On the eve of Mark Phelps' final contracted day of employment at Arizona, his attorney said neither the school nor NCAA offered evidence of the suspended coach breaking an NCAA rule last season.
Alabama-based attorney Donald Maurice Jackson said in a statement provided to some national media outlets Saturday that UA was guilty of defamation when it removed Phelps from the coaching staff in February and tried to use him as a bargaining chip in its ongoing NCAA investigation.
ESPN reported that Phelps was accused of a violation involving the academic records of former UA commit Shareef O'Neal, but Jackson said that during a May 20 termination hearing, UA athletic director Dave Heeke "admitted he had no knowledge of NCAA violations by coach Phelps."
Jackson added that senior associate AD Krystal Swindlehurst implied that Phelps was terminated due to a personality conflict and that associate AD Brent Blaylock provided only evidence about an NCAA rule Phelps earlier broke, for which he was suspended for two games in November 2017.
Jackson said representatives of the NCAA enforcement staff have also repeatedly told him they have no evidence of violations by Phelps.
"In short, the University of Arizona's `termination hearing' was a pre-textual effort to garner potentially reduced penalties for anticipated NCAA infractions unrelated to coach Phelps," Jackson wrote. "As a direct result of the defamatory statements by University of Arizona representatives, coach Phelps has been rendered virtually unemployable in collegiate basketball despite the fact that no specific violations of NCAA legislation or institutional policy were alleged, much less proven, against him."
Jackson said UA's actions, particularly those of Heeke, "amount to defamation," saying the accusations in his notice of termination were "calculated, malicious and false."
Messages left for two UA spokesmen for comment on Saturday were not returned. Jackson also did not respond to requests for comment and did not send his statement to the Star.
The Star filed a public records request with the University of Arizona on Feb. 14 seeking records of communication within UA, or between the NCAA and UA, about Phelps' February suspension. The school did not respond until Friday, when it said it could not release records because of ongoing investigations into the UA basketball program.
While UA initially moved to fire Phelps, UA president Robert Robbins said in April that it was his understanding the school would instead let his contract run out. Phelps' contract, worth $275,000 annually, ends on Sunday.
UA hired former NAU head coach Jack Murphy to replace Phelps on the Wildcats' staff earlier this month.