The questions came one after another the moment Xavier announced it was bringing back Sean Miller, its former and wildly successful basketball coach. The guy who had been fired by Arizona and left in his wake multiple NCAA violations.
Most of them were of the variety of: “What were you thinking?”
Athletic director Greg Christopher went on the defensive, calling the allegations “troubling." He said Xavier maintains a program of “high integrity” and that Miller had learned from his mistakes.
Yet the Musketeers are hardly the only one taking chances on coaches with checkered pasts these days. Just this week, Auburn hired once-disgraced Liberty coach Hugh Freeze to lead its football team, raising plenty of eyebrows on the Plains.
It begs the question: Has the line of acceptability when it comes to hiring coaches shifted as the stakes soar ever higher, to the point where a successful coach who may have once been persona non grata is now greeted with open arms?
How toxic is too toxic?
“That's an interesting question, and I think it is 100% situational with the school,” said Kyle Bowlsby, who runs Bowlsby Sports Advisors, a search firm that assists colleges and universities through the hiring process.
“I also think to a certain degree the legal system and the NCAA have created quite a bit of gray area as it relates to what is reported in terms of infractions and what is actually being pursued or prosecuted legally," Bowlsby said. “I think the system to a certain degree has made it very hard for school admins to decipher what is ‘toxic’ and what is not.”
Indeed, the gray area has never been more expansive.
The creation of name, image and likeness legislation that allows college athletes to profit for the first time has made what was once an NCAA violation a key sales point or recruiting pitch. And when penalties do arise, the NCAA has been reluctant to hand down the sort of long-ranging punishments that hit athletics programs hard.
“I think the question depends on where the university is in terms of trying to grow,” said Jed Hughes, who heads the sports sector at the Korn Ferry management consulting firm.
“Winning is so important to so many people,” Hughes said, “so they close their eyes sometimes to things that happen. Just look at Kansas. They just suspended Bill Self for four games. But he's done an incredible job. He has been there a long time and they have a tremendous tradition. So people there are going to be more forgiving.”
There has always been pressure to win. But as coaching contracts once worth seven figures now hit eight, and TV deals once measured in the millions are now worth billions, the stress on administrators to succeed has never been higher.
A school like Xavier, which had missed the NCAA Tournament four consecutive years, is perhaps more willing to give a perennial winner like Miller a second chance, despite the wreckage he left behind at Arizona.
“More than anything it comes down to the relationships a coach has built," explained Chad O’Donnell, whose Capital Elite Agency represents numerous coaches, and who spoke in general terms but would not discuss specific situations.
“It comes down to how well he or she is liked in the profession throughout his or her career," O'Donnell said, "and their ability to admit fault whether privately or publicly in regards to the actions.”
The case at Arizona involved one of Miller's former assistants, Book Richardson, who pleaded guilty to a 2017 federal bribery charge after he was accused of accepting $20,000 to send players to aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins.
At one point during Dawkins' trial, a phone call was played in which Richardson said Miller was paying $10,000 a month to current NBA star Deandre Ayton. Miller has consistently denied paying any players to play for his program.
Nevertheless, Arizona was hit with five Level I infractions, the most serious handed out by the NCAA, including a charge that Miller failed to monitor assistants accused of academic fraud and improper recruiting inducements. Miller failed to demonstrate “an atmosphere for compliance," the NCAA said, though he escaped the dreaded show-cause penalty.
Arizona already self-imposed a one-year postseason ban, but its case is still hanging in the Independent Accountability Resolution Process, even as Miller wades through his first season back at Xavier. It is possible he serves some type of suspension.
“There will be a time, and I'm confident in saying that, that topic an be talked about. It's coming to an end. It's not here yet," Miller said in March. "When the time comes, I'm looking forward to sharing more.”
Would he have been hired again by Xavier had he not won 73% of his games? Of course not. Nor would Auburn have given a second chance to Freeze, whose 76–47 record would be even better without a slew of vacated wins.
“If a coach with a proven track record of success, despite previous proven or alleged NCAA violations, can instill confidence in an administration who has a strong desire to win or achieve a higher level of success than has recently been achieved, a university may take that chance,” said Brian Stanchak, a longtime college administrator and now an agent for numerous college basketball coaches. “It certainty may impact the contract negotiation process."
By that, Stanchak means contracts likely include safeguards against similar issues arising during a coach's tenure.
In Freeze's case, he resigned from Ole Miss in 2017 after school officials uncovered a “pattern of personal misconduct” that began with a call to a number used by an escort service from a university-issued cell phone. By the time things unraveled, the Rebels had landed on NCAA probation and Freeze was out after 21 violations tied to academic, booster and recruiting misconduct were found to have occurred mostly on his watch.
Freeze won games, though. He took Ole Misss to the Sugar Bowl in 2015, beat Nick Saban and Alabama head-to-head and, after he was ousted from the SEC, he built Liberty into a Top 25 program.
Auburn athletic director John Cohen declined to answer questions from reporters at Freeze's introductory news conference, leaving his new coach to explain his past and why he deserved a second chance in football's most visible league.
The answer Freeze offered was the perfect script for the next wayward coach who gets a second chance.
“Get to know us. Get to know our family. Get to know the truth of our story,” Freeze said, “and I think the ones who have done that have said, ‘Man, you know what? I kind of like this guy and this family.’ But that’s all you can ask is, man, give us a chance to earn your trust and I think you’ll like the end result.”
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