Arizona Basketball

UA in process of firing UA’s Phelps, Miller’s top assistant coach

The hits keep coming for the Arizona men’s basketball program. Who would have thought the injury to Brandon Williams would be the least of its worries going against Washington on Thursday?

Late Wednesday night, basketball writer Jeff Goodman, who has been an insider to the goings-on of the program for years, tweeted that Arizona coach Mark Phelps, Sean Miller’s top assistant, had been placed on administrative leave. Arizona later issued a statement saying they were in the process of terminating Phelps.

Mark Phelps (middle holding cell phone) watches the Compton Magic game Wednesday night featuring point guard Jaylen Hands (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

“The University of Arizona has initiated the process to terminate assistant men’s basketball coach Mark Phelps’ employment with the university,” the school said in a statement. “During this process, Phelps has been placed on suspension with pay in accordance with university policy. This personnel action is not related to the federal criminal proceedings in New York or the NCAA’s review of the facts underlying the allegations of unlawful conduct.”

Goodman, who works for WatchStadium.com, said the matter involved one-time Arizona commit Shareef O’Neal and an online course. O’Neal de-committed from Arizona and signed with UCLA.

“The University of Arizona is committed to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct and our commitment to those principles is unwavering,” Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said in a statement.

“The decision to remove coach Phelps immediately is a direct result of that commitment. We strive to compete within the rules of the NCAA and the PAC-12 Conference, and we will continue to cooperate fully with the NCAA. Coach Miller fully supports this decision, which we agree is in the best interests of our men’s basketball program and the University.”

Goodman wrote on Twitter that his unnamed source believes the school is “building its case” to perhaps take action against Miller.

This comes on the heels of a Yahoo Sports report that the NCAA has started its investigation into Arizona’s issues involving the recent investigation by the FBI. Most of the news earlier this week centered on Miller possibly being subpoenaed in a trial against Christian Dawkins, a former agent runner involved in the FBI investigation.

In the Yahoo report, it said “there’s a strong expectation’ that Sean Miller will be subpoenaed during an upcoming trial involving the college basketball scandal, and that the school will soon be facing ‘uncomfortable questions’ about its basketball coach.”

The uncomfortable questions may have already started. And could come again as soon as Thursday. There is a previously scheduled Arizona Board of Regents meeting set for Thursday, including an executive session closed to the public.

All this just puts Arizona in continuous bad light nationally and locally, as has often been the case since news broke of the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption — and the arrest of then-Arizona assistant Book Richardson — in September 2017.

Throughout everything, University of Arizona president Robert Robbins and Heeke have publicly stood by Miller and the program.

They were completely behind their coach after he issued a strong denial in late February. Miller said he “never (had) and never will” pay a recruit or their family for the player to come to Arizona.”

Just last month, Richardson pled guilty to one federal bribery charge. He told the judge he accepted $20,000 in exchange for a promise to steer student-athletes potentially headed to the NBA toward Dawkins. Prosecutors said Richardson planned to use $15,000 of the money to entice one prized recruit to attend Arizona.

Richardson said he “knew this conduct was wrong.”

He is set to be sentenced in late April.

While there was nothing in that plea that directly reflected on Miller, that doesn’t matter from the NCAA’s point of view. He is still in charge of the program and responsible for everything involved with it. There is an often-cited bylaw in the NCAA rules that states, “coaches are responsible for the actions of their assistants “unless they can rebut the presumption of responsibility by proving they have fostered an atmosphere of compliance and actively monitored their direct and indirect reports.”

Miller has often declined comment on anything related to the FBI investigation as it relates to his program.

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