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Former Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez says ex-staffer tried to extort him

Rich Rodriguez was fired after six seasons as head coach at Arizona. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Rich Rodriguez lost his job as Arizona head coach in early January after his former assistant filed a $7.5 million sexual harassment lawsuit against him.

Rodriguez has a different version of events.

According to the Arizona Republic, Rodriguez claims Melissa Wilhelmsen, his former assistant, and her attorney, Augustine Jimenez tried to extort him. In a response filed Monday, Rodriguez says her allegations are lies fabricated in an attempt to extort $7.5 million from him. The lawsuit Wilhelmsen filed in January sought $7.5 million in damages.

From the Republic:

The Republic obtained a copy of the response letter. It says Wilhelmsen’s attorney, Augustine Jimenez, called the coach’s attorney on Nov. 2 and on Nov. 4, making three allegations of harassment that were not true. In a follow-up email on Nov. 8, the legal filing said, Jimenez said that it would take “multiple million dollars” to resolve the matter.

Attorneys said Rodriguez brought the extortion allegations to the attention of the university, U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI would not confirm nor deny if they were investigating the extortion claim. The UA did not respond for comment.

Attorneys for Rodriguez said the “extortion attempt dragged on for six weeks” before Jimenez finally presented a demand letter for $7.5 million on Dec. 10. The deadline for payment, according to the filing, was Dec. 26, the day before Arizona was to play in the Foster Farms Bowl Game.

“Demanding the payment the day before the Bowl Game was vicious, cut-throat, and explainable only as the ultimate threat to extort Coach and Mrs. Rodriguez of the $7.5 million,” the legal filing said.

Wilhelmsen’s claim, filed in late December, alleged Rodriguez inappropriately grabbed and touched her and established a hostile work environment. She also said Rodriguez, who was fired Jan. 2 without cause, made her keep his extramarital affair a secret, including an incident where she was instructed to keep Rodriguez’s wife and mistress apart when both were on the Arizona sideline during a game. Rodriguez has admitted to the affair, but has denied all other allegations.

When the university announced Rodriguez’s firing, it said the allegations were investigated beginning in October but ultimately could “not be substantiated.” However, Arizona said it became aware of “information both before and during the investigation” that caused it “to be concerned with the direction and climate of the football program.”

Wilhelmsen and her husband filed an additional claim against Rodriguez later in January, and this time it included Rodriguez’s wife and the University of Arizona. That claim, which seeks an additional $8.5 million, is for slander, defamation and false light, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Wilhelmsens also claim that the athletic department was aware of Rodriguez’s alleged misdeeds.

The response from Rodriguez goes through the allegations levied by Wilhelmsen, including:

Her claims: The coach called her into his office in January 2017 when he began discussing his marital problems and then grabbed her, “embraced her, touched the side of her breast, and tried to kiss her.” She managed to pull away.

His response: This allegation is fabricated, according to the former coach’s attorneys. They say that in over 30 years of coaching, not one other female staff member has claimed Rodriguez sexually harassed her. This includes former female staff at Arizona, Michigan, West Virginia and Glenville State, the legal filing said.

Her claim: In February 2017, Rodriguez called her into his office, and while talking she saw him “grasping his penis beneath his basketball shorts.”

His response: Attorneys for Rodriguez call the allegation is “a shameless lie made-up to solicit TMZ-type headlines.

Rodriguez, 54, went 43-35 in six seasons at Arizona. The school will pay him his $6.28 million buyout because he was officially fired without cause. He came to Arizona a year after he was fired by Michigan after three seasons. He previously was head coach at West Virginia for seven seasons. Rodriguez has a record of 118-83 as an FBS head coach.

After firing Rodriguez, Arizona hired former Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!