Heiar: Was ‘sacrificial lamb’ after NMSU incidents

  • Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff WriterAug 2, 2023, 02:35 PM ET

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    • Covers college basketball
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
    • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

Former New Mexico State basketball coach Greg Heiar said he did not know about hazing allegations within his program when was fired with cause in February and accused the school of terminating him because it needed a “sacrificial lamb” after a series of incidents, according to arbitration documents obtained by ESPN.

Heiar’s termination followed a decision by Dan Arvizu, the school’s former chancellor, to cancel the season in February after former player Mike Peake had been involved in a self-defense shooting in November and the revelation of a hazing investigation tied to accusations of sexual assault and harassment within the team.

In June, NMSU agreed to pay $8 million combined to former NMSU player Deuce Benjamin and his father, William, and former NMSU player Shak Odunewu.

In its response to Heiar and his legal team, NMSU denied the bulk of the former head coach’s allegations, according to the arbitration documents, but it also said the coach “refused to cooperate” with the hazing investigation prior to his termination for cause.

Heiar said he was unaware of hazing allegations within his program, even though the school had been notified more than a month before informing him about an investigation attached to those accusations. In its response to Heiar, the school said that it could not inform Heiar or any coaches about the allegations, which were conveyed to school officials in December, due to Title IX and school policies.

Heiar is seeking an undetermined sum for breach of contract and actions that were “willful, wanton, and with reckless disregard.”

“Coach Heiar has suffered and continues to suffer monetary and/or economic damages … that have and will continue to prevent him from similar gainful employment in the coaching industry, for which he is entitled to an award of monetary damages and relief,” New Mexico-based Danoff Law Firm, which represents Heiar, said in its statement of claims.

Heiar, who has since been hired as the head coach at Mineral Area College (Park Hills, Missouri), a junior college, also alleged NMSU failed to inform him of a “toxic and secretive culture” that limited accountability for players when he was hired to succeed former head coach Chris Jans in 2022.

Heiar also said he did not know about his program’s academic issues — the school’s APR dropped following the COVID season — when he accepted the job.

Heiar’s statement of claims detailed a lengthy list of accusations against NMSU that preceded his termination.

Heiar said he was with AD Mario Moccia at his house when he received a video that showed an October fight at an NMSU-New Mexico football game, which involved Peake and New Mexico student Brandon Travis. Heiar said the athletic director “smiled” and said the video showed NMSU players “whooping up on some Lobos.” Heiar alleges that he was blocked from suspending Peake or other players for their roles in the brawl.

Heiar also alleges that Moccia and his superiors seized control of the program and would not allow him to discipline players who had been involved in the aftermath of a November shooting that resulted in Travis’ death.

In its response, NMSU said Heiar never lost his authority to discipline players during the 2022-23 season and that the school “only made suggestions regarding basketball related discipline because [Heiar] failed to act.”

After the self-defense shooting in November, Heiar spoke with local authorities in Albuquerque. He said he feared retaliation when he decided to leave town without answering follow-up phone calls from police who, according to incident reports, were searching for evidence and seeking interviews with players.

In his statement of claims, Heiar said he instructed a bus driver to go to a rest stop and wait for police to arrive when he learned officers were pursuing the team’s bus, where they found Peake’s iPad. His gun was retrieved at the hotel. His phone was on the bus, but police did not obtain it during their search. The police report said authorities had instructed officers to stop the NMSU bus after it had left town during the preliminary investigation and Heiar had failed to answer their phone calls.

Following the shooting, Heiar said he wanted to suspend and discipline players who’d been seen on video with Peake, who was also wounded, but Moccia told him “we just need to win, win, win. This will all go away but we do not need any more bad media at this point; we are on thin ice, getting thinner.”

Marchelus Avery, Issa Muhammad and Anthony Roy, who transported Peake to the hospital after the shooting, were subsequently suspended for one game by NMSU administration.

School officials had been made aware of hazing allegations within the team on Dec. 31, 2022, when the father of a student manager discussed the allegations with an NMSU administrator, who later contacted the school’s Office of Institutional Equity, which handles Title IX investigations, on Jan. 3. The school, in its response, said that it did not inform Heiar about the allegations within his program because of Title IX and school policies.

New hazing allegations in February preceded the administration’s decision to cancel NMSU’s season and fire Heiar.

In his statement of claims, Heiar said he was in settlement talks with the school after his team’s season was canceled and rescheduled an interview with Title IX investigators about the hazing allegations, days before his firing, because his former lawyer had been unavailable. He said he was terminated without the completion of the investigation.

In its response, the school said it did not have to finish its investigation to fire Heiar, per his contract, but said the former head coach failed in his “responsibilities to cooperate” in the hazing investigation.

An arbitration hearing between the two parties is expected to commence sometime in 2024.