Rejecting his resignation offer, Tempe Union High School District's governing board on Wednesday voted to move forward with terminating a Mountain Pointe High School coach for its varsity girls basketball and football teams for three years shared game strategies with opposing teams' coaches.
Justin Hager, who had submitted his resignation Friday in an effort to avert termination, was hired in 2016 as head coach of the Mountain Pointe girls varsity basketball team and also was an assistant coach for the Pride varsity football team.
The decision came after board member Michelle Helm motioned to not accept Hager’s resignation.
“To me, this unprofessional conduct he demonstrated has ramifications that we may not see initially,” Helm said after Wednesday’s board meeting. “I feel like our community wouldn’t have seen a resignation as enough. People submit resignations all the time for a variety of reasons, so how is anybody to know what he had done if we let his resignation go through?
“I was afraid our community and others wouldn’t really know the extent of the harm he created."
“I think this decision sends a message to the community and to Mountain Pointe that we care, and we don’t tolerate situations like that happening in our district,” said Berdetta Hodge, the district governing board president. “I think that sends a strong message that as a board and as a district we care about or community and what happens to our students and how it impacts their lives.”
“Our entire campus is shocked at these findings. It is the responsibility of all adults on a high school campus to act with integrity and to put students first in all we do,” Mountain Pointe Principal Tomika Banks said in a press release. “Mountain Pointe students, families and staff are heartbroken to learn our trust was violated by someone we cared for and considered a member of our family.”
Tempe Union officials said they discovered an email address linked to Hager that showed he had shared protected information on the school’s football program and boys basketball program since 2017.
Hager shared play calls, formations and at one point a list of players deemed ineligible, giving opposing coaches a “competitive edge,” according to a letter that Tempe Union Athletic Director Bruce Kipper sent to David Hines, the executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association last Friday.
“Like any other thing that is brought to our attention, we are going to take the facts that we have, and we will forward them to the schools we have information on,” Hines said. “We will have them investigate the situation at their school and then we will have them report back to us.”
Hines went on to add that when he was informed of the situation, he was “frustrated.”
“We have been spending a lot of time talking about sportsmanship and educational athletics,” Hines said. “We want to be competitive, but this is about the kids. We want a level playing field as much as possible.
“So, when we hear things like that, it’s frustrating.”
District officials have no motive for Hager’s actions, according to the letter.
“While we do not understand the motive behind these actions, our district does not condone cheating and is devastated to find that a trusted adult on our campus was actively working to undermine the success of our students,” Kipper wrote.
Kipper told Hines the district had compiled evidence from the email account that several Arizona high school coaches had communicated back to Hager, who was using the alias firstname.lastname@example.org for his email account
Only a handful of emails were included with Kipper’s letter, as the email account has since been shut down.
However, Kipper said there is other evidence of “hundreds” of emails that include “extensive communication” between the email address and opposing coaches.
According to Kipper’s letter emails were sent from the “walterpayton12” account to Pinnacle High football coach Dana Zupke and basketball coach Charlie Wilde, Perry High football coach Preston Jones, Brophy Prep basketball coach John Burns, Highland High football coach Brock Farrel and Desert Ridge High football coach Jeremy Hathcock.
Emails from the account also were sent to Shaun Aguano, the former Chandler High football and current Arizona State running backs coach as well as Chandler High assistant football coach Steve Vaught.
Pride strategies also were shared from the account with Bingham High (South Joran, Utah) football coach John Lambourne and Faith Lutheran (Las Vegas, Nevada) football coach Vernon Fox.
Mountain Pointe played Bingham in 2018 and played Faith Lutheran to open the 2019 season.
Tempe Union said it also has evidence emails from the “walterpayton12” account went to Pinnacle’s Zupke on two occasions, once in 2018 and most recently this season.
In addition, Tempe Union officials said emails about game plays were exchanged between the email account and Perry High’s Jones between Nov. 14-16, 2017.
The email provided by Tempe Union officials shows an email sent from Jones’ account asking WalterPayton12 why he believes Mountain Pointe would “do what they did against Chandler?” Jones did not reply to any other emails from the account, which later allegedly sent pdf images of Mountain Pointe’s plays.
On Nov. 18, 2017, Perry won the a 6A Conference semifinal game against Mountain Pointe’s team, then led by former coach Norris Vaughan.
At this time, it is unclear if other coaches had engaged in communication with the account. It is also unclear whether any of the information sent by the account was used against Mountain Pointe's football or boys basketball teams.
During the investigation, former Mountain Pointe basketball coach Duane Eason, who coaches the Pride in the 2017 6A state title game against Pinnacle, said he was asked “informal” questions about Hager.
Eason said the two often spoke about basketball and coaching techniques. He said he considered Hager a friend.
“When you share a gym, you’re together all the time. You share a lot because you’re there while the other practices and you’re always talking strategy,” Eason said.
Eason doesn’t blame the emails for his team’s loss.
“I don’t know how much it made an impact, because the kids still have to go out there and execute the game plan, but it’s definitely puzzling,” Eason said.
Below is a summary of the emails provided by Tempe Union:
Nov. 14, 2017: An email from WalterPayton12 is sent to Jones explaining Mountain Pointe’s game plan. Jones responds the same day, saying, “Why do you think they will do what they did against Chandler?”
Nov. 16, 2017: WalterPayton12 emails pdf images that allegedly show Mountain Pointe’s defense.
Nov. 17, 2017: WalterPayton12 emails Jones and tells him Mountain Pointe will “try zone read against you guys.”
Nov. 18, 2017: Mountain Pointe loses to Perry in 6A Football State Championship Semifinals.
Feb. 19, 2018: WalterPayton12 emails Brophy head basketball coach John Burns and shared plays that Mountain Pointe basketball planned to use.
Feb. 21, 2018: Mountain Pointe beats Brophy in 6A Basketball State Championship Semifinals.
Feb. 27, 2018: WalterPayton12 emails Pinnacle head varsity basketball coach Charlie Wilde with information about strategy for state champ game. Refers to himself as "friends with Asst. Coach Fauske."
Feb. 28, 2018: Mountain Pointe loses to Pinnacle in 6A state championship game.
Aug. 22, 2018: WalterPayton12 emails Pinnacle head football coach Dana Zupke with game information.
Aug. 24, 2018: Mountain Pointe loses to Pinnacle.
Sept. 5, 2018: WalterPayton12 emails Bingham head football coach John Lambourne and shared images with plays.
Sept. 8, 2018: Mountain Pointe loses to Bingham.
Sept. 25, 2018: WalterPayton12 emails Highland High School head football coach Brock Farrell images of the "Highland Defense."
Sept. 28, 2018: Mountain Pointe beats Highland 48-27.
Oct. 16-17, 2018: WalterPayton12 emails Desert Ridge head varsity football coach Jeremy Hathcock images of plays and discloses ineligible player information.
Oct. 19, 2018: Mountain Pointe beats Desert Ridge.
Nov. 5, 2018: WalterPayton12 emails Chandler head football coach Shaun Aguano and assistant coach Steve Vaught and shared play images.
Nov. 9, 2018: Mountain Pointe loses to Chandler
Aug. 21, 2019: WalterPayton12 emails Faith Lutheran High School head varsity coach Vernon Fox plays for games. Coach Fox responds: "Sir…I don’t believe in cheating. We are not looking to gain an unfair advantage. We will prepare as best we can and look to have a great competitive game.”
Aug. 23, 2019: Mountain Pointe beats Faith Lutheran.
Aug. 15, 23, 2019: WalterPayton12 emails Pinnacle Head Coach Dana Zupke images of plays for game.
Aug. 30, 2019: Mountain Pointe loses to Pinnacle.
According a source familiar with the situation, Mountain Pointe football coach Rich Wellbrock was made aware of the email address after his team’s matchup against Faith Lutheran on Aug. 23. Fox approached Wellbrock and informed him about the emails he had been sent.
“I am at a loss as to why someone would hurt kids in this way,” Wellbrock said in the release. “The entire coaching staff at Mountain Pointe is deeply troubled that a trusted adult in our program would actively work against the success of our students.”
TUHSD officials have asked the AIA to conduct an investigation to “ensure the integrity of high school athletics in Arizona has not been compromised.” The release went on to reference the AIA bylaws 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206.
According to the AIA Constitution and Bylaws, bylaw 220.127.116.11 states that “coaches and/or game management personnel will not manipulate or control the environment or game.”
In three seasons as head coach of the girls basketball program, Hager led the Pride to a 64-31 overall record. He led the girls to the postseason all three years, including the state semifinals in the 2016-17 season. Hager was also an assistant coach under Vaughan and Wellbrock for the varsity football program.
“In the Tempe Union High School District, we have a set of core values and beliefs that that guide everything we do,” Kipper wrote in the letter sent to the AIA. “First and foremost, we put ‘students first’ in all we do and expect all employees to behave with ‘integrity’ in all they do and say.
“We value truthfulness and trustworthiness and we take responsibility for our actions.”
This is a developing story. Stick with the Ahwatukee Foothills News and East Valley Tribune for new developments.
Ahwatukee Foothills News staff writer Eric Newman contributed to this report.