MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Credit Vic Koenning for tackling this week’s most obvious storyline like any good quidditch, er, football coach would.
When asked if he’s ever faced his predecessor in three decades of coaching, the West Virginia defensive coordinator took a surprise turn into Harry Potter references.
“You talking about Gibby?” Koenning said. “It’s not Voldemort. You can say Gibby. He’s a good guy.”
Indeed, Tony Gibson’s name will be uttered during this week’s game against North Carolina State, if not repeated ad nauseum. He was the architect who recruited the bulk of West Virginia’s current defense, servicing as the program’s defensive coordinator from 2014 through last season. Now he’s serving as a co-defensive coordinator for the Wolfpack.
“He was a great man who helped me develop as a player,” said senior defensive back JoVanni Stewart. “I needed a lot of growing, and he helped guide me.”
Stewart is among the players most influenced by Gibson. A safety by trade, Stewart was forced to move to linebacker last season after a spate of injuries ravaged the Mountaineers at that position. It was a move that got Stewart to buy in to something he didn’t realize he was capable of.
“I never in my years of college would have guessed that I’d ever end up playing there,” Stewart said. “For him to let me know that he needed me there, I know that he was pretty serious.”
There is much more subtext to Gibson’s departure than the typical coordinator moving on after a coaching change. He pushed to get the position that is now occupied by Neal Brown.
Current and former defensive players advocated for Gibson to be promoted when Dana Holgorsen left the program for Houston. Safeties Kenny Robinson and Derrek Pitts were among the most vocal on Twitter pushing for Gibson. Perhaps not coincidentally, neither is still with the program.
Gibson was one of three candidates to interview for the job along with Brown and Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell.
“Unfortunately it didn’t happen,” Gibson told Raleigh, N.C. media this week. “But there’s a lot of kids there that I care about, that I recruited, that I coached. That’s the emotional side of it. But the football and competitive side, I want to win.
“I don’t care who we’re playing, where we’re playing or what time we’re playing, I just want to make sure our guys are prepared and go in and give their best effort, and make sure we’re prepared to give them our best football game.”
The WVU connections are so deep that even Gibson’s daughter is still enrolled at the school.
Publicly, Gibson says he has no problem with how things went.
“Obviously, they made a great choice with Neal,” Gibson said. “He’s a great football coach and he’s experienced. He turned Troy around and won a lot of games.”
Given Gibson’s competitive streak, it seems unlikely he’s not approaching this week with just a little more juice than usual. But Brown said Gibson’s knowledge of West Virginia’s players on both sides of the ball poses the Mountaineers more of a threat than anything else might.
“He knows our personnel. Hopefully a lot of these guys improved since he saw them last,” Brown said. “Some of the personnel playing he hasn’t worked with. He did a really solid job here. I’m sure this game will mean a lot to him. But once the ball is snapped I’m not sure any of that matters.”
Stewart is approaching this game the same way he does when he runs across old friends playing throughout the Big 12.
“It makes it more fun,” Stewart said. “Like playing an old teammate from high school.”
Defensive tackle Darius Stills is among those who has a hard time knowing how he’ll react to seeing Gibson in bright red. But he does look forward to the postgame handshake.
“It’s going to be hard, I feel like. We all loved Gibby,” Stills said. “I feel like he’s going to get a warm welcome coming back. I’m excited to see him, honestly. We all are.”