Jason Hooten takes over New Mexico State men's basketball program

New Mexico State hires former Sam Houston State coach to stabilize hoops program

Jason Groves
Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES - Mario Moccia said the first time Jason Hooten landed on his radar was two years ago when Hooten’s Sam Houston State team beat Chris Jans’s New Mexico State team by 25 points.

“He was not going to take the foot off the gas,” Moccia said during Sunday’s introduction press conference at the Pan American Center. “He was doing an interview in the stands and I went up and waited an said, ‘I’m the athletic director at New Mexico State and he said, I know who you are,’” Moccia said. “I just wanted to tell you congratulations because nobody beats us like that. … I really started to follow him from that point on for really an entire year.”

Hooten emerged as the favorite from the early stages of Moccia’s latest coaching search, and although it may have put Aggies fans on edge when he left a campus visit last week without a finalized deal, the reasons Hooten laid out for the delay display why he’s the right person to right the ship at New Mexico State.

Jason Hooten, the new NMSU basketball head coach, smiles during a news conference on Sunday, March 26, 2023, at the Pan American Center.

Hooten gave Moccia an indication on Thursday that he would likely take the Aggies job, but he took until Friday to make the final decision along with his wife, Kristen.

“I wanted to go home and wanted to sit at my house because I felt like that was going to be the hardest thing to do was to make that decision while I was sitting at my house that Kristen and I built four years ago,” said Hooten, who became the 28th head coach in program history after 19 years at Sam Houston State and 13 seasons as the head coach at SHSU. “I just said, ‘Man, this is what I want to do so we made that decision,’”

Hooten was introduced on Sunday at the Pan American Center in front of at least 1,000 supporters.

“It’s just exciting to know that people care that much,” Hooten said. “We came in here this year and there were 5,000 or 6,000 people for a team that wasn’t doing great yet. I just kept telling myself, what if we put a team on the floor that everybody is total excited about? What if we pack this place? It was a challenge to me.”

Rebuilding Aggies basketball

One of those in attendance on Sunday was Mary Henson.

“To think that someday, I would coach where Lou Henson coached, I don’t know if I’m ever worthy of him and the job he did here and other places, but we are sure going to try,” Hooten said.

Hooten takes over a NM State program rich in tradition, but coming off a season that included two off court incidents that ultimately cost Heiar his job and cancelled the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Hooten’s defensive minded Sam Houston State team was the No. 1 seed for the Western Athletic Conference Tournament and won a Postseason NIT first-round game.

“As coaches you are always looking at a team or look at what is going on and think maybe A, B or C could be better or whatever the case may be,” Hooten said. “It was a very talented team but just maybe a team you felt like needed to go in a different direction. I think that is the exciting thing about coming here being able to establish a program and a culture and take in a direction that it needs to be.”

Hooten is a native Texan who played basketball and started his career at Tarleton State. Other than possibly coaching at his alma mater recently, Hooten’s name rarely surfaced for other job openings despite his success.

“More than anything, change is hard,” Hooten said. “I have an eighth grader and my daughter is a junior.

“It was going to be hard. But just knowing this is such a great basketball program. What can you do with the resources? I keep telling myself that. This opportunity doesn’t always come. Maybe now that they need someone like me was as good a time as any.”

Hooten was 261-169 as a head coach over 13 seasons. He has led SHSU to the Postseason NIT twice, including this past season where he lost in the second round. Hooten won the Southland regular season in 2018-19 and his team went 27-9 since joining the Western Athletic Conference two years ago. Sam Houston State was the No. 1 seed in the WAC Tournament in March after going 14-4 in league play this season.

The former Sam Houston State coach will enter Conference USA next season at New Mexico State as the Aggies enter CUSA, as well.

“All institutions are different and we have less stuff than others, but this is a place that maybe has more stuff than his previous place,” Moccia said. “I think that coupled with the person he is, the teams he’s been able to put together, for me, this was kind of my target all along.”

The majority of last year’s Aggies roster has already entered the transfer portal, but building a roster in modern college sports has been accelerated with the development of the transfer portal and NIL deals with college players.

“They have some things here that I wanted and some things that I think will help us," Hooten said.

Members of last year’s Aggies coaching staff were placed on administrative leave in February and their contracts expire at the end of April, but school investigations into both a November shooting that involved player Mike Peake, and alleged hazing incidents that came to light in February, as well as Hooten’s input, will dictate which players and coaches could potentially return.

“The status from the  student athletes from last year have not all been decided so when they are (Hooten) will know who could be on the team and may not be able to be on the team and (Hooten) will certainly have free reign to build a program," Moccia said.

“The university has a process. Some of the coaches and staff are on paid administrative leave and when they are off that status, it will be Coach Hooten’s decision.”

Hooten told the Sun-News he has a good idea who he will add to his staff, which could include his long time associate head coach, Chris Mudge. Hooten will have an assistant coach salary pool of $300,000 next season - up from from $250,000 last season.

"Just like I did when (former SHSU coach Bob Marlin) left, he left in 2010 when we went to the NCAA Tournament, Coach Mudge deserves that opportunity," Hooten said. "There will be no one happier than me if he gets it and no one happier than me if he ends up coming here and being with us. He's been with me for 13 years and he's a great coach.

"I know we need to sign a lot of guys. The number we need I don’t know yet and is something I will do in the next couple days because we have to get moving. I would like to have a good mix of high school, junior college and portal guys and that will always be our philosophy."

Contract details

Hooten is the fourth men’s basketball coach Moccia has hired at NM State. Three of the four coaching hires he made were assistant coaches looking for their first head coaching job and Jans was in the process of rehabilitating his career at the time when Moccia hired him for a base salary under $300,000 per year.

“The time I felt it was critically important to have someone who had been a head coach,” Moccia said. “There is a is a tremendous need to probably rebuild the roster and establish a culture. When you are looking at assistants, it’s a lot easier because there are a lot of them that want the job. When you zero in on head coaches, it’s more behind scenes and a little more being delicate.”

Hooten’s buyout at Sam Houston State is approximately $50,000.

Hooten signed a five-year contract with salary ranging from $425,000 next season, increasing to $450,000 the next two seasons and $475,000 for the final two seasons.

Hooten is the first Aggies basketball coach to receive a base salary over $400,000 since the end of Marvin Menzies’ tenure. Heiar’s base salary was $300,000.

“Two things that helped us were moving to Conference USA provides us a better sense of allocation from the conference itself,” Chancellor Dan Arvizu said. “It provided additional recurring budget for all programs. … It was important for us to be competitive and we looked at the salaries for various Conference USA members.”Due to circumstances at the school last season, Hooten’s contract has guard rails connected to Moccia’s status as the AD moving forward.

Moccia has just over a year remaining on his current contract and the university will replace Arvizu after his contract expires this summer.

As a result, one year will be added to Hooten’s contract if:

  1. Moccia is no longer the Director of Athletics during the team
  2. Any and every year that the men’s basketball program is not eligible to participate in post season tournaments for matters originating or occurring prior to Monday.

Under voluntary termination of Hooten's contract, the coach agrees to pay the following damages if he leaves:

  • Contract Year 1: $750,000
  • Contract Year 2: $500,000
  • Contract Year 3: $250,000
  • Contract Year 4: $150,000
  • Contract Year 5 and after: $50,000

If either Moccia or Associate Athletic Director Braun Cartwright is not the AD at any time during the term, the liquidated damages amount drops to zero.

“It is not atypical that a head coach would want to know who the athletic director is or for the athletic director to know who his boss is,” Moccia said. “I think at this point in time of Aggie Basketball and the fact that he was leaving a place where he and his family were for 19 years, that was important to him to know there was some stability in the athletic department.”

Jason Groves can be reached at 575-541-5459 or jgroves@lcsun-news.com. Follow him on Twitter @jpgroves.