The Alabama-based attorney for former University of Arizona assistant basketball coach Mark Phelps said in a statement circulated 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.
Phelps was accused of a violation involving the academic records of former UA commit Shareef O'Neal, but attorney Donald Maurice Jackson claims neither the school nor the NCAA ever provided evidence that Phelps committed a rules violation. Jackson further says that during a May 20 termination hearing, UA athletic director Dave Heeke admitted he had no knowledge of NCAA violations by Phelps. Representatives of the NCAA enforcement staff have also repeatedly told Jackson they have no evidence of violations by Phelps, according to the attorney.
As reported by the Arizona Daily Star, Jackson added that UA senior associate athletic director 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.
"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 in the statement. "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."
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, ended Sunday.