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The timing may seem odd, given the recent turmoil in the men’s basketball program, but New Mexico State University was wise to give Athletic Director Mario Moccia a five-year contract extension.
The move brings stability to the department as the university is in the process of replacing its current leader. Moccia’s previous contract was set to expire next summer. His top priority now must be to restore a men’s basketball program that had clearly spun out of control.
When Moccia was hired in 2015, NMSU was still dealing with the consequences of its disastrous move to the Western Athletic Conference in 2005. The conference dropped football in 2012, leaving the Aggies to fend for themselves as one of only a handful of teams trying to survive in the top division as an independent.
Former Athletic Director McKinley Boston was able to rely on a lifetime of contacts to stitch together schedules that relied on so-called “money games” in which lesser teams get paid to take a beating at the hands of elite teams like Georgia and Alabama. Boston was the first to acknowledge that model wasn’t sustainable.
Moccia led the effort to find a conference home for the Aggies. And, next year they will join Conference USA. They go into the new conference with a football team that is coming off a bowl game victory and appears to be far more competitive now under coach Jerry Kill.
There’s no denying the men’s basketball program last season was a mess. First there was the fatal late-night shooting involving an NMSU player on the University of New Mexico campus. Then came allegations of sexual abuse masquerading as hazing in the locker room.
Two former players, Deuce Benjamin and Shakiru Odunewu, have filed a lawsuit against the university, administrators, coaches and players alleging sexual assault, battery and false imprisonment. Both players say they reported the incident to coaches, but nothing was done.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Benjamin, a hometown kid who watched from the stands as other hometown kids like Gordo Castillo and Johnny McCants made a name for themselves on the NMSU hardwood. That dream has been denied by the cruelty of those who called themselves teammates.
New basketball coach Jason Hooten had no choice but to clean house and start over.
The past few years have been challenging. Along with the problem in men’s basketball, NMSU had to deal with New Mexico’s Covid-19 laws, the most restrictive in the nation. Moccia has guided the Aggies through all of that and into what appears to be a brighter future in a new conference.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org