LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KTSM) – Like many people who watched the events of the last year within the New Mexico State men’s basketball program unfold from afar, new NMSU head coach Jason Hooten was surprised by what went on.

Hooten was the head coach at Sam Houston during the 2022-23 season and saw as a former WAC foe had its season cancelled in February after multiple scandals under former head coach Greg Heiar.

“A lot of surprise more than anything that something like that happened, more than anything,” Hooten said, before turning the question on himself. “Maybe you look at it as a challenge of if you were the head coach and if you were in charge of the program, what would I have done differently and what would we have done to prevent some things?”

It’s a fair question and one that coaches around the country likely asked themselves as scandal after scandal embroiled NMSU under Heiar.

There was a fight at a UNM-NMSU football game Las Cruces in October of 2022, pitting NMSU players against University of New Mexico students that ultimately led to a deadly shooting in Albuquerque on Nov. 19, 2022.

19-year-old UNM student Brandon Travis was killed in the shooting and former NMSU forward Mike Peake was injured after he was broke curfew and was allegedly set up and attacked by Travis and two other UNM students in retaliation for the football game fight. Surveillance footage that captured the incident shows what police said in their initial report: that Travis shot first and Peake fired back in self-defense.

Three UNM students have been charged with multiple crimes in that case; no one from NMSU has been charged, though it is still being investigated by the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office.

If that wasn’t enough, NMSU’s season was cancelled Feb. 12 with six games remaining and Greg Heiar fired after serious hazing and sexual assault accusations were made by an NMSU player against three of his teammates.

More details regarding that came to light last week in a lawsuit filed by former NMSU players Deuce Benjamin, Shakiru Odunewu and Deuce’s father, William Benjamin Senior. The trio are suing the NMSU Board of Regents; Heiar and former associate head coach Dominique Taylor; and former NMSU players Kim Aiken Jr., Doctor Bradley and Deshawndre Washington, citing alleged sexual assaults that began in the summer of 2022, that the coaches allegedly knew about and never stopped or reported.

The lawsuit case has also been turned over by the Dona Ana County District Attorney’s office to the New Mexico Attorney General, which is currently reviewing it for possible criminal charges as well.

With all that as a backdrop, Hooten has taken over the program with ideas of getting the program back on track and doing it the right way.

“You feel sorry for a lot of people when stuff like that happens. As a coach, you know what your culture is and what you would do in those situations,” Hooten said.

Hooten will have a tall task to fix the image of a tarnished program that just one year ago won an NCAA Tournament game, but he’s already started the process of doing so.

He’s hired three assistant coaches (Kenneth Mangrum, Payne Andrus, Zach Settembre), plus a graduate assistant (Terryonte Thomas), all of whom are already in Las Cruces and helping Hooten get started. He’d like to add two more assistants to the fold.

The Aggies have signed three players for Hooten’s first NMSU squad (Keylon Dorsey, Jaden Harris, Monzy Jackson), with 10 more spots to fill as he completely overhauls the roster.

That was a big point for Hooten when he took the job, too. If he was to rebuild the program, he wanted to do it his way, the same way he won over 250 games in 13 years as the head coach at Sam Houston. It’s a hard-nosed coaching style, but Hooten has won over players that way and has never had any apparent issues.

It’s a tough task to rebuild a team with 13 entirely new players, but it’s one Hooten is up for and something he felt was necessary at the end of the day.

“This may be one of the only teams that’s ever had to do that,” Hooten said. “It’s a challenge, I knew there was a chance coming in that that might happen, but I think it’s best for everyone involved. It’s tough; we’re trying to build everything brick-by-brick, position-by-position. There’s probably people on the outside saying that there’s no way we can get it done. That fuels your fire and makes you want to do even better.”

At his introductory press conference in late March, Hooten talked at length about how important culture is to him and how hard he’ll work to instill a positive culture within the NMSU program.

It’s easier said than done, but Hooten always managed to do it at Sam Houston. At a school with a rabid basketball fanbase like NMSU, he’ll have more resources than he’s ever had to make it happen. However, that won’t change how Hooten has always put teams together as a head coach and a positive culture has always been at the forefront.

“You have to look at my track record and who I am and what I’m about. That’s the culture. It’s all about who you have around you and you have to live that on a daily basis,” Hooten said. “There can’t be any slippage. Culture is hard work to gain and build, but it’s also hard work to maintain it. In this day and age, with social media and all these different things, I think culture nowadays is a word that’s loosely used, but one that’s more important than ever. You have to live it.”