'Punch in the gut for our university': Las Cruces, NMSU react to basketball program's downfall - Albuquerque Journal

‘Punch in the gut for our university’: Las Cruces, NMSU react to basketball program’s downfall

New Mexico State men\’s basketball head coach Greg Heiar interacts with players on the first day of basketball practice Sept. 27, 2022, inside the Pan American Center in Las Cruces. Heiar was fired Tuesday following a turbulent season that included a fatal shooting and a hazing scandal. (Jaime Guzman/For the Las Cruces Sun-News)

LAS CRUCES – Before the news was released, old-time fans sipping beers at The Game Bar and Grill, ride-or-die students and fraternity brothers selling Valentine’s Day roses on campus all knew what was going to happen.

“We went from one of the best teams to a punch in the gut for our university,” Felipe Avila, a sophomore kinesiology major, said in the student union. “Fire the whole coaching staff, and start over.”

New Mexico State University Chancellor Dan Arvizu announced Tuesday night that first-year men’s basketball coach Greg Heiar had been fired. Terms of the separation, and how much the university would have to pay the coach, whose contract is in place through April 2027, weren’t announced.

The announcement came following days of speculation after the school canceled the remainder of the season for the men’s basketball team amid news that police were investigating hazing allegations by players that rose to possible sexual assault.

“As I’ve stated previously, hazing has no place on our campus, and those found responsible will be held accountable for their actions,” Arvizu said in a statement. “I am committed to the safety and well-being of all members of our campus community, as well as to the integrity of our university.”

School officials have scheduled a press conference for 10 a.m. Wednesday.

“Through an expansive review and full investigation, we will work to ensure we fully understand what happened here, and that those found responsible are held accountable,” Arvizu said. “We will also ensure that support systems are in place to prevent this from happening again.”

Arvizu said a decision about the fate of the rest of the coaching staff will be made after additional investigations are done.

‘Basketball means a lot to the entire community’

At The Game, where Aggie basketball jerseys hang from the walls, longtime fans lamented over drinks Tuesday afternoon how far the program had fallen in such a short time. The team took the Western Athletic Conference title last season and then won a game in the NCAA tournament.

They worried about possible NCAA sanctions that could hold the program back for years to come, and they scoffed at “Pistol Peake” – a reference to the team’s mascot and Mike Peake, an Aggie player who was involved in a fatal shooting on the University of New Mexico campus in November on the morning of a rivalry game between the Lobos and the Aggies.

Police have said that Peake was lured to campus by three students who then attacked him, and he returned fire in self-defense, killing a UNM student. Peake was shot in the leg.

The shooting brought the team under scrutiny after an investigation revealed players were out late the night before the game, and the team left on a bus back to Las Cruces while police were still trying to obtain the firearm that Peake used.

The New Mexico State basketball program suspended operations this week amid a hazing scandal. (Geoff Grammer/Journal)

“Basketball means a lot to the entire community, when everything’s going well. And when people are performing like they’re supposed to,” said Marci Dickerson, the owner of The Game. “I certainly think that this entire community has reacted (to) these allegations. … And I think that the community has a low tolerance for that.”

Danielle Dowis, a senior political science and Spanish major, said her father told her about the hazing allegations over the weekend and she was flabbergasted and disgusted.

“Hazing, it’s archaic, it’s like the 90s,” she said.

But she said she was pleased it appeared university officials were taking the matter seriously.

“They’ve started investigations and they’ve condemned it, so I feel like they’re taking the right steps,” she said.

Josh Randall, a junior cyber defense major and a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, said he wanted to see everyone who was directly involved in the hazing, and anyone who knew about it and didn’t intervene, punished.

“I played soccer growing up, whenever you’re in a team-based organization, you’re there for your team,” Randall said at a booth on campus where the frat was selling roses for charity. “You don’t see a player or teammate, even in a fraternity … if you’re seeing someone suffering, you don’t just let that slide.”

Player’s complaint

A redacted police report obtained by the Journal states an Aggie player reported that he had been targeted by three of his teammates for months. In one case, he was held to the ground, stripped and touched inappropriately.

A police report shows the actions may rise to criminal sexual contact and false imprisonment charges. No one has been charged and the player has reportedly said he doesn’t want to press charges.

The player reportedly said the acts took place in front of multiple teammates and no one intervened. Several Aggies have announced that they are transferring from the school.

The New Mexico State basketball teams plays its home games in the Pan American Center on the Las Cruces campus. (Ryan Boetel/Journal)

The Pan American Center, where NMSU plays its home games, was quiet and locked Tuesday afternoon, which is when Director of Athletics Mario Moccia told Heiar that he was fired, Arvizu said. The school’s Board of Regents met later Tuesday in a closed session.

NMSU hired Heiar in March to replace Chris Jans, who left to coach Mississippi State University. Jans coached the Aggies for five years and in 2022 won a WAC title and the Aggies upset Connecticut in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

People in Las Cruces and students on the campus rally around the Aggies, and they are a front-door of sorts for the university, said Avila, the kinesiology major.

He is from California, and he first started looking into NMSU when he was a high school student and he saw a school he didn’t know much about nearly upset Auburn in the NCAA tournament. He rarely missed a game the last two years, and said last year’s run brought the school together.

“I was at a movie theater watching the (NCAA tournament) game, and all the fans were jumping up and down screaming,” he said. “I think everyone got closer together and was hyped-up for something that usually doesn’t happen. So it brought a connection.”

Regardless of who the next coach is, Avila said he’s looking forward to being back in the stands next year.

“I have to support them, no matter how bad the reputation gets,” he said. “This is a basketball school.”


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