CHANDLER – When the clock struck 7 p.m. on Friday, Jim Sawitzke was exactly where he was supposed to be, doing exactly what he was supposed to do.
As the co-president of the Mountain Pointe High School Football Booster Club and football player Kevin Sawitzke’s dad, he was on the sideline at Hamilton High School, watching the Pride kick off their game against the Huskies.
Given all that had happened since news broke about Justin Hager, the former girls’ basketball head coach and assistant football coach, sending team strategy and game plans to football and men’s basketball opponents — the initial shock, the anger, the answerless questions, the national coverage — just getting to the football game was noteworthy to Sawitzke.
“This is really the first time in the last couple of weeks that things have felt normal,” Sawitzke said.
But for how long? The incident has triggered discussion about the win at all costs mentality of competitive sports and the far-reaching impact Hager’s choices could have.
“Now you’ve sent this message that you can’t trust adults,” said Dr. Eric Legg, an assistant professor at Arizona State’s School of Community Resources who has done extensive research on the impact that coaching has on youth in sports. “I think that’s going to hamper those athletes’ interactions with future adults.”
For David Hinojosa, the father of three former Pride football players, the risk Hager took suggests a sports landscape that puts too much emphasis on winning.
“I think we have to look at ourselves, as parents, and say that, in a sense, we almost created this atmosphere,” he said. “Because we tell our coaches, ‘We want to win.’ We tell our teams, ‘We want to win.’ When we don’t, they lose their jobs.”
Suddenly, an Arizona community found itself in the national spotlight. Reporters descended on the Friday night game Mountain Pointe lost 42-13. Three of Phoenix’s local television stations had reporters on-site, and AZFamily Channel 3TV/CBS5 had its helicopter circle the field late in the first half.
The feelings that this saga produced remained as fresh as ever for the parents of Pride football players.
“I was shocked,” said Davee Jacobs, the mother of senior Tristan Kraemer. “When I saw it leaked out on the Ahwatukee Foothills News, my jaw just dropped. I couldn’t believe it. My son’s been playing since he was 5 years old, and I just feel like you robbed not only my son, but everybody else’s son, too.”
For Rashe Hodge, whose son Rashion, a senior, scored a touchdown on Friday night, there was the question of, “Why would someone do that to their own school that they’re coaching at? He must’ve really had something against the coaches, something real personal against one of the coaches or two, and felt like he just wanted to see them lose.”
David Hines, executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, added, “It’s frustration that we have a coach, who’s supposed to be dedicated to working with our kids, that you would turn over information that’s within your own program to other schools. That’s not what we do, that’s not what we’re supposed to be teaching kids.”
What to do now
Hager used a personal email account to send out plays, formations, gameplans, and general team strategy to Mountain Pointe opponents as far back as 2017. It wasn’t until this year’s football season-opening opponent, Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas, alerted Mountain Pointe head coach Rich Wellbrock about the emails that Hager was discovered.
The fact that it took an out-of-state coach to tell Mountain Pointe what was happening is what is most baffling to Hinojosa.
“From a coaching perspective, you were given a big responsibility. You were there to guide these young men,” Hinojosa said. “You’ve got to look at yourself and go, ‘Did I really do the right thing by trying to keep winning?’ Versus being respectful of the game and having the integrity to say, ‘Hey, you know what, I can’t do this. This is something way, way bad that I just cannot do.’
“Unfortunately, it took a coach in Las Vegas, three years later, to say, ‘Hey guys, this is not right. I’m not going to do this.’ It didn’t happen with any of our (Arizona) coaches. None of our coaches had the decency to do that. That’s so wrong, on so many levels.”
It’s that lack of action that has many Mountain Pointe parents wondering what the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) will do, even as the Tempe Union High School District, of which Mountain Pointe is a part of, asks the AIA to investigate the matter.
“I’m kinda curious what the AIA’s endgame is going to be with this,” said Jerome Davis, father of senior Dominique. “Are they looking to try and get some coaches fired? Or are they just trying to find the depth of how deep this actually goes?”
Hinojosa added, “They’re supposed to be the body that protects the kids, right? In the end, what are they going to do? Are they going to turn a blind eye? Are they there just to make sure the schedules are done right, make sure the playoffs are done right, or are they here to actually govern, like they’re supposed to?”
Hinojosa said this is a “very complicated” situation with “a lot of moving parts,” something he and Hines can agree on. But Hines said that, unlike the NCAA at the collegiate level, the AIA does not have an investigative arm, and their current budget doesn’t have the space for one.
“As a member of this association, our schools make up the rules, so the rules that they have in place, as a staff, we manage those rules,” Hines said. “So, I can only manage within the confines of the rules that we have.”
The AIA has done what it can under those bylaws so far, asking the schools to investigate themselves, report any violations they may find back to the AIA. The next steps the association can take will begin at its executive board meeting on Oct. 21.
Tricky punishment questions
Even once they get to that meeting, Hines said the AIA does not have the “jurisdiction for a personnel matter,” so they can’t enforce any actions on a coach who may have behaved improperly. And the only impact that they can levy is not one Hines wants to dole out without caution.
“What’s really kind of hard for people to understand is we cannot overstep our bounds to, say, sanctioning or punishing coaches,” Hines said. “We are only able to deal with this within a program. Unfortunately, if a program is put on violation or probation or not allowed to participate, the kids are affected. That’s really difficult, to have to be in that position.”
Hines said the AIA is about “educational athletics,” and while not specifically stating that they know what will happen with this particular case, there may be something to learn from a penalty the AIA could hand out.
“I don’t like to see kids punished, but one of the things we are about in educational athletics is life lessons,” Hines said. “And unfortunately, these are life lessons that, sometimes, kids are put in position to go, ‘I lost some opportunity because an adult didn’t do what they were supposed to do, so when I become an adult and a leader, I have to do what’s right and do it the very best we can.’ “
Even if the AIA can’t punish coaches specifically, that hasn’t stopped some from calling for coaches to get fired if found to have used the information Hager sent them. But Hinojosa doesn’t think things need to go that far, and said he’d rather see the games they won because of that information stripped from the record books, which could perhaps include a few championships.
“I want them to feel the pain that a lot of these boys felt,” Hinojosa said. “Fix what was broken.”
He also strongly advocated against handing down any punishments to those schools’ current teams, saying that doing so would be, “hurting kids now. This is what happened for a coach prior. I would not want to see them go after the kids and parents of these kids that are playing now, because they really don’t have anything to do with it.”
Any impact that could happen on other programs would just add to Davis’ frustration in the matter, especially with how Arizona’s status in the high school football world has been rising.
“We’ve got a lot of good athletes in Arizona, a lot of good football players, and it’s unfortunate that something like this has to take the forefront,” Davis said. “I think Arizona is finally getting some rep in this college game. We’ve got some pretty good talent out here. Last thing we need is coaches giving plays away.”
The lost trust, the culture of winning
For Ryan Kraemer, Tristan’s father, that possible loss of trust was the most damaging part of this whole thing.
“The fact that someone they’re supposed to trust and believe in can turn on them like that? And it’s not just our players that are affected by it, it’s the other players,” Kraemer said. “Imagine some of the kids that have won state championships or beaten us in the past, they’re going to be questioning themselves. ‘Did I win that legitimately?’ It’s affecting the kids. That’s what’s most frustrating to me.”
Hines said he feels “really bad” that this has happened to the Mountain Pointe community and the kids.
“We’re here to teach, educate, promote and give them great experiences,” Hines said. “When a trusted coach is betraying them and their trust, that’s just inexcusable.”
Because of the nature of this, Hines sees this as an opportunity to remind coaches throughout the state about the importance of integrity in what they’re doing, and to avoid a “win-at-all-cost” mentality.
“We want our coaches and our kids to compete as much as they can,” Hines said. “We want our kids and coaches going into every contest with the belief, ‘We have an opportunity to win, we’re going to try to win.’ However, in the games of sport, there’s someone that wins and someone that doesn’t win.
“Part of that is, can you learn to be a gracious winner? And can also learn to be and have respect, if you’re on the losing end, that on this particular day, I gave everything I had, but they won the game? That’s not a failure, that’s a life lesson.”
And in Hinojosa’s eyes, part of the issues that may have led to this situation comes from the parents having the exact mentality Hines warns against.
“To a degree, I look at the coach and the coach is like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to win,’ but at what cost?” Hinojosa said. “Do you lose your dignity, your respect for the game, and your integrity to win and not lose your job? Or do you lose your job? At the end of the day, you’ve got to look at yourself and really seek everything in your body and go, ‘What would I do?’”
Not letting the story go away
Of all the parts of this story that Hinojosa is most upset about, it is the fact that the other schools in Arizona did not let Mountain Pointe know this was going on.
And the absolutely last thing that the Mountain Pointe community wants is for this story to be brushed aside.
“The parents, players, coaches of the other teams want it to go away, but the parents, players and coaches at Mountain Pointe don’t want this to go away,” Hinojosa said. “They want this to be investigated thoroughly and they want to make sure that everything is done above board and nothing is swept under the rug, like it has been.
“Three years, we didn’t know these coaches were getting our stuff. Three years, they swept it under the rug. We want to make sure that the governing body, the AIA, makes sure that this doesn’t get swept under the rug by them, as well. Because it’s not fair to any of us.”
But while the AIA cannot investigate the matter themselves at this time, make no mistake, Hines wants this situation resolved as completely as possible, no matter how long it takes.
“We’re not interested in sweeping this under the rug,” Hines said. “We take every situation and every bit of information that comes to us seriously. What we don’t want is to have repetitive occurrences of these types of things.”
For now, the schools throughout the Valley will continue to self-investigate and report their findings to the AIA, who will prepare for its mid-October board meeting and proceed from there. After rejecting Hager’s resignation last week, the Tempe Union High School District will proceed with Hager’s termination process, which will include a meeting with Hager.
And Mountain Pointe will continue to play football games, as it did Sept. 20 at Hamilton. It will play at Queen Creek High School on Friday before returning back to Mountain Pointe on Oct. 4 for its first home game since the story broke.
And for Sawitzke and Jacobs, the positive takeaway is that all this drama has brought the Mountain Pointe community closer together.
“We have a great group of parents and a great community around this program to begin with,” Sawitzke said. “There’s a lot of really great history here at Mountain Pointe, but I really feel like that has been taken to another level here this week.”
Jacobs added, “We’re Mountain Pointe Pride for a reason. We come together. This isn’t going to keep us down. We’re always going to rally behind our players, just like always.”
– Video by Anthony Totri/Cronkite News