New Mexico State's chancellor expressed his confidence in athletic director Mario Moccia on Wednesday, less than a week after the school's most high-profile sports program — the men's basketball team — was shut down for what the chancellor said was a culture of bad behavior, egregious violations of the student code of conduct and other "despicable acts."
In addition to backing Moccia, chancellor Dan Arvizu said at a news conference that he was confident the behavior that led to the cancellation of the season and firing of head coach Greg Heiar was not reflective of the athletic department or the school overall.
"Our review indicates that this culture of bad behavior is contained within the basketball program," Arvizu said.
He was speaking less than 24 hours after firing Heiar, whose program was sunk by a pair of scandals, both of which are subject to ongoing investigations. The latest was the hazing allegations reported to campus police last week by a player who said three teammates ganged up on him and attacked him in the team locker room.
That came less than three months after the fatal shooting of a student at rival University of New Mexico in November. Surveillance video of the shooting shows New Mexico State player Mike Peake being shot at by that student, then responding by shooting the student as they ran through an apartment parking lot. Peake has been suspended from school but not charged in the incident.
Arvizu said the shooting, which had roots in a fight that Peake and others were involved in at an Aggies football game a month earlier, is still under investigation. He said players who are under investigation could be suspended from school, suspended from basketball or exonerated.
At a board of regents meeting held shortly after the fatal shooting, chair Ammu Devasthali said guns are not permitted on the university campus or on university trips.
Moccia, who appeared with Arvizu at the news conference, defended his hiring record over his eight years on the job, along with the vetting process he led on Heiar, who went 9-15 in his first season before it was abruptly halted.
"I made a list of every coach I've hired ... and, you know, we have an excellent batting average," Moccia said. "Nobody bats a thousand. But surely, tremendously disappointed in this outcome, specifically for this victim, but for everyone involved. We'll go back and look at our processes."
The AD also was pressed on whether Heiar ultimately bore responsibility for Peake and his teammates being out after curfew on the night of the shooting in Albuquerque.
"What my heart tells me is that when you're sound asleep in your bed and you're awoken and a situation has occurred, what is your direct responsibility?" Moccia said. "However, setting the culture matters, and for individuals to think that the night before a big game, to get out of a room and do some things we would never condone, is certainly troubling."
Heiar coached 22 games after the Nov. 19 shooting. His firing — which Arvizu said was "with cause," meaning the school isn't obligated to pay him — came after the hazing allegations surfaced, and after Arvizu called off the season. The chancellor said the coach had not been cooperating with investigators. Arvizu also said the fates of the rest of the coaching staff, along with players involved, would be determined after the multiple investigations are complete.
Safe, however, is Moccia, who is in charge of a basketball program that, more than any other sport, puts New Mexico State and its 14,000-student campus in Las Cruces, on the map. The Aggies have made 26 March Madness trips over their long history and have long drawn more nationwide attention than their football or any other team.
"He still has my confidence to turn this problem around," Arvizu said. "Clearly there are some issues that we need to see why it took so long to understand that there was an issue. But I think there's plenty of evidence to support this particular incident, or set of incidents, is contained within the basketball program and primarily as a coach's responsibility. The oversight of that is in question, and we'll continue to look at that."
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