Arizona will move to terminate assistant basketball coach Mark Phelps in a “personnel action,” the school announced Wednesday night.
ESPN reported that Phelps has been accused of an NCAA violation regarding the academic transcripts of former UA recruit Shareef O’Neal. Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said only that the move was a result of the university’s commitment to “the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct.”
Phelps will be placed on paid leave while the UA moves to terminate him. He is scheduled to make $275,000 this season.
The UA said Phelps’ suspension was “not related to the federal criminal proceedings in New York or the NCAA’s review of the facts underlying the allegations of unlawful conduct.”
Former UA assistant Book Richardson recently agreed to plead guilty to federal bribery charges after being arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into college corruption. He will be sentenced in April.
Phelps’ attorney, Alabama-based Donald Maurice Jackson, would not comment to the Star but told ESPN that his client was a victim of entrapment.
“Mark Phelps has done absolutely nothing in violation of NCAA rules,” Jackson told ESPN. “He has been fully cooperative with the NCAA. He has been in daily contact with the compliance staff. This is a direct response to a published story (about alleged NCAA rules violations at Arizona), and they’re trying to entrap a coach in something he had no involvement in.”
Jackson posted on Facebook that Phelps has “performed his duties in strict compliance with NCAA and University policies” and that the NCAA’s director of enforcement told him on Jan. 22 that the enforcement staff had not determined if he was involved in any violations.
“Although coach Phelps is disappointed with the decision to place him on leave, he will continue to fully cooperate with both University investigators and NCAA staff,” Jackson wrote. “He is confident that he will be fully exonerated and allowed to resume his coaching career.”
In his statement, Heeke said UA head coach Sean Miller “fully supports this decision, which we agree is in the best interests of our men’s basketball program and the University.”
Phelps, a former head coach at Drake, was suspended for two games at the beginning of the 2017-18 season because of an unspecified NCAA violation. The UA would not specify the rule that was broken in response to a public-records request made by the Star.
Richardson, meanwhile, was initially charged with accepting $20,000 from aspiring agent Christian Dawkins to give to recruits for the purpose of later steering Arizona players to him for professional representation.
A third assistant, Joe Pasternack — now the head coach at UC Santa Barbara — has been linked in media reports to Dawkins.
Miller has repeatedly stated that he has a “culture of compliance” within his program.
Last March, as ESPN reported that he was involved in a pay-for-play scheme involving former Wildcat Deandre Ayton, Miller vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
“I have never knowingly violated NCAA rules while serving as head coach of this great program,” he said.
Read more about Phelps here:
Wildcats move to terminate Mark Phelps after report of NCAA rules violation
Citing a commitment to principals of integrity, the UA announced Wednesday night that it will move to terminate assistant men’s basketball coach Mark Phelps.
ESPN reported that Phelps has been accused of an NCAA violation regarding the academic transcripts of former UA recruit Shareef O’Neal. Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said only that the move was a result of the university’s commitment to “the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct.” Phelps, one of Sean Miller’s three assistant coaches, has been placed on paid administrative leave. He’s due to make $275,000 this year.
“The University of Arizona is committed to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct and our commitment to those principles is unwavering. The decision to remove Coach Phelps immediately is a direct result of that commitment,” Heeke said in a statement. “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.”
Who is Mark Phelps? Here’s a look:
Phelps is a Dayton, Ohio native who grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He graduated from Old Dominion in the 1996 and immediately got a job as Herb Sendek’s director of operations at North Carolina State. While at NC State, Phelps worked alongside a young assistant coach. His name: Sean Miller.
A stop in Tempe
Phelps followed Sendek to Arizona State in 2005, joining the coach on the sidelines for two years.
On to Drake
Phelps coached at Drake from 2009-13, going 77-86 and leading the Bulldogs to two CIT appearances. Drake fired Phelps in 2013 after his team went 15-17. He immediately became a candidate to join Miller at Arizona, but the Wildcats coach hired UA great Damon Stoudamire instead. Phelps then took an assistant coach’s job at Missouri, and then moved on to Marquette to work under new coach Steve Wojciechowski.
To Tucson, finally
Phelps joined Miller’s staff in June 2015, replacing Stoudamire, who left to rejoin Josh Pastner’s staff at Memphis. (Stoudamire is now the head coach at Pacific). Arizona’s three-man staff included Phelps, assistant coach Joe Pasternack and Book Richardson.
Last man standing
Pasternack left the UA staff to become the head coach at in UC Santa Barbara in 2017, and Richardson was arrested that fall as part of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. That left Phelps as the only member of Miller’s 2016-17 staff — the one that developed Lauri Markkanen into a lottery pick and secured a commitment from top recruit Deandre Ayton. Pasternack has since been linked to would-be agent Christian Dawkins in multiple media reports.
Arizona suspended Phelps from Nov. 10-14, 2017, after he told them that he broke NCAA rules. The specific rule was not disclosed in the letter, signed by Miller, that informed Phelps of his suspension. Phelps missed the Wildcats’ first two regular season games.
Veteran on staff
Despite the suspension, the 53-year-old Phelps was supposed to anchor a UA coaching staff that had taken a youthful look this season. Miller hired assistant coach Justin Gainey away from Santa Clara — where he served under Sendek, of all people — and brought onetime support staffer Danny Peters back as an assistant. Both Peters and Gainey received two-year contracts, an unprecedented move from an athletic department that typically makes its assistants year-to-year employees. Phelps, meanwhile, remained on his year-to-year deal. His contract is set to expire June 30.
… and a recruiter too
247Sports.com lists Phelps as the primary recruiter for prospects Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Terry Armstrong and Christian Koloko, and so it stands to reason that his imminent dismissal could affect the Wildcats’ top-ranked recruiting class. Phelps was also listed as the top recruiter for current UA freshmen Brandon Williams and Devonaire Doutrive, and former Wildcat Omar Thielemans.
Miller said in November that the Wildcats’ efforts to land Mannion, Green and others were “unprecedented in my lifetime as a college basketball player or coach, and it's more of that effort and togetherness of our staff and program that I'm most proud of, and I'm certainly elated to be able to welcome the class that we have."