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Coach Claims Job Threatened

By Will Webber
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    The mother of a Rio Grande High School student who was allowed to graduate after a controversial grade change has been accused of threatening the school's basketball coach with his job.
    Wally Salata, Rio Grande's head coach for two years, said he met twice with Bernalillo County Commissioner Teresa Cordova during the 2006-07 basketball season to discuss the role of Cordova's son on the team.
    On both occasions, Salata said, Cordova made threats about Salata's job security rather than addressing the player's academic concerns.
    "She doesn't have the authority to fire me and I knew that, but she said it in a way that made me believe she could try," Salata said during an interview Thursday. "I thought we would sit down to discuss (her son's) grades, but all she wanted to talk about was my coaching and how many minutes her son was playing."
    Cordova staunchly refuted those claims, saying Salata rolled his eyes and yelled at her during one confrontation.
    "As a parent, I continue to be appalled by the vilification of my child," she said. "Just because this coach has violated my son's rights, I am not going to and will not comment on any of his allegations."
    Salata initially went public with his allegations Wednesday on the "Jim Villanucci Show," a popular afternoon talk show on KKOB-AM (770).
    The 12-minute segment had Salata recounting the tumultuous senior year of Cordova's son.
    "I believe that this community should be outraged at a coach who would get on a radio station and castigate one of his former players," Cordova said. "As an educator, his conduct is unprofessional and violates his players' trust."
    Salata didn't mention the student by name— a practice followed in the public fray over the changing of his failing grade in an English class that allowed him to "walk the line" at graduation ceremonies.
    The student was one of 10 upperclassmen on the Ravens' roster to start the season. Salata said he was suspended in November for excessive absences and forging an in-house grade check form used to track academic eligibility.
    "He got one game for the forging and two for the classes he missed," Salata said. "He missed his second-period class 23 times and the third-period class 30 times."
    Salata said the problem with the grade check was uncovered when he approached teachers from two classes. Salata said each teacher claimed the student was failing and that their signatures had been faked.
    The student was thrown off the team in the final week of the regular season for an unspecified violation of school policy.
    Salata said he held two closed-door meetings with Cordova. In one, he said, she suggested he purchase a book written by NBA coach Phil Jackson.
    "She said I obviously needed help in dealing with players, and that book would show me how to do it," Salata said.
    Rio Grande Principal Al Sanchez said Cordova never made a formal push to have Salata fired.
    "There was a game late in the year where she went to his office and said 'I'll have your job for this,' '' said Sanchez, who said he overheard the comment.
    "It was something said in the heat of the moment," he said. "The next day, we all sat down and had a calmer discussion."
   
Grade controversy
    Salata acknowledged the sensitivity of the case, citing extensive news coverage of the grade change.
    The state Public Education Department took APS to task earlier this week, ruling after an investigation that the grade should not have been changed.
    Superintendent Beth Everitt apologized to the community for the district's action but said it would not affect the student's diploma.
    Top APS administrators changed the grade— Everitt signed off on it— after Rio Grande teacher Anita Forte and Sanchez refused to do so.
    Forte said the student turned in make-up work weeks late and she refused to accept it.
    District officials involved in changing the grade said the parents weren't given enough notice— a contention rejected by state officials in their investigation.
   
Playing time
    Salata didn't address the grade change issue.
    "How this concerns me isn't the graduation; it's (Cordova) basically saying I can lose my job because I wasn't giving her son enough minutes," Salata said.
    Listed as a 6-foot shooting guard, the player averaged about seven minutes of playing time last season. Salata said Cordova wanted him to guarantee her son would be on the court for at least eight minutes a game.
    "I told her playing time is not negotiable in my coaching contract," Salata said. "I can't guarantee anyone will play a certain amount of time."
    When the Ravens hosted Highland in their final regular season home game in mid-February— Senior Night for Rio's upperclassmen— Cordova's son played only three minutes.
    Afterward, Salata said he and Hornets coach Danny Brown were reviewing game film when the parents tried to engage him in a conversation about playing time.
    The boy's father is former APS board member Miguel Acosta.
    Two weeks later, the Ravens traveled to Las Cruces for the opening round of the Class 5A State Tournament. No longer part of the team, the student attended as a spectator but was escorted out of the gym after he allegedly berated the referees for what he thought was a bad call.
    Salata said the former player later attended the Ravens' annual banquet and became angry when the coaching staff didn't present him with an award.