ARIZONA (AP) — When Arizona hastily called a news conference on Thursday afternoon, it appeared coach Sean Miller’s tenure in Tucson could be coming to an end.
Instead, the coach vehemently denied a report claiming he discussed a six-figure payment to a recruit. Less than three hours later, the school president announced Miller will remain as the 19th-ranked Wildcats’ coach.
“We have no reason to believe Miller violated NCAA rules or the law,” university President Robert C. Robbins said after an Arizona Board of Regents meeting Thursday afternoon. “We will continue to pursue every avenue of inquiry available to us during this active and federal investigation to fully understand the facts.”
After a one-game absence, Miller was back on the sidelines when the Wildcats played Stanford on Thursday night in Tucson. The McKale Center crowd stood and cheered as Miller entered the arena just before the pre-game national anthem. He waved to the fans as his players smiled and clapped.
ESPN reported last Friday, using anonymous sources, that the FBI had Miller on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to Wildcats freshman Deandre Ayton to attend the school. Miller made a statement to the media inside Arizona’s McKale Center on Thursday, denying the report and saying he looked forward to shifting his focus back to basketball.
“There was no such conversation,” Miller said. “These statements have damaged me, my family, the university, Deandre Ayton and his incredible family.”
Robbins said he and athletic director Dave Heeke decided to keep Miller on after having face-to-face discussions with the coach and going over investigations conducted by the school and federal authorities.
“Coach Miller is our coach,” Robbins said. “He has a contract and we’ll be moving forward.”
In its report, ESPN said Miller was caught on the FBI wiretap discussing the payment for Ayton with Christian Dawkins, a runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller.
Ayton and his family denied receiving any money from Dawkins and Miller issued a statement last Saturday saying he was confident he would be vindicated. He took it a step further on Thursday.
“I cannot remain silent on media reports that have impugned the reputation of me, the university and sullied the name of a tremendous young man, Deandre Ayton,” Miller said. “Let me be very, very clear: I have never discussed with Christian Dawkins paying Deandre Ayton to attend the University of Arizona. In fact, I never spoke to or met Christian Dawkins until after Deandre publicly announced he was coming to our school. Any reporting to the contrary is inaccurate, false and defamatory. I’m outraged by the media statements that have been made and the acceptance by many that these statements were true.”
ESPN said its stands by its reporting on Miller and the FBI investigation.
In his statement on Saturday, Miller said it was in the best interest of the program for him not to coach the team that night at Oregon. He also did not coach the team in practice three days this week, sparking speculation he would step down or be fired.
Robbins said Miller did not coach against Oregon because the school did not know all the details and given the shock of the report.
“I have been completely open and transparent, and I look forward to coaching this team as we seek a Pac-12 regular-season championship this week,” Miller said. “I now intend to turn my focus to basketball, our players and this team.”
Arizona’s program was ensnared in the federal investigation into college basketball recruiting which first became public in September.
Wildcats assistant coach Emanuel Richardson was arrested with nine others as part of the federal probe alleging that bribes and kickbacks were being used to influence star players’ choices of schools, shoe sponsors, agents and other services like tailors and financial managers. Payments of up to $150,000, supplied by Adidas, were promised to at least three top high school recruits to attend two schools sponsored by the shoe company, according to federal prosecutors.
The probe led to the firing of Louisville coach Rick Pitino after the investigation alleged Adidas executive James Gatto tried to funnel $100,000 to a recruit to attend the school. Details within federal documents made it clear the recruit was Brian Bowen Jr., who has since left Louisville and signed with South Carolina.
Miller said he was once approached about paying a player to attend Arizona, but did not go into specifics.
“The one time someone suggested to me paying a player to come to the University of Arizona, I did not agree to it. It never happened and that player did not come to the University of Arizona,” he said.
AP sports writer Bob Baum contributed to this report from Tucson.