The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly placed some unwanted restrictions on journalism.
In a way, what I do is fraudulent. I bring you stories nearly every day quoting WVU football coach Neal Brown, a man whom, because of the limitations of this year, I haven’t even met. Not in person, anyway.
I haven’t shaken his hand — even if that were allowed these days. Never made small talk. None of that. I’m just a face — one of many — that appears on a video call every week and asks questions about his football team. Unless of course my stepdaughter is schooling at home at the kitchen table and I have to use a black screen with my name on to hide the fact that I’m working from my bed. 2020, right?
It certainly compromises things. Building relationships is an important part of being a journalist. But while I have my fair share of weaknesses in my profession, as we all do, one strength has always been the ability to read people.
I’ve learned a lot about Brown this year and, in particular, the last few days.
There is a genuineness to Brown that’s rare to detect among coaches these days, especially as media restrictions have tightened and the reporter-to-coach relationship has continued to become less and less personal. You can hear it in his weekly praising and recognition of the fans and his penchant for owning up to his mistakes when they occur.
That sincerity seeps through in press conferences — his professionalism is often unable to mask the emotions underneath. You can hear it after tough losses (see Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas press conferences) and after big wins (see Baylor and Kansas State).
But any underlying jubilation or happiness was missing after his Mountaineers knocked off TCU 24-6 Saturday in Morgantown. There was no lighthearted joking or suppressed grin. His eyes were largely vacant.
And it’s understandable, if you’ve been keeping track of college football news over the last week.
Last Thursday, Kentucky offensive line coach John Schlarman lost a two-year-long battle with cancer, passing away at the age of 45. Schlarman and Brown shared coaching stints at Troy and at UK, cutting their teeth together as young coaches.
Over the past few days, there have been several stories published about Schlarman, many of which mentioned Brown. Stories of recruiting in the snow and podiums at weddings being knocked over. They aren’t hard to find. I’d advise giving them a look.
On Monday, Brown was absent from the Big 12 Conference coaches call, with WVU offensive line coach and assistant head coach Matt Moore filling in. A memorial service was held for Schlarman in Lexington, Kentucky on Monday and Brown was one of the speakers. Again, it doesn’t take much internet searching to find the video.
In the speech, Brown admitted that he had probably cried more between Schlarman’s passing and Monday’s memorial than he had in his adult life. He told stories. He read scripture.
For fans — and now even for journalists — sometimes it’s hard to remember that the men leading these high-profile football programs are just that, men. When the only access we’re getting is 20-ish minutes a week of a question-and-answer format regarding things happening on the field, it’s easy to miss the humanity in it all.
But we’ve all been there, right where Brown is now. I recall the first column I wrote in this space, now a little over a year ago, dealt with the then-recent passing of my friend Kenny, whom I had known since we were 8 years old. We grew up together. Became men together.
As young coaches, husbands and fathers, Brown and Schlarman did the same. Forming bonds through long recruiting trips and game-planning meetings, domestic discussions and parenting perils — for every story Brown shared on Monday, rest assured there are hundreds he didn’t.
Toward the end of Tuesday’s press conference, Brown was inevitably asked about Schlarman. Brown, this time able to hold back the emotion, gave a detailed and long answer, as he has the tendency to do. But he revisited one thing he said during the TCU postgame press conference that, at the time, none of us could have known was a reference to Schlarman.
“How you live your life matters,” Brown said. “We talk to our kids a lot about how you play the game matters. A little insight on that, everything we do from practice to games is always filmed. This is something Johnny and I talked about a lot when we were at Troy … what you put on film matters, it really tells your story. So, if you’re a tough guy, your video should show that you’re a tough guy. If you’re physical, it should show physical. If you’re a guy that’s an overachiever, that’s what you’re video should show.”
So, if you get a chance, find and watch the video of Brown’s memorial speech for his friend. What story do you think it tells?
To me, it shows a man searching for the right way to memorialize a longtime friend. It shows a man who could finally let go of days of balancing professional football preparation with internal personal loss.
It showed a human being.
In a time when that is limited by space and pandemic restrictions, I appreciated it. More than anything, I sympathized with it.
So, Godspeed, Coach. And to Schlarman’s family, friends and to the University of Kentucky, my thoughts and prayers are with you all.