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Sean Miller needs no introduction at Xavier, but is college basketball ready to forgive?

CINCINNATI — An hour before the start of “The Sean Miller Show” on June 9, the hostess at Dilly. Bistro, Bar and Bottle Shop announced that the restaurant would not have room for anyone without a reservation.

The parking lot had already filled up with local fans anxious to mingle with Miller, who returned as Xavier‘s head coach in March, more than a decade after his first stint with the school that changed his career. Adorned in Musketeers gear, they sipped martinis and nibbled on appetizers in anticipation of his appearance: a reintroduction of a man who had clearly maintained his stellar reputation among the school’s supporters, despite a tenure at Arizona that ended amid NCAA violations and an FBI investigation.

There was just one problem: Miller had not yet arrived.

Anxious Xavier staffers shuffled in and out of the restaurant, wondering if their new boss — who is still familiarizing himself with some of the changes in the neighborhoods he once knew well — had made a wrong turn or missed his exit.

Three months ago, Xavier fired Travis Steele and rehired Miller, who first arrived at Xavier as an assistant in 2001 before leading the program from 2004 to 2009, to restore its legacy and winning tradition following a four-year absence from the NCAA tournament. Last season ended with an NIT championship, a proud moment but below the standard for a program that made four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight run, during Miller’s first stint.

Despite the possibility that Miller could face a multigame suspension this season — a consequence of a massive FBI investigation into college basketball corruption and the subsequent NCAA investigation that places Miller, among other prominent names in the sport, at the center — the remarriage is not difficult to understand. The athletic department at Xavier, a school without football, generates about $13 million of its annual $24 million revenue from men’s and women’s basketball, according to Department of Education data. It is the backbone of the university, and Miller is a popular personality within this fan base, as well as a bonafide winner.

He has made four trips to the Elite Eight as a head coach at Xavier and then at Arizona. He has also recruited some of the top players in the U.S.

“We’ve done everything except get to the third weekend,” Xavier athletic director Greg Christopher said. “I think it’s us and BYU that have the most NCAA tournament wins without ever getting to a Final Four. So [the coaching change] was all calibrated to ‘What was that missing link?’ ‘Who can help get Xavier over the final threshold of getting to the Final Four and competing for a national championship?’ That was probably the driver in a lot of this.”

Yet, Miller arrives with significant baggage. Arizona has been charged with five Level I violations from incidents that took place during his tenure there. Miller himself is facing a Level I charge that he “did not demonstrate that he promoted an atmosphere for compliance and monitored his staff within the basketball program.”


Mark Schlabach describes the conversation between Arizona coach Sean Miller and Christian Dawkins regarding a $100,000 payment to Deandre Ayton. There is a correction to this video. Click here for more.

Emmanuel “Book” Richardson, Miller’s former assistant at Xavier and Arizona, went to prison after pleading guilty to charges he accepted $20,000 to steer players to people the FBI called “corrupt financial advisers.” Arizona allowed the contract of Mark Phelps, another former assistant, to expire, rather than fire him, in 2019 after he allegedly asked a player to lie about an impermissible $500 loan, an NCAA violation. Both have separately been accused of academic misconduct for allegedly attempting to alter the transcripts of players.

Miller has so far escaped any proven and direct tie to the criminal proceedings that have hovered over him and his former staffers for the past five years, despite a federal wiretap that captured runner Christian Dawkins telling financial adviser Munish Sood that Miller was allegedly behind a series of five-figure payments to Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft whose controversial recruitment helped fuel headlines leading to Miller’s descent in Arizona — an accusation Miller has consistently denied.

“I have never knowingly violated NCAA rules while serving as head coach of this great program,” Miller said in a statement after a 2018 ESPN report alleged he’d been caught on a wiretap discussing payments to Ayton.

Miller is also in the middle of an ongoing infractions case, and will soon learn his fate from the fallout at Arizona. But he would rather talk about moving forward than sift through the past.

“I am looking forward to executing the many, many good things that we did and have done for my entire 17-year head coaching career,” he said.

Today, his wife, Amy, calls him the “new Sean,” a more patient man who has been able to reflect on what happened at Arizona. He has secured a fresh start that others tied to the FBI’s investigation have not received, and feels grateful — lucky, too — to be back.

It’s a restart that comes nearly five years after the turbulent events began on Sept. 26, 2017, when he received a phone call he will never forget. That day, the FBI arrested Richardson, a man he’d worked with every day for more than a decade.

“It was a day of reckoning,” Miller said. “I can’t put it into words. That’s how I felt. The world was ending.”

BOOK RICHARDSON WAS playing with his grandson when his teenage son, E.J., heard a knock at the door around 6 a.m. on a fall morning five years ago.

Temperatures in Tucson, Arizona, can rise to scorching numbers early in the day, so Richardson figured his landscapers had decided to mow the lawn before the heat set in, and wanted to inform him. Smart move, he thought.

When he walked toward the door, however, he saw FBI agents descending from a tactical bus and swarming his home. Confused, Richardson thought someone had decided to play an elaborate prank on him.

“In a million years, I never would have thought that the FBI was coming to my house to arrest me over college basketball,” he said recently. “I didn’t know what I did was a federal crime, let alone a crime.”

His life would begin to unravel at that moment.

Richardson was the first of four Division I assistant coaches who would be arrested in connection with the FBI’s bribery investigation of men’s college basketball. With handcuffs on his wrists, Richardson began to wonder about his future in the sport.

“You know what I was thinking?” he said. “‘Man, I gotta get in touch with Sean to let him know I’m not going to be at work.'”

Richardson said he always felt pressure to land top recruits to keep his job. Whenever he would lose a significant prospect, he would walk into his office, close the door and cry. That weight fueled some of the decisions he wishes he had not made.

“I wish I had been able to slow down,” he said.

Per his guilty plea, released by the Department of Justice, Richardson “received approximately $20,000 in cash bribes from current and aspiring financial advisers” (including Sood and Dawkins) to steer top prospects to them. In 2019, he served a 90-day prison sentence followed by two years of probation, which ended last year. As he sat in his cell at Otisville (N.Y.) Federal Correctional Institute three years ago, Richardson wondered if he would ever coach again.

After prison, he went through a divorce, and he is still struggling to repair his relationship with some of his children. Once thriving as a prominent Division I assistant with a $250,000 annual salary, Richardson has moved back to New York City, his hometown, and now works part-time for the Gauchos, the grassroots boys’ basketball program in the Bronx.

“I don’t have health insurance,” said Richardson, who will turn 50 later this year.

He also said he hasn’t spoken to the NCAA’s complex cases investigators since January 2018, when he was fired by Arizona, because he believes he’s already been through enough with the FBI’s investigation.

“I have no issues with [the NCAA] whatsoever,” he said. “I’d love to talk to them. But my point is this: You’re going to talk to me about something that happened five years ago. I went to jail and I’ve been through probation. That should have been my punishment right there.”

But Richardson, who also anticipates a lengthy show-cause penalty from the NCAA, just wants another opportunity to coach again. He wants the same opportunity Miller received at Xavier.

“I got tremendous love for the dude,” said Richardson, who hasn’t had a real conversation with Miller in five years. “I wish we could sit down and rap. I wish we could go get some crab legs and hang out a little bit. But that may not be in the cards ever again and that’s OK. I wish him well. I want Xavier to get to a Final Four. … I do want him to win.”

The connection between Miller and Richardson has enhanced the scrutiny Xavier’s new head coach has endured. When asked if Miller had ever directed him to commit NCAA violations to enhance the program during his time at Arizona, however, Richardson paused.

“You get so caught up with the pressure of ‘I gotta perform, I gotta perform, I gotta perform, I have to perform,'” he said. “If I don’t get a kid, what else is my value? ‘I’m worthless. I can’t coach. I’m not that good.’ No one knew what I was going through with that. No one knew that I didn’t think I was good enough.”

IN HIS SECOND season at Arizona, Sean Miller led the Wildcats to their first Pac-12 title in six years. To mark the achievement, he invited the team and their families over to his home for a celebration.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is awesome,'” Miller said. “That was the last party I ever had. Once we got past that first one, it was like, ‘Look, there is a bigger picture. When are we getting to the Final Four?’ And instead of that being helpful, I really think that sometimes, looking back, when that’s what is fueling you, there are a lot of moments you’re skipping over that you could have enjoyed. And if you had enjoyed them, maybe you would have been able to get there.”

As he captured three of his five total Pac-12 championships at Arizona and made three Elite Eight runs from 2010 to 2015, Miller revealed he could not stop obsessing about his failure to reach a Final Four. The losses to UConn (2011) and Wisconsin (2014, 2015) in the Elite Eight haunted him.

Just a few years later, his program was in the FBI’s and NCAA’s crosshairs. It all happened so fast.

After Miller missed a 98-93 overtime loss at Oregon in 2018, following ESPN’s report on the alleged payments to Ayton, he caught an Uber to a private airport to join his team on the charter flight home.

He could see the driver staring at him in the rearview mirror.

“Wait. … Are you?” he recalled the driver asking.

“Yep,” Miller said.

As Miller continued to deny any claims he’d committed NCAA violations, his school stood behind him. After Richardson’s arrest in 2017, Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said he was “fully supportive” of Miller. But, following the 2020-21 season and a lull within the program — Arizona missed the 2019 NCAA tournament and also the 2021 NCAA tournament due to a self-imposed postseason ban — Miller was fired. It was time to “write a new chapter,” according to a school statement.

Miller took last season off, staying in Tucson and trying to relax for the first time in years. He visited the family’s cabin near the Mexican border. He had good times with his brother, Archie, who relocated to Tucson after being fired from Indiana. The brothers also talked college basketball on “The Field of 68” media network. But he quickly became antsy.

“There were a couple times I’d just start playing ‘Madden’ in the middle of the day like a 20-year-old freshman,” he said. “I remember when I was playing, Like, man. What’s wrong with me? I didn’t want to say I didn’t have anything to do, as much as, there are some days you don’t know what to do because you’ve never been in this situation, ever.

“I’ll also tell you there was a lot of good with that for me because toward the end of my time at Arizona, I didn’t have anything left. I really didn’t because of the totality of everything and how I coached. I was out of juice.”

Miller also used the time off to reflect on how he had ended up without a job after so many successful seasons. In therapy, he grappled with the resentment he’d harbored following the NCAA’s investigation and his firing. For the first time in 43 years, Miller, 53, did not have basketball.

“When you don’t have that, it makes you think differently,” he said.

He is fully aware of the spotlight he’ll face at Xavier — and the backlash, too. But Miller says he wants to do everything the right way, and surround himself with the right people.

“Let’s face it: Sean Miller is at Xavier today because we knew Sean Miller,” Christopher, who is also the former chairman of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions, said. “If Sean Miller had had his first career success at any other institution and then had some of the challenges he went through at Arizona, do we have the same comfort level? Good question. But because there were so many people here at Xavier who knew Sean and helped paint that character portrait that helped us feel comfortable with Sean, that was part of the equation.”

Christopher said he understood the unknowns ahead for Miller when he hired him.

“There is the reality of planning because you don’t know, exactly, how this will play out,” he said. “Depending on whether or not Sean is going to receive any penalties, we’ll get through that [fork in the road] first. And then, if there is a penalty, we’ve built contingencies into our approach running the team.”

HUNDREDS OF THIRD-, fourth- and fifth-graders milled around the court at the Cintas Center at the end of another hectic day of the Sean Miller Basketball Camp in early June.

The kids, some of whom sported Luka Doncic and LeBron James jerseys, had been competing throughout the week on a diet of Gatorade, Sweet Tarts and Doritos, all available for a dollar apiece at the camp store. The Laffy Taffy had sold out by 3 p.m.

They all needed the fuel. Some of the kids dove onto the floor for loose balls and fought for rebounds as if scholarships were on the line. Camp counselors said they’d sent one or two ambitious youngsters to the athletic trainer with mild injuries every day.

At the end of each session, parents would quietly shuffle into the gym, hoping to get a glimpse of Miller as he coached their children.

Miller has been embraced by a Xavier fan base that wants to recapture what it felt during his first tenure. A close 72-68 win over Cleveland State in the NIT’s opening round and the lackluster crowd that was on hand for it last season seemed to accelerate the decision to replace Steele.

“The NIT is like that, there is no doubt,” said Joe Sunderman, a former Musketeer and the longtime radio voice of Xavier men’s basketball. “It was a bit deflated at that point. As they got rolling in the NIT, some of the excitement came back, but the expectation is to go to the NCAA tournament every year.

“I like that [Miller] is back. I’m thrilled that he’s back.”

Miller admitted he was surprised that he had multiple opportunities to coach again — South Carolina made a strong push for Miller before Christopher lured him back — a year after he was fired at Arizona. But when Xavier called, he felt that was the right spot for a restart.

“The people that really know me, I think, they’ll always tell you, in some ways, I never left Xavier because it’s where I got my first opportunity,” he said. “We loved Cincinnati as a family. And there is always something about Xavier I have a deep appreciation and respect for.”

Miller says his approach is also already different from his past stints as a head coach. To start, he’s doing more to get to know his players.

In their first team meeting, he asked every player to stand up and talk about their lives and who they are. Players said they appreciated that approach.

He has also encouraged his staff to connect over more than just basketball. As a younger coach, Miller was driven by winning, and he expected his staffers to have the same attitude. After a year away from coaching, however, he encourages them to find the balance between their personal lives and their jobs.

“He’s gone to lunch with us in a month-and-a-half probably more than he ate with our staff at Arizona the last two years combined,” said David Miller (no relation), an assistant who also worked with Sean Miller for seven seasons at Arizona. “Just spending time and getting out of the office, he seems happier.”

Miller’s predicament is not lost on the coaches and administrators around him. They all know the headlines that could come with the start of the season, and the NCAA’s ruling with it. It’s possible Miller could miss multiple games if he’s suspended, and leave the program in a temporary state of uncertainty.

But they’re here, on his staff, because they believe in him.

“There is a lot of chatter, but you have to almost block out the noise to sift through the B.S. to get to what’s real,” said Dante Jackson, Miller’s assistant and the first player he signed during his first run at Xavier. “To me, those conversations are pretty easy because I know who that guy is back there.”

Miller is coaching with a “win now” attitude, and not wasting time with a team that hasn’t finished Big East play with a record above .500 since winning the league title during the 2017-18 season under Chris Mack. He believes Xavier can compete for the Big East title this season. Weeks into his second term, he has already made key changes to get the program to that point.

“You gotta taste this,” he said as he walked past trays of chicken and beef, prepared by a recently hired chef who also cooks privately for some of the Cincinnati Bengals players and will help overhaul Xavier’s nutrition program with healthier food for players. “It’s the best food you’ll ever taste. And it’s all clean.”

And if you mention Andy Kettler’s name, Miller will spend 10 minutes talking about the way his new strength coach will change his program. During the first week of summer practices, players commended Kettler for the strenuous circuit workouts that made them sweat as they switched between drills at the Cintas Center. Ryan Anderson, a former standout at Arizona and now Miller’s director of recruiting, “is going to be a great head coach.”

The talent is ready, too. Colby Jones (11.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG in 2021-22), Zach Freemantle (10.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG), Adam Kunkel (8.8 PPG) and Jack Nunge (13.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG) all return from a Xavier squad that won the NIT championship nearly four months ago.

“I think we all wanted to win for each other,” Nunge said. “We’re going to have something in the rafters forever. Even now, we’re still all bonded.”

The Musketeers will start the 2022-23 campaign as one of college basketball’s most experienced teams.

Before Miller can think about the upcoming season, however, he has to find the restaurant that will host the first “Sean Miller Show” of the season. Miller’s GPS led him to the wrong entrance.

Just after 6 p.m., Miller finally parked his car and walked through a side door, past a wine cellar and into the main room, where he was greeted with a round of applause from the waiting fans.

Within minutes, he was in his zone. In his first radio show episode since returning to Xavier, he talked up the returning talent and his team’s potential to get back to the NCAA tournament. He praised the city of Cincinnati. The crowd was mesmerized.

Still, it is not clear what the future holds for Miller and Xavier men’s basketball. To his supporters, he has returned to restore the program’s legacy and make the school nationally relevant again. To his detractors, Xavier has taken a significant risk in hiring a head coach with a murky past, who mostly escaped the snare that entangled other coaches attached to the FBI’s investigation but could impact the program’s future.

At every commercial break during the taping of the radio show, fans shuffled to the front table for autographs, handshakes and photos with the returned head coach.

As Miller talked to his supporters, one elderly woman smiled wide, reached across Christopher’s table and conveyed the sentiment of a fan base that will take whatever drama comes with Miller’s tenure — as long as it means the Musketeers can win big again.

“Thanks,” she said while she shook the athletic director’s hand, “for bringing him back.”

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team