At New Mexico St, a meltdown that runs beyond basketball
LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Of all the troubling video made public over a year of crisis at New Mexico State – from the brawl involving basketball players to the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old, allegedly by one of those players, to the police interviews with the coach afterward – one 42-minute log of footage might best explain how the school is in the mess it is today.
In that video, captured on police body cam, an officer is interviewing the university’s $500,000-a-year chancellor, Dan Arvizu, and his wife, Sheryl Arvizu. The officer had been called to the couple’s house to resolve a dispute that came out of Sheryl’s suspicion her husband was having an affair with a staff member at New Mexico State.
Dan Arvizu denied the affair. Sheryl Arvizu ended up being booked into jail on a battery charge that was later dismissed. Officials at the school's Office of Institutional Equity looked into the allegations for possible conflict-of-interest issues, though there was no report filed.
During these fraught days at New Mexico State, where the once-treasured men’s basketball program has been shelved for the season after that fatal shooting and a gruesome allegation of locker-room hazing, the Arvizu police video is a reminder of who is ultimately responsible at a university that has, in many eyes, become unhinged in areas well beyond basketball. The Associated Press spoke to more than a dozen people affiliated with the university, many of whom expressed deep concerns with leadership at the school. Some said they did not want their names used because they feared retribution.
“People are embarrassed,” said Jamie Bronstein, a history professor who also serves as vice chair of NMSU’s faculty senate. “People feel terrible for the students.”
In a letter sent to “Our NMSU Community” after the AP published this story, Arvizu acknowledged that his family had been through “a deeply personal situation.”
“Importantly, there is no truth to the allegations made that evening," the letter said. “It was a low point for me, and since that time, my wife and I have worked to rebuild our relationship. I am confident this matter has not impacted my ability to lead our university.”
Questions some people are asking on this 14,000-student campus, where some of the adobe-colored dorms and classroom buildings are a short walk from livestock barns, have as much to do with school leadership as they do with the basketball program.
There have been seven different presidents, interim presidents and chancellors over the past 15 years at the second-biggest university in New Mexico. In addition to its isolation — set near the jagged mountains of southern New Mexico, NMSU is some 400 miles from the nearest major media market in Phoenix — the school is unique in that its student body is 63% Hispanic and more than a quarter of the students are the first members of their family to attend college.
“What makes NMSU such a special place is the huge opportunity to change students’ and their families’ lives by increasing our students’ social mobility,” business professor Jim Hoffman said. “This is why excellent leadership, thoughtful decision making and wise use of (limited) resources are so important.”
No matter the disadvantages, New Mexico State has always been able to make a name for itself every March thanks to a men’s basketball program that traditionally thrives on the strength of players and coaches who don't always take the traditional route to Division I. But this year, the program disintegrated.
The unraveling can be traced to an NMSU football game last Oct. 15 in which a handful of the school’s basketball players got into a brawl with students from rival New Mexico. Video of the melee shows junior forward Mike Peake among those throwing punches.
No police report was filed that night, and five weeks after the fight, the players headed to Albuquerque for one of the season’s most anticipated games, against the Lobos. It was there that Peake broke curfew and went to the dormitory complex of one of the students involved in the fight at the football stadium.
Video from the apartment parking lot shows Peake being attacked with a baseball bat before exchanging gunfire with the student, Brandon Travis. Both men fall. Peake was taken to the hospital with leg wounds that required surgery. Travis later died from his gunshot wounds. Peake, who was acting in self-defense, has not been charged with a crime. Police video shows Peake in a hospital bed after the shooting asking to get his gun back because “that's my only weapon.” Guns are not permitted on New Mexico State’s campus or on school-related road trips.
The morning after the shootings, players and coaches were loaded onto a bus to head back to Las Cruces, only to be stopped on Interstate 25 by police, who were still piecing together details from the night before.
The Aggies continued to play for nearly three more months. On Feb. 12, Arvizu canceled the season after allegations surfaced about three players ganging up on a teammate in what a police report said included a possible incident of criminal sexual contact. Two days later, Arvizu fired the coach, Greg Heiar. The player who made the allegations said similar hazing incidents had been occurring since summer. Arvizu said he was never made aware of the hazing. School spokesman Justin Bannister said school policy calls for employees to report misconduct to the Title IX office and that the university is “looking at additional support systems” for the future.
At a news conference after those moves, the chancellor said he was sure the “despicable acts” and potentially illegal behavior were confined strictly to the basketball team.
“There will be consequences," Arvizu said.
Both the shooting and hazing incidents are being sorted out by internal and third-party investigations. Some observers are skeptical they will ever get the full story.
“I feel that we’ve all been left in the dark,” said one longtime Aggies fan, Amy Rohr.
The chancellor's notion that the problems have been walled off in the basketball program is hardly a consensus around campus.
Current and former employees the AP interviewed described scenarios in which top-level administrators refused to hold themselves or others accountable, both inside and outside the athletic department. One said the “guardrails” designed to protect students and faculty — from everything from retaliation for whistleblowing to sexual improprieties — had all but disappeared.
“Because there’s so much churn in our upper administration, we never get to the point of hammering out who is actually accountable for upholding policies,” Bronstein said.
In one instance, a lawsuit last year filed by a Jane Doe alleges a longtime professor with ties to the athletic department “harassed and groomed female students for years, coercing them into sexual relations and bragging about the same” while school officials looked the other way. The plaintiff alleges she was sexually assaulted by the professor.
Another case alleges that two professors who blew the whistle about hiring practices they claimed flouted human-resource policies had their complaints intercepted by an administrator involved in the hiring, who then pushed for disciplinary cases to be opened against those professors. One has been demoted from his deanship.
Bronstein and others told of the Office of Institutional Equity, which handles Title IX and other discrimination complaints and should have been on the front lines of the hazing allegations, as being marginalized, with administrators ignoring some recommendations produced by the office and putting others off.
In his letter, Arvizu said the school has added staff to the OIE, and that whistleblowers are protected under state law.
“And, under NMSU’s Administrative Rules and Procedures, retaliation is explicitly prohibited,” Arvizu wrote.
Some of the dissatisfaction among faculty was resolved last year, when President John Floros stepped down and Provost Carol Parker was fired in the wake of a resolution of no confidence submitted by the faculty senate.
Among the complaints in that resolution were allegations of misappropriation of funds, unethical hiring and promotion practices and a long list of consequences of the “broader impacts of systemic failure of leadership.”
Parker is currently suing the university. Floros was able to keep his $450,000-a-year salary. The approximately $950,000 in annual salary for Floros and Arvizu was nearly triple what former New Mexico Gov. Garry Carruthers made in his dual role as chancellor and president for five years ending in 2018.
Arvizu’s five-year contract runs out in June. In December, regents made the decision not to renew it, leaving NMSU to face the basketball crisis with no president, a provost position in flux and a lame-duck chancellor.
The athletic director’s job seems secure: When Arvizu dismantled basketball for the season, he went out of his way to back Mario Moccia, who is in his 10th year as AD.
One under-the-radar move the administrators made came in 2019 when they ended a policy that stated student-athletes would be dismissed if found guilty of (or pleaded no contest to) a felony. That allowed one player to remain on the team at the time the rules were changed. It also furthered New Mexico State's reputation as a place where athletes and coaches get second chances — perhaps without accountability.
At his news conference, Arvizu defended the rules changes that led to the new policy, while Moccia defended his hiring record, conceding that “nobody bats a thousand.” The AD insisted the vetting process for Heiar was solid.
It was the first head-coaching job at a Division I school for the 47-year-old Heiar. Among those he had worked for over two decades as an assistant included Larry Eustachy, Will Wade, Gregg Marshall and Chris Jans. All have endured embarrassing episodes that cost them their jobs. Jans, who left New Mexico State for Mississippi State after last season, came to Las Cruces shortly after he was fired from Bowling Green when a video surfaced of him slapping an unidentified woman on the butt at a bar.
One of Heiar's assistant coaches, Edmond Pryor, lasted less than three months after being arrested on allegations of forgery. Another of Moccia's hires is women's basketball coach Jody Adams, who was accused of being abusive toward players when she coached Wichita State.
For decades, though, New Mexico State has not been shy about taking risks to advance its sports programs. One of the program’s glory eras came in the 1990s when coach Neil McCarthy embroiled a team filled with junior-college transfers in an academic scandal that ended up costing him his job.
Even after he was fired, basketball kept putting this school on the map come March. The Aggies have been to March Madness 11 times since McCarthy left after the 1997 season, always as a double-digit seed with a reputation for giving the big boys trouble. Though the Aggies never moved away from taking players with riskier academic records, the school has not been charged with a major NCAA infraction since 2001.
Regardless, there won’t be any postseason this year, and it’s anybody’s guess as to who, or what, will be left from the team that was 9-15 when the hazing allegations arose and the season was called off. Two players quit shortly after the hazing allegations. Moccia said there would be basketball next season, though the status of the players remaining was up in the air.
“The entire program has caught on fire, and the fire has burned down everything, and all that’s left are the roots,” said Jim Paul, the former NMSU AD who fired McCarthy.
Christopher Hamilton, a freshman who was walking across campus the day Heiar’s firing came down, said the whole situation was “just disappointing, and it’s sad that it’s your school.”
He said he hoped to go to basketball games again someday. But on a recent Saturday, when the Aggies had been scheduled to play a home game at the Pan-Am Center, all anyone could see on the hardwood was the cartoon drawing of the school’s mascot at halfcourt: the mustachioed, gun-toting cowboy known as “Pistol Pete.”
AP reporter Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report.
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