Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller isn’t coaching the Wildcats in their game at Oregon on Saturday night.
On Friday, ESPN reported that an FBI wiretap revealed a conversation between Miller and Christian Dawkins, a central figure in the FBI’s probe of corruption in college basketball. In the call, Miller and Dawkins reportedly “discussed” a $100,000 payment to freshman center Deandre Ayton when he was a recruit in the class of 2017. Ayton is eligible and will play in the game on Saturday, the Wildcats announced.
Dawkins is a former associate of once-powerful NBA agent Andy Miller at his agency, ASM Sports. The government has reportedly tapped more than 3,000 hours of Dawkins’ phone conversations. Dawkins was a focus of a Yahoo Sports report on Friday that showed documents purportedly detailing loans and other payments to players and their families.
“I believe it is in the best interests of our team that I not coach the game tonight,” Miller said in a statement. He added he is “confident that I will be vindicated.” Lorenzo Romar, the former Washington head coach and current Arizona assistant, is filling in for him.
Arizona’s been caught up in the FBI investigation for months.
In September, the feds charged Dawkins with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud itself, and conspiracy to launder money. The government accuses Dawkins of paying bribes to a former Arizona assistant, Book Richardson, in exchange for steering Arizona players to a management company he’d started with another defendant, Munish Sood.
The government accuses Richardson of accepting $20,000 in bribes, including a $15,000 payment from an undercover FBI agent. The government says the goal of the bribe was to get Richardson to steer a five-star point guard to Arizona and, later, to Dawkins and Sood’s business venture. (That point guard did commit to Arizona but later changed his decision to Villanova.)
Richardson faces various fraud charges. He also faces a charge for soliciting bribes as an “agent of a federally funded organization.” Because the University of Arizona does more than $10,000 in business with the government through loans, grants, and other “federal assistance,” the government is prosecuting Richardson (and two other former coaches) under that broad anti-corruption law. He’s also facing a charge for “travel act conspiracy” — basically put, crossing state lines to break the law.
Richardson has pleaded not guilty to six felonies. If he were convicted on all of them, he’d face up to 80 years in prison, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The criminal case involving Richardson, former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, and former USC assistant Tony Bland, all on similar charges, isn’t close to wrapping up.
We have dates for all three of the criminal court cases in the basketball scandal. October 1 for Gatto/Dawkins/Code. Feb. 4 2019 for Person and Michel. And the final case — with includes Book/Evans/Bland — is April 22 of 2019. Long way to go.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) February 15, 2018
Miller hasn’t been charged with a crime. His future is unclear.
ESPN’s report indicates that Miller sought to work directly with Dawkins:
According to people with knowledge of the FBI investigation, Miller and Dawkins, a runner working for ASM Sports agent Andy Miller, had multiple conversations about Ayton. When Dawkins asked Miller if he should work with assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson to finalize their agreement, Miller told Dawkins he should deal directly with him when it came to money, the sources said.
Without knowing more about Miller’s reported conversations with Dawkins, we can’t know how federal investigators might be dealing with him.
A program arranging a payment for a player would be an NCAA violation, which could lead to sanctions including vacated records, postseason bans, or any number of garden-variety NCAA punishments. Whether it would be against the law for a coach to arrange such a payment depends on a host of other factors, and we don’t know those.
Miller has, over the years, turned Arizona into one of the sport’s recruiting powers. The Wildcats load up with blue-chip talent every year, and they win lots. Miller entered the weekend with a winning percentage of 77 in nine years in Tucson.
Miller has a weird buyout structure in his Arizona contract, which would result in the school paying him more to fire him with cause than without. The school would have to pay Miller more than $10 million if he were fired for cause, such as an NCAA violation.
Ayton’s college future is also hazy, but it won’t last much longer anyway.
Among the many things we don’t know is what payment, if any, ultimately went to Ayton. Taking money even fractionally as big as $100,000 would cost Ayton his NCAA eligibility, in addition to subjecting Arizona to the NCAA’s wrath going forward.
That probably wouldn’t be a big problem for Ayton, personally, because he’s a star player on his way to the NBA. He’s a near-certain lottery pick in this summer’s draft, and the NBA — unlike the NCAA — doesn’t have a problem with its players getting paid. He’s averaged about 20 points and 11 rebounds per game in an All-American-type freshman season.
The NCAA strikes an outraged tone when it talks about the FBI case, but it’s that organization’s insistence that players not be paid at all that allows college sports’ underground economy to flourish. Fortunately for Ayton, he’ll soon play in a league that doesn’t penalize players for using their own talent to make money.