New coach was charged with assault and faced $240,000 lawsuit, yet the school that hired him didn’t realize it

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

It was supposed to be a brilliant hire, a former player who had a high profile collegiate career and had since dedicated himself to ensuring that his student athletes were as committed to their studies as their scoring averages. What Portland (Ore.) Roosevelt High athletic director Glenn Elliot didn't plan on was the coach nearly having a criminal record.

Rigo Nunez (rear) with his former coach John Calipari at UMass — AP
Rigo Nunez (rear) with his former coach John Calipari at UMass — AP

As noted by the Portland Oregonian, Elliot and Roosevelt in general have found themselves in hot water after it was revealed that former UMass guard Rigo Nunez, Roosevelt's new boys basketball coach who once played alongside Marcus Camby on the UMass squad which reached the Final Four, was charged with assault following an altercation in an adult recreational basketball league more than a year ago.

The incident in question reportedly occurred in April 2011, when Nunez made contact with 35-year-old Geoff Rice, knocking him unconscious in the closing minutes of a game.

That Rice was knocked completely unconscious is not in question. Precisely how he was knocked out is, with Rice claiming that he was intentionally hit in the head by Nunez's elbow or fist. The new Roosevelt coach, meanwhile, contends that the contact came in the normal flow of a game, and that the entire ordeal was a misunderstanding. The issue has since been settled out of court.

"I didn't punch this guy. I didn't elbow this guy," Nunez told the Oregonian. "I was doing a cut to get open. He turned at the same time I was turning, and I didn't even have a chance to open my palms, so we collided. He ran right into my hand. I was lifting my hand.

"It was just a freaky accident. What happened was something that you would do every single time on a basketball court."

If the accident truly was that, it still had severe consequences for Rice. The victim of the contact, intentional or not, told police that he suffered from headaches and short term memory loss for weeks after the incident took place. He also had to undergo both dental and nasal surgery to rectify health issues that emerged following the concussion that befell him.

Those medical bills reportedly totaled some $240,000, leading to a lawsuit against Nunez to help defray those medical damages. While the settlement between the two parties was never reported, Nunez told the Oregonian that his medical insurance agreed to pay Nunez $35,000 … after the new coach had already incurred $20,000 in legal bills defending himself.

The incident may not seem to be a particularly damaging to Nunez or Elliot's overall reputation -- the coach's explanation for the incident is certainly believable enough, whether it is entirely accurate or not -- it does raise interesting questions about the school district's hiring process. How is it possible that an incident that led to an assault charge (albeit a misdemeanor) and led to the brink of a public trial could have slipped by all questioning by district officials? It doesn't make sense.

To its credit, the school district insists that it had a criminal background check performed on Nunez before officially hiring him, but that the check didn't turn up any irregularities. If that's the case, perhaps it's the firm that performs the checks that warrants further inspection.

Then again, many Roosevelt supporters have felt that much of Elliot's decision to bring in a new coach didn't make a lot of sense. The school reached the quarterfinals of the state playoffs last winter under highly respected coach Robert Key, a man who was also named Portland Interscholastic Association League coach of the year in 2011-12.

There's good logic behind that criticism, too: If an administrator is going to fire a sitting coach of the year, he better have an even better man or woman coming in.

It's entirely possible that Nunez will prove to be exactly that man. For now, he and the man who hired him find themselves having to answer some fairly difficult questions that they may not have anticipated when Nunez first agreed to take on a head coaching role for the first time.

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