Sean Miller exits Tucson with one remarkable statistic: He is almost certainly the highest-paid state employee in Arizona history. He was paid more than $30 million to coach Arizona’s basketball team for 12 seasons.
No university president, no university-employed surgeon, no governor in this state has ever been compensated with such an accumulation of wealth.
Miller reigned like a king. Untouchable, disconnected, as if he built a moat around McKale Center. He flew in private jets. Limited his relationships to the school’s mega-donors. Public appearances? Few and very far between. An introvert of the highest level, Miller’s self-imposed prison was walking through the world all alone.
As the Eagles sing, “You better let somebody love you before it’s too late.” UA fans loved their basketball program more than Miller loved them back.
If Miller enjoyed his time at Arizona, it rarely showed. Dour. Grumpy. Quick to anger. In a 2016 home game against Oregon, a TV microphone captured audio of Miller calling center Kaleb Tarczewski a vile name.
Two nights later, after a win over Oregon State, I asked Miller if he regretted humiliating Tarczewski. It was an if-looks-could-kill moment
“I don’t care what it’s perceived like,” he said. He later added: “This type of environment isn’t for everybody.”
Miller was at the height of his power in 2016. Neither the athletic director nor university president directed him to apologize for his behavior. His teams were coming off 33-5 and 34-4 seasons with a 49-1 McKale Center streak.
He was invulnerable.
Miller didn’t bully the way Bob Knight and Woody Hayes did in an earlier era of college sports, but his tough love seemed out of place in a town that worshiped its basketball history.
And then it all changed. The Wildcats were bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons by Wichita State, Xavier and Buffalo.
FBI agents showed up at Miller’s front door in the fall of 2017. The NCAA later charged the basketball program with five Level I violations.
Ultimately, it was no longer politically expedient for UA President Robert C. Robbins to support a coach who had lost his magic and placed the school’s integrity in question. Even phone calls to Robbins earlier this week from three of Arizona’s influential NBA figures weren’t enough to save Miller’s job.
Arizona’s basketball program had become so much less because it had once been so much more.
“We must always act in the best interests of the university,” Robbins said Wednesday in a statement released by the university.
I think two things likely happened to force Robbins’ tardy decision:
1. The Arizona Board of Regents signaled it would not approve a contract extension, meaning the UA basketball program was stuck in neutral. It’s fully likely that the Independent Accountability Resolution Process will not make a final ruling on the school’s NCAA case until the summer of 2022. Waiting until then to restart Arizona’s basketball program could mean spending extended time in the Pac-12 basement alongside Cal and Washington.
2. Robbins was emboldened by the early success of new football coach Jedd Fisch, leading him to believe he could similarly find a winning replacement for Miller. The hitch in that theory is that the school could’ve replaced Miller five weeks ago and avoided getting beat during the hiring season by Texas, Indiana, Utah and Oklahoma.
Or maybe watching the positive energy and connectivity of Adia Barnes coaching Arizona’s women’s basketball team to the national championship game drove this move as much as anything. Why can’t we all love one another again?
As athletic director Dave Heeke said in Wednesday’s Zoom conference: “It was time to give it a fresh start.”
Heeke said Wednesday that he is hiring a search firm, a declaration that the UA didn’t have a plan all this time. Robbins apparently waffled after saying “Sean is our coach” a month ago. Arizona has had 3½ years to pinpoint a replacement for Miller, whether it would need to implement that plan or not. Do you think Duke would hire a search firm to replace Mike Krzyzewski?
Former UA athletic director Cedric Dempsey hired Lute Olson, a Final Four coach, in two days.
Then there are the finances.
At the highest levels of college basketball, a head coach is paid about $3.5 million per year, on average. If the UA’s top donors — who are Miller allies — won’t commit money to this overhaul, it’ll be extremely difficult for the Wildcats to afford an upper-tier coach.
Given the accumulated athletic department debt from the $7.5 million buyout of Kevin Sumlin, it seems unlikely Arizona could throw around enough money to simply buy a proven coach out of a comfortable setting.
Remember, Arizona had to pay Miller a $1 million bonus to get him away from Xavier.
Now it’s giving him $1.42 million to go away.