New Mexico State Basketball’s troubles require a change of coach

Lost in the shadow of the Super Bowl, a college basketball team canceled the rest of its season. It happened just about an hour before kick-off, an expertly timed news dump that tempered the attention it might otherwise have deserved. “Possibly” is the right word because there’s no guarantee anyone would have been paying close attention no matter when it was announced, because this is the state of New Mexico, a school that operates way below the Kleg lights of college basketball .

But what happened should shine like a beacon across the collegiate athletic landscape, a seismic reminder of what really matters when we talk about student and athlete well-being. It’s easy to get caught up in the ticky-tock nonsense, fuming about NCAA violations, what is and isn’t pay-to-play in the world of NIL, and whether the transfer portal is good or bad.

This is the real stuff.

One player claims he was repeatedly bullied by his teammates – in the Aggies’ dressing room and on the road – and that his teammates looked on. He couldn’t prevent it alone, describing it as a “three-on-one” situation, and yet no one intervened. Nobody reported it. It just kept happening, starting all the way back in the summer and lasting until last week. The details, shared with local news outlets, are disturbing and graphic, not the kind that can be dismissed as harmless nonsense. This is degradation and humiliation, a distorted feeling that shaming another empowers the offender.

The cessation of the program, which is less than a year from defeating UConn in the first round of the NCAA tournament as No. 12, is the only call. Not just because a collection of players allegedly decided to abuse a teammate; but because nobody else cared enough to stop it. The coaching staff, including first-year head coach Greg Heiar, is currently on paid administrative leave while the university conducts its investigation. No way should he keep his job.

The NCAA has a fairly new enforcement policy. Strict Liability they call it. Essentially, this means that a trainer can no longer use the “I didn’t know about this” plea when dealing with staff violations. The head coach is responsible for what goes on in his program.

If that applies to something as stupid as an employee contacting a recruit during a no-contact period or inappropriately brokering a null deal, it should apply here. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect a coach to know everything his players are doing, but when things are going so far from right and wrong, the coach is running a poisoned program.

Trainers love the word “culture”. This is New Mexico men’s basketball culture.

In and of itself, the vexatious allegations are disturbing and unsettling enough to warrant some sort of consequence. But considering what happened in the state of New Mexico earlier this year, that’s ruthless. The short story goes as follows: In November, an Aggies player shot and killed a University of New Mexico student while the state of New Mexico was in Albuquerque to play the Lobos. The player, Mike Peake, is said to have acted in self-defense and was lured onto campus by a girl in an elaborate ruse hatched by the student he shot, Brandon Travis. Travis was seeking revenge for an incident at the rivalry football game between the two schools where Peake was allegedly part of a gang that kicked and beat up Travis.

Except that the essentials are much messier. When you read the police report or watch the police bodycam video interviews, the whole thing feels wrong. The shooting happened well after curfew – and after a gathering of players sauntered into the Doubletree Hotel late late, an assistant coach who was on the lookout for curfew violators in the lobby waved them to their room.

Immediately after the shooting, Peake met up with three of his teammates and an unidentified driver and placed his gun, phone and a tablet in the trunk of the car. When the state police began their investigation, an officer specifically told Heiar and his assistants that they needed all of this as evidence and if they found out where any of it was, to alert them immediately. Instead, the coaches did not return repeated messages, and the team bus left Albuquerque without alerting the police. Only after an officer — lights blazing and sirens wailing — caught up with the bus did an assistant coach turn over the tablet, which was still bloody from the shooting. The coaches insisted they didn’t know where the phone was – although hours later it turned up at the home of an assistant sporting director who was on the bus. As for the gun, police trainers said it was back at the hotel in Albuquerque, left there by another assistant.

Finally, the police gathered all the necessary evidence. After a brief suspension, the three players who met with Peake — Issa Muhammad, Marchelus Avery and Anthony Roy — returned to the team. The coaching staff were not punished by either the university or the police, and the Aggies’ season lasted until Friday, when the university announced it was pausing the program while it investigated the abuse allegations.

However, all along, while the local media poked around trying to find out what happened and the taint of scandal attached to their program, the players allegedly abused their teammate. Again and again. That’s what you do when you’re cruel. You do this when you are ignorant. But you also do that if you think you can get away with it. The Aggies clearly did.

Because that was the culture in the state of New Mexico.

(Photo by Greg Heiar: Thurman James / Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

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