Is anyone else getting tired of negative headlines surrounding the Arizona Wildcats?
It would be fun to talk about Sean Miller’s recruiting class and the roster he’s put together (as well as future targets) or a football program that is gaining momentum on the recruiting trail. A discussion about the softball program landing a top transfer, a women’s basketball team very much on the rise or a baseball team that has a bright future would also be ideal.
Yet, the latest headline is about a former assistant coach suing the school for defamation. Lovely.
The path to this point has been bumpy, to say the least.
Let’s take a moment and think about what it was like to be an Arizona Wildcats fan, say, two years ago.
The basketball program was, as usual, in a great spot. Of course Miller had still yet to get the team to a Final Four and the pain from an upset loss to Xavier in the Sweet 16 was fresh, but Deandre Ayton was coming to Tucson and the program seemed destined for greatness.
Football had won all of three games, yes, but the last time we saw them they beat up on ASU without throwing a pass the entire second half. So yeah, life could have certainly been worse.
Baseball was of course solid, and the non-revenue sports were if nothing else at least pretty good.
It may not have been the best of times, but it certainly did not seem like the school was heading for the worst.
Fast forward to now and things are much different. Miller and the basketball program have been dragged through the mud, Rich Rodriguez was fired amid allegations of, well, unacceptable behavior that allegedly included the “Triangle of Secrecy.”
If only that was it. There is former track coach Craig Carter as well as other violations spread across multiple sports.
Some issues are significantly worse than others, but the point is rare has been the week where we have not heard anything bad regarding the University of Arizona athletic department. As a proud alum it’s getting to be exhausting.
It has been said that no news is good news, and it’s tough to argue that isn’t the case for Arizona. The latest story, of former basketball assistant Mark Phelps suing the school for defamation, is just another in a growing list of negative headlines surrounding the school.
When Arizona suspended Phelps with the goal of firing him, the reason Director of Athletics Dave Heeke provided was vague but essentially stemmed from a desire to have a basketball program run with integrity and in full compliance of all NCAA rules.
In other words, they were saying Phelps had done or was doing something that was not allowed. Given the microscope the program was under, even the most minor of violations should absolutely be treated as a big deal, so it was understandable that if Phelps even so much as toed the line, action needed to be taken.
Not a great headline, but understandable.
Yet, a little more than four months later the Wildcats are back in the news, and it seems Heeke and the school can’t get out of their own way.
Just read the argument from Phelps’ attorney Don M. Jackson and try to tell me Arizona is in a good place:
“In sworn testimony, Director of Athletics Heeke admitted that he had no knowledge of NCAA violations by Coach Phelps, acknowledged he had no record of written communications with NCAA staff and had engaged in no oral communications with NCAA staff regarding Coach Phelps.”
There was more, but the gist is that despite what was said publicly, the administration simply wanted to move on from the coach and used the guise of potential violations as an excuse.
Lawyers have a job to do, and Phelps’ is to defend his client and make the school look bad. But assuming he’s telling the truth, he need not work hard to accomplish his goal.
Maybe we will soon hear about the other side to the story (although the school outright saying Phelps was violating rules would not exactly be good news), but at this point all we have is this, another negative and seemingly indefensible headline against the the athletic department’s leadership.
This cannot be blamed on Greg Byrne, an AD who did many great things for the school but also seems to have left some baggage behind. If Heeke and his staff invented a reason to fire Phelps, especially one that tarnishes his reputation, that’s squarely on those who are currently in town.
None of us know how this will end, but as of now it looks like another blunder for an athletic department that can’t seem to get out of its own way.
So, where do Heeke and the school go from here? Not just with the Phelps situation, but overall?
It hasn’t all been bad, but for every good story it seems as though we get at least two bad ones. Ask a non-UA fan what they think of or know about the school, and what do you think they’ll talk about? Sadly, the Miller/recruiting scandal is probably what you’d hope for, because at least that can be refuted with facts.
Then again, does the national perception matter? As long as talent is ready to play in Tucson, perhaps it’s not a real problem if fans and media folk are increasingly negative.
Until it is.
Alas, the best (only?) way to change the perception, both locally and nationally, is to win. Unfortunately many of the issues go far beyond what happens on the court, field, track, course or diamond.
For a couple of years now the University of Arizona athletics department has had the appearance of a program out of control. It’s imperative that the right people are put in place to clean things up and get the department back on the path of not only being successful, but of being clean and compliant.
That would be good news.