TEMPE – It’s been more than a month since Mountain Pointe football coach Rich Wellbrock came to the ultimate discovery that an assistant on his team, Justin Hager, was sending out game plans, strategies and information to Pride opponents.
It’s been more than two weeks since the scandal broke publicly, Sept. 16, and brought all the media attention to his program, even as he and his team didn’t comment.
But with the Tempe Union High School District having started termination proceedings for Hager on Wednesday, Wellbrock spoke to the media for the first time on Thursday and stressed that he and his team are ready to move on.
“We’ve got to keep going. Every Friday keeps coming, no matter what,” Wellbrock said. “We’ve just kept going and kept grinding.”
The school district’s four-person governing board was unanimous in its move to end Hager’s employment at Mountain Pointe, which would go into effect 10 days after the night of the vote unless Hager requests a hearing. In conjunction with the vote, the district released its discipline file, in which it was disclosed that Wellbrock had heard from a coach at Brophy Prep about the email account Hager was using to send plays, but he “assumed it was a disgruntled parent” at the time.
When asked about the Brophy coach on Thursday, Wellbrock admitted that, even with a typical football coach’s high levels of skepticism, he couldn’t conceive what was actually occurring.
“You think about things like that, but there’s every coach that’s a little bit paranoid. I’m sure some coaches that hear, when I say that, they’ll smile with that,” Wellbrock said. “We’re worried about certain cars in the parking lot and things of that nature, but you think about it and it kind of goes away because you don’t really think that something is happening like this.”
Hager was unavailable for comment.
According to the discipline file, Wellbrock was tipped off by Mountain Pointe’s season-opening opponent, Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas, that emails were still being sent from the account in question. Wellbrock then asked the coach of the Pride’s next opponent, Dana Zupke of Pinnacle High School, if he had received any emails before their Friday, Aug. 30 game. Zupke said he had and he sent screenshots the next day, which came from the same email account as the others.
Later that day, Wellbrock’s son, Griffin, discovered the email account’s recovery email address as Hager’s school district email, leading Wellbrock to confront Hager three days later on Sept. 3. Wellbrock had an access code sent to the email account, which popped up on Hager’s phone. When the code did not work on two tries, Wellbrock had a code sent to Hager’s district email and asked to get Hager’s phone to enter the code himself, which worked to access the other email account.
Hager was asked to leave pending an investigation, having his laptop confiscated at the time. After two meetings with district and Mountain Pointe officials, Hager admitted the email account was his and offered his resignation on Sept. 13, which the district board rejected on Sept. 18, two days after the story broke in the Ahwatukee Foothills News.
During all this time, Wellbrock said he’s been proud of the way his assistant coaches and players have weathered the “storm” of attention this unprecedented story has brought to their program.
“This was one of those situations where … I’ve talked to very few people during this time. There was no playbook for this,” Wellbrock said. “It’s one of those things where we’ve talked to our kids, we’ve stepped certain kids away to see how they’re feeling about it, but the biggest thing is, ‘It’s just adversity. How do we fight through that?’ One of the things I’ve always said, even after a tough loss, is, ‘If this is one of the worst things that happens in our lives, we’re going to be fine.’ That’s what we’ve stayed with and tried to keep grinding.”
Wellbrock said the team has done multiple team building activities after the news broke and plans on doing more during their bye week next week, hoping to maintain the trust in the current coaches that Hager may have damaged.
“This is a time where the relationships we build with our kids is of the utmost importance, and letting them know that there’s trusted adults there for them,” Wellbrock said. “We hope that we do that every day, not just when stuff like this happens.”