The University of New Mexico announced on Wednesday that head volleyball coach Jeff Nelson’s contract, which ends in January 2019, will not be renewed.
The team is coming off a third straight .500 season and has struggled to replicate Nelson’s early success at New Mexico, when the team had three top three finishes in the conference in his first four years.
In an official statement released on Wednesday, Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez said, "We appreciate Jeff's dedication and 12 years of service in leading our volleyball program. However, I have decided that in the best interest of the program, we needed to make a change and have new leadership. We wish Coach Nelson all the best in his future endeavors."
Described as one of the winningest coaches in program history on UNM’s website, Nelson’s legacy with the program is far more complex than just wins and losses.
He received a reprimand from the Mountain West in November for his conduct toward officials during a match against San Jose State on the road. The reprimand was for obscene language or unduly provocative gestures.
His personal conduct has also been reported by his players and University employees.
In the past two years, the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO), which handles all reported instances of discrimination based on a protected status (race, age, gender, etc.) at the University, opened two inquiries regarding his conduct toward players, according to documents obtained by the Daily Lobo.
As of the publication of this article, the Daily Lobo was unable to find out how Nelson’s cases were resolved due to University policy and the closed-door-nature these matters are treated with. The public has no means of verifying outcomes of cases regarding alleged misconduct, or to any indication of how seriously the allegations were taken.
Nelson and OEO
The first OEO inquiry occurred in October of 2016. Retired chief of staff, Amy Wohlert, called OEO to report concerns regarding Nelson she had heard from students.
Redactions are often used to protect the names of students involved, pursuant to The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) policy established by the federal government. Under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) policies, the records custodian must included a written statement indicating that all redactions were related to FERPA.
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The summary of Wohlert’s call to OEO said Nelson was allegedly “psychologically and emotionally abusive” towards the players, and that he had made the team cry after a loss in California.
“Members of the team have stated ‘we gotta win or we don’t get fed,’” the report said. “Nelson isolates the players from friends and family and shames them in front of others.”
The case was determined not to be in OEO’s jurisdiction and passed on to the Athletic Department. It’s unclear from the documents what course of action the department took. When asked, Athletic Department officials refused to comment.
Exit interviews with athletes in April 2016 obtained by the Daily Lobo described Nelson’s alleged, often contradictory conduct toward players.
“Head coach is ‘two different people,’ intense on the court and nice off the court but this year has been better after Janice (Ruggiero, the Deputy Athletic Director for Internal Operations) talked to him,” an unnamed player said in the report.
Exit interviews do not contain any specific information about the players speaking to Athletics officials beyond the sport they play.
Ruggiero did not respond to attempts for comment.
The second report was filed in October of 2018, almost two years to the day from when the first report was opened and reported by Ruggiero. The primary issue listed on this case was sexual violence and sexual misconduct, making it within OEO’s jurisdiction. A redacted account also reported that Nelson bullied team members and discussed their families in front of the team.
The complaint of sexual misconduct is mostly redacted, but appears to stem from a question that Nelson asked an unnamed party. While it’s unclear if it is the same party, one individual also said they hoped (Nelson) would “get fired.” What specifically this comment refers to is not clear.
The complaint was withdrawn after Athletics spoke with a redacted party who said it was a misunderstanding. The party also emailed OEO the same statement and said they did not wish to be contacted, and the case was closed.
When asked about the outcome of the second investigation in 2018, OEO Director Francie Cordova said the OEO would need to further review the case to give specifics.
“I don’t know there are so many hundreds of them that I cannot tell you the specifics on any one case,” Cordova said.
Cordova told the Daily Lobo if a case does not fall within OEO’s jurisdiction of discrimination — but instead is more like a “hostile work environment” — it can be closed, but the conduct may still be referred to Human Resources for evaluation. She also said OEO conducts joint investigations with Human Resources.
If cases are not found to be in OEO’s jurisdiction, they do not interview the respondents.
Nelson told the Daily Lobo through text messages on Thursday the inquiries against him were unsubstantiated.
“I have no comment. However if you write about (the investigations) do your homework well as both were found to be without merit,” Nelson wrote. “I wish the players and the other coaches I have worked with all the best. I have never dealt with OEO ever. (By the way). I have always cooperated with Unm (sic).”
Asked who would be best to talk to about the investigations, Nelson referred the Daily Lobo to Chris Baca, the interim director for the Lobo Center for Student-Athlete Success, and Ed Manzanares, associate Athletics Director for Sports Administration — his former supervisor.
Baca said she had no comment and referred the Daily Lobo to department communications. Manzanares said he was not allowed to speak on personnel matters and referred the Daily Lobo to UNM Human Resources for comment, as “they were the group we worked with.”
Amber Bailey, the strategic support manager for Human Resources, told the Daily Lobo there were no responsive documents for the Nelson request and said the department does not comment on outcomes or personnel matters.
“No, if anything had occurred we would not release that information,” Bailey said. “We don’t comment on personnel matters.”
The three conditions Human Resources uses for closing an investigation are:
- When an investigation report is sent to an administrator to recommend action
- When an complaint cannot be substantiated
- When a complaint has insufficient details and no resolution can be recommended
None of these significantly different outcomes are available for public review, meaning the Daily Lobo cannot access the information required to confirm or deny Nelson’s account.
Nuñez did not respond to attempts for comment on OEO investigations against coaches or further inquiry regarding an outside risk management firm. A member of his office told the Daily Lobo Nuñez had stepped out for a meeting but said “he’s seen the email, if he’s interested, he’ll respond.”
Assistant Athletic Director of Communications, Frank Mercogliano, told the Daily Lobo that all questions would have to be answered by Nuñez.
“I can only give you my take on things. I know there are some folks who think ‘well, morale’s down’ but I think morale is fine here,” Mercogliano said. “I love coming to work here.”
When pressed on the multiple OEO investigations that coaches have faced within the past year, Mercogliano told the Daily Lobo: “I’m not involved with any of that stuff. It’s really out of my area.”
When asked at the women’s basketball game on Wednesday if the OEO investigation had any impact on the non-renewal, Nuñez told the Daily Lobo they had nothing to do with his decision.
“My decision is based on my overall assessment that we needed a change,” Nuñez said.
Dan Beebe’s mission involves changing the culture of college athletics. He does this through his firm, The Dan Beebe Group.
Subsequent investigation by the Daily Lobo found UNM had contracted the former Big 12 commissioner and his company for independent human relations risk management — anything from harassment, discrimination, bullying, violations of the NCAA, sexual misconduct, among others.
The first reference to the group the Daily Lobo found was an email between OEO investigators in the October 2018 investigation into Nelson’s conduct.
In July 2016, Louisiana State University officials said they hired the Dan Beebe group ahead of sexual assault scandals, according to The Advocate. LSU paid $30,000 for the services.
Nuñez was deputy director of LSU athletics at the time.
Back in March of 2018, an agreement was signed by the University and BMT Risk Management for a four-phase service plan to “assist (UNM) to maintain an effective human relations risk management program and culture that helps foster safe work, educational and athletics environments” for student athletes, staff and coaches, according to the contract obtained by the Daily Lobo.
There are four phases to be completed by the 2018-19 academic year. The cost (which did not specify if travel or other expenses would be paid) is reported as $25,000 broken into three categories. It appears Phases III and IV are combined for the payment stage.
- Phase I Independent Human Relations Risk Assessment™ is $8,000.
- Phase II Has specific training sessions for football, Head Coach, entire football staff and student athletes costs $7,000.
- Phase III Independent training Forums™ cost $10,000.
It is unclear what phase of the contract The Dan Beebe Group is currently in, although Phase IV occurs over two days in the summer and fall of 2018 and one day in spring of 2019, according to the contract.
When filing multiple records requests regarding the Dan Beebe Group in late November, Nuñez told the Daily Lobo the department expected an update in January.
The Daily Lobo requested correspondence with and about the Dan Beebe Group and BMT Risk Management, contracts with the University and “any and all reports” that may have been given to individual staff at UNM by the Dan Beebe Group.
The University IPRA office responded to the reports request, writing there were “no public records responsive to your request.”
According to the contract, The Independent Assessment (in Phase I) was recommended to be “completed by spring/summer 2018,” and was meant to “verify personnel and student policies and practices suggestions” for fostering safer work environments.
Nuñez has not responded to questions asking if the report is available.
This is not the first time outside firms have been brought in to look at the Athletics Department and coach misconduct.
In 2018, head football coach Bob Davie was suspended for 30 days after a report by Hogan, Marron, Babbo & Rose, a Chicago law firm that investigated a range of claims against him for $24,292. Another investigation this past summer was done by Helen Grant Consulting — paid $6,000 — that determined the Athletics Department was not compliant with Title IX.
Associate head coach Pauline Manser, who has been on Nelson’s staff since 2015, will remain with the program through the transition and serve as interim head coach for the upcoming beach season. Manser is a former Lobo player from 1988 to 1991.
When asked if there was any consideration to keep Nelson through the end of the beach volleyball season on a month-to-month basis, as the department did while it worked out a new contract with baseball coach Ray Birmingham, Nuñez said no, and added that they were two different situations.
A nationwide search will be conducted to determine the next head coach for UNM Volleyball. No search firm will be involved in the hunt. Nelson will remain head coach until his contract officially expires on Jan. 31, 2019.
Cameron Goeldner is a senior reporter and photographer for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s soccer, women’s basketball, softball and the Albuquerque Isotopes, but also contributes content for all other sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Goeldfinger.
Danielle Prokop is a senior reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @ProkopDani.