By EDDIE PELLS (AP National Writer)
LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — Of all the troubling video made public over a year of crisis at New Mexico State – from the brawl involving basketball players to the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old, allegedly by one of those players, to the police interviews with the coach afterward – one 42-minute log of footage might best explain how the school is in the mess it is today.
In that video, captured on police body cam, an officer is interviewing the university’s $500,000-a-year chancellor, Dan Arvizu, and his wife, Sheryl Arvizu. The officer had been called to the couple’s house to resolve a dispute that came out of Sheryl’s suspicion her husband was having an affair with a staff member at New Mexico State.
Dan Arvizu denied the affair. Sheryl Arvizu ended up being booked into jail on a battery charge that was later dismissed. Officials at the school’s Office of Institutional Equity looked into the allegations for possible conflict-of-interest issues, though there was no report filed.
During these fraught days at New Mexico State, where the once-treasured men’s basketball program has been shelved for the season after that fatal shooting and a gruesome allegation of locker-room hazing, the Arvizu police video is a reminder of who is ultimately responsible at a university that has, in many eyes, become unhinged in areas well beyond basketball. The Associated Press spoke to more than a dozen people affiliated with the university, many of whom expressed deep concerns with leadership at the school.
“People are embarrassed,” said Jamie Bronstein, a history professor who also serves as vice chair of NMSU’s faculty senate. “People feel terrible for the students.”
The school refused to make Arvizu or other administrators available for interviews. Spokesman Justin Bannister said the school is working to “discover the facts, make tough decisions for the benefit of the campus community and restore New Mexico State University’s position as a leading, respected land-grant institution.”
There have been seven different presidents, interim presidents and chancellors over the past 15 years at the state’s second-biggest university, where more than a quarter of the 14,000 students are the first members of their family to attend college.
“What makes NMSU such a special place is the huge opportunity to change students’ and their families’ lives by increasing our students’ social mobility,” business professor Jim Hoffman said. “This is why excellent leadership, thoughtful decision making and wise use of (limited) resources are so important.”
New Mexico State has always been able to make a name for itself every March thanks to a men’s basketball program that traditionally thrives on the strength of players and coaches who don’t always take the traditional route to Division I. But this year, the program disintegrated.
The unraveling can be traced to an NMSU football game last Oct. 15 in which a handful of the school’s basketball players got into a brawl with students from rival New Mexico. Video of the melee shows junior forward Mike Peake among those throwing punches.
Five weeks after the fight, the players headed to Albuquerque for one of the season’s most anticipated games, against the Lobos. Peake broke curfew and went to the dormitory complex of one of the students involved in the fight at the football stadium.
Video from the apartment parking lot shows Peake being attacked with a baseball bat before exchanging gunfire with the student, Brandon Travis. Peake was taken to the hospital with leg wounds that required surgery. Travis died from his gunshot wounds.
Peake, who said he was acting in self-defense, has not been charged with a crime. Police video shows Peake in a hospital bed asking to get his gun back because “that’s my only weapon.” Guns are not permitted on New Mexico State’s campus or on school-related road trips.
The Aggies continued to play for nearly three more months. On Feb. 12, Arvizu canceled the season after allegations surfaced about three players ganging up on a teammate in what a police report said included a possible incident of criminal sexual contact.
Two days later, Arvizu fired the coach, Greg Heiar. The player who made the allegations said similar hazing incidents had been occurring since summer. Arvizu said he was never made aware of it. Bannister said school policy calls for employees to report misconduct to the Title IX office and that the university is “looking at additional support systems” for the future.
Both the shooting and hazing incidents are being sorted out by internal and third-party investigations.
Current and former employees the AP interviewed described scenarios in which top administrators refused to hold themselves or others accountable, inside and outside the athletic department. One said the “guardrails” designed to protect students and faculty had all but disappeared.
“Because there’s so much churn in our upper administration, we never get to the point of hammering out who is actually accountable for upholding policies,” Bronstein said.
Some of the dissatisfaction among faculty was resolved last year, when President John Floros stepped down and Provost Carol Parker was fired. Arvizu’s five-year contract runs out in June and it won’t be renewed, leaving NMSU to face the basketball crisis with top leadership again in transition.
The athletic director’s job seems secure: When Arvizu dismantled basketball for the season, he went out of his way to back Mario Moccia, who is in his 10th year as AD.
Moccia defended his hiring record and insisted the vetting process for Heiar was solid; it was the first head-coaching job at a Division I school for the 47-year-old Heiar.
The Aggies have been to March Madness 11 times since McCarthy left after the 1997 season, always as a double-digit seed with a reputation for giving the big boys trouble; a year ago, they knocked off UConn in the first round.
There won’t be any postseason this year. Two players quit after the hazing allegations.
“The entire program has caught on fire, and the fire has burned down everything, and all that’s left are the roots,” said Jim Paul, the former NMSU AD who fired McCarthy.
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