By Lee Shappell
The Tempe Union High School District voted 5-0 Wednesday night to not accept the resignation of Justin Hager and to move forward with a formal statement of charges. This is the initial step a school district must take to dismiss a certified employee.
“The members of the Tempe Union High School District Governing Board are fierce advocates for students,” stated Governing Board President Berdetta Hodge. “The action tonight demonstrates our commitment to putting students first and ensuring all adults on our campuses adhere to our core values and beliefs.”
Special report for Wrangler News
A Mountain Pointe High School sports coach resigned from his teaching and coaching positions in the Tempe Union High School District Friday, Sept. 13, amid evidence that he leaked sensitive information to opposing coaches about Pride athletic teams, the school district said.
However, Justin Hager, who was a freshman football coach and head girls basketball coach at Mountain Pointe, said in an exclusive text-message exchange with Wrangler News on Monday that he left the district because he had another job.
“I resigned as I took an admin and coaching job elsewhere,” Hager texted.
Asked if he could say where, Hager texted, “Once it’s made (available) to the public I will.”
Asked to address the school district’s allegations against him, Hager texted, “I resigned to take another job and a career move. Had nothing to do with any allegations. Looking forward to the next challenge.”
TUHSD, however, said in a news release Monday that it had substantial evidence that Hager, using an alias email account, sent game plans and other insider information to opposing coaches during the 2017 athletic season, and that he was allowed to resign rather than being fired. The school district and Mountain Pointe officials suspect that his actions might go back an additional year or two.
Cory Nenaber, assistant principal for athletics at Corona del Sol High in Tempe, said that the Aztecs never received any emails containing Mountain Pointe insider athletic information.
“If we had, my coaches would have forwarded that to me and we would have handled that appropriately,” Nenaber said. “I’ve talked to my coaches. We know that the appropriate way to handle that is to immediately notify me, and we would have then notified Mountain Pointe immediately.
“I was shocked. It’s sad for Mountain Pointe athletics and for the kids that he affected. I think Mountain Pointe handled it really well.”
Nenaber, the Aztecs’ football coach in 2014 and 2015 before moving into administration, said that if one of his coaches faced similar accusations he would notify his principal, the school district athletic director and district administrators immediately.
“Then the investigation would be run at the district level, which is what happened in this case,” Nenaber said. “But I’m proud of our coaches and the way we handle our business.”
Emails released Monday by Tempe Union suggest that some of the state’s premier football programs, Chandler, Perry and Pinnacle, were among those that received reports on Mountain Pointe and did not report them. The district said that emails also were sent to basketball powerhouses Pinnacle and Brophy detailing game plans for upcoming battles with Mountain Pointe and did not report them.
Norris Vaughan, who hired Hager as a freshman football coach in 2015, said he and his staff suspected during the 2016 football season, when the Pride reached the 6A state championship game against Chandler High, and in 2017, when MP was eliminated in the state semifinals by Perry, that something was amiss and that there might be a mole in his program.
“I don’t understand how anybody would do this to kids. That’s just sorry,” Vaughan, now head football coach at Panama City Beach (Fla.) Arnold High, said in a telephone interview. “I think that’s just unfortunate that someone would do that to hurt another program and to hurt kids. I just don’t get it.
“Also, I don’t understand why coaches who receive that information would not report that to Mountain Pointe and let us know someone is trying to cheat. We never heard anything from anybody about it. We just knew that something was up. As late as last year when I moved back to Georgia (Hager) he called me when he was seeking a job and I tried to help him.”
Current Mountain Pointe football coach Rich Wellbrock echoed Vaughan.
“I am at a loss as to why someone would hurt kids in this way,” Wellbrock said. “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.”
An investigation was launched by the school district after Vernon Fox, head football coach at Las Vegas (Nev.) Faith Lutheran, Mountain Pointe’s opening opponent this season, alerted Wellbrock that he had been sent insider information about the Pride. Fox said that he did not use the information. Mountain Pointe won, 40-17.
Tempe Union said that the subsequent personnel investigation of Hager revealed that he was sharing protected information about the MP varsity football and boys’ basketball teams with opposing coaches for the past three years.
The district said that it has evidence in its possession, dating to 2017, that reveals Hager shared information about formations, game plans, signals and player eligibility with opposing coaches to give Mountain Pointe’s opponents a competitive edge.
“As a member district of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, we have reported these infractions to the AIA and will cooperate fully with any investigation into these acts,” said Dr. Kevin Mendivil, TUHSD superintendent. “Furthermore, the actions of one person is not representative of this school or our district, and we believe this should serve as a call to action for every adult in a leadership role with students to recommit to acting with integrity, whether in the classroom or on the field of competition.”
Vaughan said his suspicions were heightened after the Pride lost at West Hills (Calif.) Chaminade in its second game in 2017.
“We had some things we hadn’t done in the past so they couldn’t have known that from watching film,” Vaughan said.
“When we lost to Perry in the (2017) semifinal game, maybe they were just that good, but when we were on defense, they knew what we were in before they snapped the ball. I don’t know. In 2016 we had great team although we had injuries, a lot kids out, and that was part of our problem. But In the championship game (against Chandler) I suspected there were other problems. It’s all speculation but I felt that something was up. People had information that they couldn’t have gotten by just watching film. I knew there was information that no one would have unless they were a member of our coaching staff. I had game plans on the board that someone could have taken a picture of.”
Update: National media has picked up this story, as evidenced by an article from the Washington Post: