The job of stewarding a Power 5 football program is no small one. Neal Brown knew that when he signed the contract that made him West Virginia University’s coach. The full weight of that job hit him square in the face this week.
Defensive back Kerry Martin Jr. came forward Tuesday with claims that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning had made several insensitive remarks in front of him and other players about different religions, races and people with special needs. Koenning now sits on administrative leave as an investigation into those claims runs its course. That investigation likely will determine whether Koenning – Brown’s defensive coordinator for as long as Brown has been a head coach – remains under WVU’s employ.
It’s not hyperbole to say that the future of WVU football under Brown is at stake right now, and depends heavily on how Brown and the rest of the university administration handles this situation. The wrong move could send the team past a point of no return.
Brown probably never thought the toughest span of his Mountaineer tenure would come before he even coached his second season on the sideline, but here he is. On one side, he has Martin, who has gone very public with some very disappointing claims. And several of Martin’s teammates have been just as public in their support of him.
On the other side is Koenning. Brown invited him back to Troy himself to run Brown’s defense. Koenning was an integral part of Brown’s success at Troy. When Brown was introduced as WVU’s coach in 2019, not only did he announce that day that Koenning was going to run his defense, Koenning was in the WVU football meeting room taking questions from the media.
So a coach Brown has put a lot of trust in has been accused of saying things during his time in Morgantown that have made several players uncomfortable. Brown said Wednesday he believes the process will move quickly, yet more important than being quick, it must be thorough, especially since there have been two public discrepancies of Martin’s claims.
In his Twitter statement Tuesday, Martin said his former Capital High coach Jon Carpenter told him that Koenning had a “slave master mentality.” Carpenter doesn’t recall using that phrase in discussing Koenning with Martin. Martin also claimed he had approached Brown before about “mistreatment” from Koenning. In a letter Tuesday night, Brown wrote the first time he heard about these issues was on Twitter.
That second discrepancy is the most important. Did Martin come to Brown with his concerns before? Or did Brown’s introduction to those concerns come via social media? That answer is crucial to Brown’s ability to maintain his players’ trust.
Martin’s allegations are significant. He claimed Koenning “antagonized” former teammate Derrek Pitts about his Muslim faith and when Koenning learned Martin converted to Islam, read Martin Bible verses.
He claimed Koenning called him “retarded” after a mistake in a position drill. He claimed Koenning said in one position meeting that President Donald Trump should “build the wall to keep Hispanics out” of the United States. He claimed in another meeting that Koenning said “if people did not want to get tear gassed or push back from police then they shouldn’t be outside protesting.”
So Martin accused Koenning of invalidating players’ belief systems, using a word no parent with a special needs child would tolerate and bringing politics into the position room. If there is a swath of the roster that is uncomfortable with Koenning, that’s an environment where it will be difficult for him to return.
But there may be a chance that Koenning could return. Martin said he apologized to him following his comment about protesters. Koenning issued an apology via Twitter on Wednesday evening and said he “never intended anything I said or did to offend or be insensitive. But KJ’s Tweet reminded me that sometimes intent is not clearly communicated.” Koenning said this was an opportunity for him to “listen, learn and improve.” And Martin himself said that Koenning “is not a bad person, but his thoughts and beliefs are misled.”
Regardless of whether Koenning remains WVU’s defensive coordinator, plenty needs to change within the Mountaineer football program. Could you describe Koenning as an “old-school” football coach? Sure, but the old-school set needs a software update for 2020, even if they have to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. Words and phrases that were used without a second thought 20, 10 or even five years ago are off-limits now.
It’s not about being a “snowflake” or kowtowing to political correctness. It’s about respect for a fellow human being. A coach can be hard-nosed without using words that make him national news.
And while Brown said Wednesday that he had an “open door” policy of communication with his players, the athletic department as a whole should discuss whether that policy allows student-athletes to feel like they’re truly being heard. That way, they may not feel like they’re forced to social media to affect change.
There is great potential in Brown and the WVU football program, which makes the outcome of this situation extremely important. The solution must be one that allows players, coaches and staff to move forward together. Any splintering could slam the brakes on the program’s progress.
It’s no simple task, but Brown knew life in the Big 12 was never going to be easy.