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Attorney for ex-Arizona assistant Mark Phelps claims defamation, says firing was to help offset potential NCAA sanctions

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California-Baker v Arizona Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

In February, Arizona Wildcats athletic director Dave Heeke announced that the UA had “initiated the process to terminate” assistant basketball coach Mark Phelps.

The impetus for the move was not specified other than Heeke said the UA is “committed to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct” and “the decision to remove Coach Phelps immediately is a direct result of that commitment.”

ESPN later reported that Phelps was being accused of an NCAA violation “regarding former Arizona recruit Shareef O’Neal’s academic transcripts.”

Phelps’ attorney, Donald Maurice Jackson, denied any wrongdoing by Phelps at the time, and released a statement Saturday to claim defamation against Heeke and say that Phelps’ firing was an effort for Arizona to help offset NCAA sanctions that could be coming as result of the federal investigation into college basketball that saw former UA assistant Book Richardson receive a three-month prison sentence for bribery.

Here is Jackson’s statement in its entirety:

On Monday May 20, 2019, a “termination hearing” was held on the campus on the University of Arizona. The University of Arizona called three witnesses: Director of Athletics Dave Heeke, Senior Associate Director of Athletics Krystal Swindlehurst, and Associate Athletic Director Brent Blaylock. Coach Phelps was represented by his counsel, Don M. Jackson of The Sports Group and the University was represented by in house Counsel.

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 no record of written communications with NCAA staff and had engaged in no oral communications with NCAA staff regarding Coach Phelps.

[Blaylock] provided no evidence of any violation other than a previously self-reported violation (by Coach Phelps) for which he already served a short suspension. [Swindlehurst] implied that Coach Phelps was terminated due to a personality conflict but, like Heeke and Blaylock, failed to specify either a violation of University policy or NCAA legislation.

All University witnesses failed to specify violations of either NCAA legislation or University policy (when questioned about the bases for Phelps’ termination). Blaylock simply stated that Phelps could just find another job when he was questioned about the impact of wrongful termination (on Phelps’ coaching career).

The actions of University of Arizona representatives, particularly [Heeke] amount to defamation. The written accusations made (by Heeke) in Phelps’ notice of termination were calculated, malicious and false. No evidence was offered during the hearing to support the allegations and Heeke acknowledged that he had no evidence to support his allegations. On several occasions, representatives of the NCAA Enforcement Staff have notified counsel for Coach Phelps (in writing) that they have no evidence of violations by Coach Phelps. Notably, Swindlehurst started (during the hearing) that one of the bases for Coach Phelps’ termination was his absence of social skills. Blaylock stated that Phelps could simply find another job.

Coach Phelps’ termination hearing was memorialized by a court reporter. To date, the hearing officer has made no formal findings. Coach Phelps’ contract expires on June 30, 2019.

Coach Phelps’ conduct was in strict compliance with NCAA legislation. Notably, he engaged in daily (written) interaction with UA’s compliance staff over issues pertaining to every potential recruit. This evidence was provided to the Hearing Officer, representatives of the NCAA and counsel for the University of Arizona.

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. As a direct result of the defamatory statements by University of Arizona representatives, Coach Phelps has been rendered virtually employable in collegiate basketball despite the fact that no specific violations of NCAA legislation or institutional policy were alleged, much less proven, against him.

Phelps was hired by Arizona prior to the 2015-16 season. He was replaced by former NAU head coach Jack Murphy, who was hired by the UA in June.