TOM DAVIS: Fair or not, Ball State coach James Whitford is getting splattered with dirt from the Arizona mess

Fifth-year Ball State men's basketball coach James Whitford watches his team practice at Worthen Arena earlier this season in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

I bring a very unique perspective to the world of sports journalism – particularly as it pertains to college basketball. Not only have I been working in journalism for two decades, but earlier in my career I spent six years as an assistant men’s basketball coach at the collegiate level.

As a coach, I learned an incredible amount about the sport, which has proven to be invaluable throughout my present career in a multitude of ways, which brings me to the point of this column.

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That first-hand knowledge of how the coaching industry operates allows me to understand just how murky of a situation fifth-year Ball State men’s basketball coach James Whitford finds himself in right now.

What I learned by spending six years – not just basketball seasons, but years – working with guys like Todd Sturgeon, Dick Bender, and Brad Brownell, who were fellow assistant coaches at both DePauw University and University of Indianapolis, was that you develop a lifetime connection through professional osmosis.

As an assistant coach, you spend much more time with each other than you ever do with your families or your players (every coach reading this is nodding his head in agreement right now). You develop a bond that results in either lifetime friendship or you’ll beat the crap out of each other, and there really is very little in-between.

Whitford first worked alongside current (for now) Arizona men’s basketball coach Sean Miller 25 years ago when both were in very low-level positions with the Wisconsin basketball program. Like myself and those aforementioned coaches, whom I still, to this day, keep in almost weekly contact, Whitford and Miller developed a bond that has tied them to each other for the remainder of their careers.

They later worked alongside each other at Miami (Ohio), and when Miller got head coaching jobs at both Xavier and Arizona, his first task was to walk into Whitford’s office and tell him to get some boxes, because they were BOTH on the move.

The two ultimately spent a decade together, hour by hour, day by day. That is what the coaching industry requires.

Miller understood what Whitford could do for him, both personally and professionally, and vice versa.

ESPN reported late Friday that FBI wiretaps intercepted telephone conversations between Miller and sports agent Christian Dawkins, a key figure in the FBI’s two-year investigation into college basketball corruption, in which Miller discussed paying $100,000 to ensure star freshman Deandre Ayton signed with the Wildcats.

To be fair, Whitford hasn’t worked with Miller in nearly five years, and I understand that completely and don’t dismiss that.

In addition, to the best of my knowledge, nothing unethical has occurred under Whitford in Muncie since he was hired to lead the Cardinal program in April 2013.

As far as I am aware, Whitford has been a fantastic employee for Ball State in every regard.

However, I don’t believe for one second that Miller allegedly just became unethical in the past 12 months, which begs the very relevant question: What was going on under Miller’s reign when Whitford did work for (and alongside) him for 10 years?

I’d like to know the answer to that question, which is why I sent multiple texts and a phone call to Cardinal media relations employees, as well as directly to Whitford Saturday morning, for an opportunity to sit with and listen to him tell his side of this sordid story.

Ball State media relations responded to that request by issuing a no comment, but did add that they didn’t see the relevancy of Whitford to the current Arizona situation, as The News-Sentinel does.

It isn’t just Whitford’s connection to Miller that paints the Cardinal program in an unfavorable light.

While at both Xavier and Arizona, Whitford was a fellow assistant to Emanuel “Book” Richardson for six years. The two worked together hour by hour, day by day.

Richardson, who also worked for Miller for 10 years, was one of four assistant coaches arrested by FBI agents on Sept. 27, following an investigation into bribes and other corruption in college basketball.

He is accused of accepting $20,000 in bribes and paying a recruit to sign with the Wildcats. In exchange, the government alleges, Richardson agreed to influence Arizona players to sign with Dawkins and financial adviser Munish Sood, who also was arrested by FBI agents.

Richardson was officially fired by Arizona in January after being charged with six felonies: conspiracy to commit bribery, solicitation of bribes by an agent of a federally funded organization, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, mail fraud conspiracy and travel act conspiracy.

He has pleaded not guilty and faces up to 60 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

Wait, there is more.

For two years, the four-man Arizona coaching staff consisted of Miller, Richardson, Whitford and fellow assistant coach Joe Pasternack (now the head coach at University of California at Santa Barbara).

In addition to Miller’s alleged implication into the corruption, Yahoo! Sports reported that emails between former Dawkins and his boss Andy Miller, ASM Sports agency founder and president, touch on conversations regarding the recruitment of players, including former Arizona player Lauri Markkanen and current player Rawle Alkins.

Not only was Richardson named in this report, but so was Pasternack.

Perhaps it is absolutely true that Whitford was spending 80 hours a week with three guys that later were named by the FBI in an investigation on corruption in the sport, yet he did nothing unethical or illegal. That is certainly a possibility and because of my personal relationship with Whitford, I hope it is not just possible, but a definite.

I have very much enjoyed working with Whitford in his time in Muncie.

However, given the circumstances, even the most fair-minded observer has to find the situation – and how Whitford relates to it – as curious.

It would be in Whitford’s best interest (and this also applies to former Arizona assistant and current Indiana head coach Archie Miller, Sean Miller’s younger sibling) to address this matter quickly and truthfully.

But until that happens, the perception of any coach tied to the Arizona situation – accurate or not – is not going to be favorable.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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