By Lee Shappell
After the Tempe Union High School District officially fired former Mountain Pointe coach Justin Hager with cause on Wednesday for leaking game plans to Pride football and basketball opponents, the district allowed Pride football coach Rich Wellbrock to speak publicly about it for the first time.
“It was disbelief,” Wellbrock said of learning that Hager was the mole who for three years had emailed Pride game plans to opponents. “I’m sure my jaw was on the floor. Obviously you don’t want something like this to happen, but from the point we knew about it we had to go down that rabbit hole.”
The school district also released information on how it traced the emails back to Hager, who was girls head basketball coach and an assistant football coach at Mountain Pointe.
TUHSD documents show that Hager confessed to being the culprit on Sept. 13 following a two-week investigation and then attempted to resign. Because he was under contract through next spring, the school district refused to accept his resignation so that it could instead take steps to fire him with cause, which could lead to loss of his Arizona’s teacher’s certificate.
Wellbrock said that despite his staff’s efforts to keep their players focused and moving forward through the highly publicized incident, “I think it affects 15, 16, 17-year olds.”
“Our coaches and our players have done a phenomenal job through this. I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Wellbrock said.
Mountain Pointe was 1-4 going into Friday night’s home game with Highland.
“We did a couple of team-building activities early on and we’ll do some more next week when we go on our fall break,” Wellbrock aid. “Now is the time when the relationships that we build with our kids are of utmost importance, letting them know there is trust in adults there for them.”
District documents show that Mountain Pointe actually was aware of email@example.com, the alias email address that Hager used, as early as last year.
For the first time, it was revealed that an assistant football coach, when applying at Mountain Pointe, received an email from walterpayton12 in March of 2018 urging him not to take a job at the school. Wellbrock said he dismissed that as perhaps a disgruntled former associate attempting to discredit him.
Then in November, 2018, a coach on the Brophy Prep football staff told Wellbrock that he had received emailed information from walterpayton12. Wellbrock also dismissed that, he said, believing it to be a one-time event, perhaps from a disgruntled parent.
But when Las Vegas (Nev.) Faith Lutheran football coach Vernon Fox told Wellbrock at their season-opening game in September of this year that he, too, had received insider reports about the Pride from walterpayton12, it was time to take action.
Wellbrock contacted coaches of early-season opponents Pinnacle and Mountain View, and they confirmed that they had received game plans from walterpayton12.
The pieces fell into place when Wellbrock’s son, Griffin, an MP varsity football assistant coach, went to Yahoo Log In, typed in walterpayton12, stated that he forgot his password, stated that he did not have access to the retrieval phone that came up ending in “80” and then received a retrieval as firstname.lastname@example.org.
When confronted, Hager initially said that he had been hacked and denied involvement when Rich Wellbrock confronted him on Sept. 3.
“I told him I don’t see how it isn’t him,” Wellbrock said.
Mountain Pointe officials then turned over evidence to TUHSD, which completed the investigation.
The district found entire offensive and defensive game plans for varsity football and varsity boys basketball games sent to opposing coaches going back to November, 2017; correspondence with opposing coaches; injury updates for varsity football; scouting reports for varsity boys basketball; injury reports for varsity boys basketball; contact with news media regarding how there should be more coverage of varsity girls basketball and specifically Coach Hager, and emails to site administration and district administration.
Hagar was fired for unprofessional conduct and improper use of district technology, both violations of TUHSD Governing Board Policies.
Wellbrock emphasized that the investigation was solely to stop the flow of insider information about Mountain Pointe to opponents, and not an attempt to go after coaches who might have received the information and did not report it. None of the recipients other than Faith Lutheran and Brophy Prep reported receipt of emails from walterpayton12.
“When we started the investigation, we really didn’t know the depth,” Wellbrock said. “It was never a ‘gotcha.’ To my peers I want to make sure that is well known.”
Wellbrock said he never had reason to suspect that there was a mole on his staff last season, his first at Mountain Pointe, until the Brophy coach came forward late in the season. Norris Vaughan, who preceded Wellbrock as coach of the Pride, has said he suspected that “something was up” as far back as the 2016 season. Hagar was hired in 2015.
TUHSD documents also show that Hagar looked up the 2019 schedule of Panama City Beach (Fla.) Arnold High, the team where Vaughan now coaches, in early September, but there is no evidence at this point that any upcoming Arnold opponents have received information about Vaughan or what he used to run at Mountain Pointe.
“My reaction was anger, disappointment,” Wellbrock said. “It’s more about the kids than anything else. There’s no playbook for this. . . . We’ve tried to keep grinding.”
Wellbrock did not want to comment about coaches who received emails and did not report them; nor about what he believes the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the governing body of Arizona high school sports, should do about it; nor whether any of the multitude of close games during MP’s 7-5 2018 season might have been swayed by leaked information.
He also said he did “not feel comfortable answering” what he would say to Hager, with whom he has had no contact since the incident came to light.
Cory Nenaber, assistant principal for athletics at Corona del Sol High in Tempe, told Wrangler News previously 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.
Wellbrock did say that if he ever received such an email, “I would make sure that I got that info to the opposing coaches.”
“We work a lot of hours,” Wellbrock said. “You have to understand what football coaches do week in and week out. Usually it’s four or five hours on a Saturday, sometimes six, seven or eight. Sometimes it’s the same on Sunday, looking at film, putting game plans together. You have to put in 60 to 70 hours a weeks to be successful at what we do.
“That’s what hurts so much, that that information was being given to our opponents.”