By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
A district judge granted an order Friday reinstating Clovis High School basketball coach J.D. Isler.
The order hits the pause button on his year-long suspension by the New Mexico Activities Association, and subsequent termination as a coach by Clovis Municipal Schools. He is expected to coach at tonight’s game in Plainview, Texas.
Judge Teddy Hartley said he was granting the temporary order to avoid further damages to Isler and Lathan Lieb, a junior transfer on the basketball team.
“Whatever would have been in place absent the investigation,” Hartley said, “will be in effect.”
Hartley did not set a date for the next hearing.
CMS Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm has said NMAA accused Isler of recruiting violations and said he was suspended by the NMAA from coaching duties for the remainder of the academic year. CMS has terminated Isler as a coach, though he’s been retained as a teacher.
Lieb, who transferred from Dora this school year, was awaiting a ruling from NMAA on his eligibility to play on CHS’ varsity boys basketball team. He has not played a varsity game for Clovis.
Hartley said his decision to issue an injunction was based on a desire to be fair while he takes time to understand the positions of the parties and the dynamics of the situation.
“I don’t want to say the schools can’t fire an at-will employee, or that the coach can’t coach or the kid can’t play,” he said.
“I’m going to leave this open until such time as I can better understand those things. …”
NMAA, through its attorney, said Friday it conducted an investigation and made CMS aware of the findings, issuing sanctions against Isler and fining CMS $2,000 for investigation fees.
The school had the option to support Isler and fight the finding through an appeal, but made an independent choice to terminate Isler as coach, NMAA attorney Mark Geiger told the court.
Isler’s job as a teacher was not at issue. Seidenwurm said he would remain on the teaching staff but would only be paid a portion of his $4,000 coaching stipend for this year.
Friday morning, Isler’s attorney, Warren Frost, filed a petition with the 9th Judicial District Court asking the coaching suspension be halted.
“My guy wants to coach and he’s not a cheater,” Frost told the court.
Hartley gave time to attorneys for Isler, the NMAA and CMS to present their positions at Friday’s hearing but stopped them short of presenting evidence.
“Lets focus on whether or not it’s appropriate to issue a temporary restraining order,” Hartley said.
Dave Richards, attorney for CMS, argued the schools have every right to terminate Isler, stating he is under contract with the schools as an at-will employee and subject to termination without the schools having to show cause.
“Our position is that there’s really nothing for this court to decide,” Richards said.
Hartley said the next hearing will likely be in two to three weeks.
Isler said in his petition the NMAA sanctioned him because it said he broke the rules by meeting with Lieb in the summer to discuss his possible move from Dora to Clovis.
In the two meetings he had with Lieb and the player’s father, Isler said he was clear that in no way was he making any promises or guarantees Lieb would be accepted on the team or the extent he might play if he moved to Clovis.
The NMAA has not said Lieb’s case is the cause of the investigation and has declined to comment on any evidence it has gathered in support of its findings.
Lieb told the CNJ on Thursday that Isler in no way recruited him or enticed him to move to Clovis.
The NMAA offices are closed until Jan. 4. Communications Director Robert Zayas, reached via cell phone outside the NMAA offices, said off the top of his head he could only remember one other coach given a similar suspension over the last decade.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” Zayas said.
Clovis is 3-2 this season, with one loss by forfeit.
The Wildcats forfeited a 72-28 season-opening win over Portales because Deven Crockett, who had six points and three rebounds, was later ruled ineligible for not meeting transfer requirements. Crockett, who lived in Clovis two seasons ago, transferred to a Texas school, then returned to Clovis this school year, is now eligible to play.
Isler is in his ninth season and is 169-59 at Clovis.