The Sean Miller Era finally came to an end in Tucson on Wednesday, and it’s the right move for Arizona, and also the best thing for Miller.
Miller took Arizona to three Elite Eight appearances in his first six seasons with the Wildcats, and completely rebuilt a program that was in disarray after Hall-of-Famer Lute Olson was forced to retire due to health reasons.
However, Miller’s legacy won’t be about coming up just shy of the Final Four on multiple occasions. Instead, his tenure in Tucson — justified or not — will be forever remembered for what occurred post-Sept. 27, 2017. That was the day his assistant, Book Richardson, was among those arrested in an FBI corruption probe within college basketball, and the day that it all began to unravel for Miller.
Miller was front and center, especially after an ESPN article alleged Miller had a conversation with Christian Dawkins regarding a $100,000 payment to former Arizona star Deandre Ayton. Miller denied that conversation, the audio never leaked and it was never mentioned in the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations.
However, the damage was done. Miller became college basketball’s primary villain.
He still found a way to recruit at a high level for a while, landing Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji, but it ultimately caught up with him and he was forced to go the international route a year ago.
Arizona received its Notice of Allegations back in late October, and then self-imposed a one-year postseason ban. There were five Level 1 violations, including one on Miller for a lack of institutional control. Three of the violations were charges of alleged misconduct by Richardson and former assistant Mark Phelps, a pair involving academic fraud.
That’s when Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke should have made the move with Miller. Instead, they waited and waited, and waited some more.
Sources close to the Arizona program told Stadium that the administration has desired to make a move on Miller for a while now, but that Miller had the support of the Wildcats’ two largest boosters. Finally, after a lengthy meeting on Tuesday night in which there was no resolution, Robbins and Heeke fired Miller on Wednesday morning.
Sources said that Miller was more than willing to coach out his contract, which was set to expire after this coming season. He had a team ranked in the AP Top 25 a year ago, and even had a chance to compete for a Pac-12 title.
But the issue was the future. Miller wasn’t going to be able to pull any more Nico Mannions or Josh Greens out of his hat. This was the right move for the program and ultimately the best thing for Miller, who will likely look for a job on an NBA staff (he’s close with Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy) before next season.
Now Arizona has a decision to make.
Robbins’ first call should be to Baylor’s Scott Drew. The guy has orchestrated the ultimate rebuilding job in Waco, and is coming off a national championship just days ago. I’m told it’s been a job he’s always held in high esteem. Now with his brother, Bryce, two hours up the road at Grand Canyon and his parents also living in the Phoenix area, it could be realistic that Drew would at least listen to Arizona.
Take a swing at Drew.
It’ll be tough to lure him. Not only has he been in Waco for nearly two decades, not only is he coming off a national title, but there are also concerns whether Arizona will get hit with more sanctions, including potentially another year of a postseason ban.
Does Robbins keep it in the Arizona family, as has been the case recently with Juwan Howard (Michigan), Mike Woodson (Indiana) and Hubert Davis (North Carolina)?
There are a trio of candidates who make sense: Pacific coach Damon Stoudamire, Los Angeles Lakers assistant Miles Simon and Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner.
Stoudamire is far more qualified than Howard, Woodson or Davis, having been in the college ranks since 2008. He started as the director of player development at Rice, was an assistant under Pastner for three years at Memphis and also spent two years with Miller at Arizona. He’s been the head coach at Pacific since 2016, and has done a nice job making a program considered the toughest in the WCC competitive with everyone not named Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s.
Simon was an assistant at Arizona from 2005-08, worked at ESPN and has been an assistant with the Lakers since 2017. He’s also remained involved with USA Basketball and worked as a coach on Nike’s EYBL circuit for five years.
Pastner is probably more of a long-shot since he was on the proverbial hot seat prior to the Yellow Jackets’ successful campaign this past season in which they won the ACC Tournament. Another guy who has been mentioned is Sacramento Kings head coach Luke Walton, but he had a short stint with Pastner in Memphis years ago during the NBA lockout and I’ve been told wasn’t enamored with coaching in college.
Another name outside the Arizona family that has begun to emerge is Gonzaga associate head coach Tommy Lloyd, who has been critical in the Zags’ success over the last 20 years. Lloyd is regarded as one of the elite recruiters in the country, and he’s done it with international players, transfers and high school players.
Whether Robbins opts to hire from within the Arizona family or not, the bottom line is that Arizona had taken plenty of hits over the last few years — both on and off the court. Sure, this was a top-25 team this season, but was it really a team with a chance to go to a Final Four?
The Miller Era had run its course in Tucson.