed about $1.5 million.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) April 7, 2021
Miller, 52, finishes his tenure with a 302-109 overall record and a 150-68 mark in Pac-10/12 play, with Arizona going 17-9 overall and 11-9 in the Pac-12 in his final season. He was the third-fastest coach to reach 300 wins at a conference school, and his league win total ranks 10th all-time.
A 3-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year, Miller led Arizona to at least a share of five regular-season conference titles as well as 3 Pac-12 Tournament championships. He took the Wildcats to seven NCAA tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 five times and making the Elite Eight on three occasions.
But Arizona’s NCAA tourney success had disappeared during the latter half of Miller’s run, as the Wildcats last made the tournament in 2018 and last won a game in 2017. The 2019-20 squad was likely to make the tourney had the COVID-19 pandemic not shut down sports in mid-March, while this year’s squad would have been in a mix for a bid had Arizona not self-imposed a postseason ban in late December.
Ironically, the Wildcats choosing to ban itself from the 2021 tourney coincided with the best run by the Pac-12 possibly ever. The conference had four teams reach the Sweet 16, three reach the Elite Eight (including surprise Pac-12 Tournament champ Oregon State) and UCLA made the Final Four, nearly knocking off then-unbeaten Gonzaga in the national semifinals.
The decision to sit out the Pac-12 and NCAA tourneys this year was a proactive measure by the school in the wake of receiving a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA in October. The UA held off on releasing the NOA until ordered by a Maricopa County judge to do so, and it revealed the men’s basketball program was accused of five Level I violations, considered the most severe.
Among the Level I allegations was a charge against Miller of failing to promote compliance as well as a lack of institutional control charge against the school.
Arizona has been in hot water since September 2017, when then-assistant coach Book Richardson was arrested by FBI agents and accused of taking bribes from a would-be sports agent. He pleaded guilty to a bribery charge and was sentenced to three months in prison.
In February 2018 a still-unsubstantiated report by ESPN claimed Miller had been caught on a federal wiretap arranging a $100,000 payment to ensure future Pac-12 Player of the Year and No. 1 NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton would come to Arizona. Miller refuted that claim a few days later in a press conference where he vehemently denied ever knowingly committing an NCAA violation.
More smoke emanated from the program in February 2019 when then-assistant coach Mark Phelps was placed on administrative leave, and later fired, for reportedly helping one-time UA commit Shareef O’Neal with an online class. Phelps, through his attorney, has denied any wrongdoing and in May 2019 claimed his firing was an effort by the UA to offset potential NCAA sanctions because of Richardson’s arrest and conviction.
Whoever Arizona hires to replace Miller could be inheriting a fairly stacked team for 2021-22, assuming the coaching change doesn’t prompt a mass exodus of players like the UA has experienced for the last few seasons. The Wildcats could return seven of their top nine scorers if James Akinjo opts to return after testing the NBA Draft waters, and they signed a trio of top-100 guards in November.
With Miller gone, Arizona will have first-year head coaches in both football and men’s basketball for the first time since 1973 when Fred Snowden completed his first of 10 seasons in charge of the hoops program and Jim Young began his 4-year tenure at the helm of the football team.