MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It’s homecoming week for a pair of Kansas State alums on West Virginia’s coaching staff.
Mountaineers defensive coordinator Vic Koenning isn’t working on his first football fixer-upper. He was a senior defensive end on K-State’s first bowl team in 1982 after being recruited to one of college football’s losingest programs.
“Manhattan’s a beautiful town,” Koenning said. “I have a lot of great memories of playing there and going to college there. I don’t have any negative thoughts [about] there.”
He returned as the Wildcats co-defensive coordinator in 2009, and hasn’t been back since that one-year stint. But he did make an important friend along the way.
Blake Seiler first popped up on Koenning’s radar as a quality control assistant — a lower level than even a graduate assistant. Seiler played at K-State from 2004-06 and spent a couple years as an aerospace engineer before the desire to get back into football overcame him.
“I knew nobody worked harder and nobody had been trained to work harder since he worked for Coach Snyder,” Koenning said.
Upon his hiring at West Virginia, Mountaineers head coach Neal Brown wanted to find a defensive assistant with Big 12 ties. Seiler worked his way up to being K-State’s defensive coordinator last year, Snyder’s last before retiring for a second and final time. New coach Chris Klieman kept Seiler on staff as a defensive line coach, but brought in his own defensive coordinator.
Though he had never known anything other than Kansas State in 13 years as a player and coach, Seiler decided it was time to take a leap of faith. He accepted a position as WVU’s inside linebackers coach.
“It was hard, especially how it ended [at K-State],” Seiler said. “Coach Klieman was great to me and my family and I had a chance to help them finish out that recruiting class. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. But I’m a man of faith. I thought about it, prayed about it, and felt at peace about it.”
One of the factors in the decision was that it allowed Seiler’s family to move closer to his wife’s Western Pennsylvania-based family. But he was also sold on Brown’s vision of the program, seeing a much younger version of Snyder.
“Coach Brown was [also] up for the K-State job. So I had a lot of insight from the people over there when they were trying to hire coaches,” Seiler said. “That’s kind of how it started, and everything was positive. There were three things: being a great leader, great person and great football coach. Those are the things that will build a program. It’s not just about going to the places with the nicest buildings and the best tradition.”
Once Brown had his full coaching staff on board, it became clear that Seiler was best qualified to coordinate West Virginia’s special teams. The two coaches share an obsessive attention to detail.
“He’s extremely, extremely detail-oriented to the point where sometimes I say ‘Just tell him he’s a football player,’” Koenning said. “He was an engineer building airplanes. That’s what type of brain he has. I knew he and Coach Brown would be similar types. I figured they would get along pretty good.”
Koenning says he has never seen a head coach as involved in special teams as Brown is, which is another natural meshing point for Seiler.
“That’s a big reason I chose to take on that [coordinator] role, because that’s where I came from,” Seiler said. “Coach Snyder was equally invested on special teams as he was offense and defense.”
The Mountaineers have been among the best in the country in minimizing opponents in both punt and kickoff returns. West Virginia allows 1.45 yards per punt return, which is seventh-best in the nation. WVU finished 56th in that category a year ago and 107th in 2017.
Opponents are averaging 17.6 yards per kick return, which rates 18th in the country for kickoff coverage. The improvement is not as dramatic, but still better than when West Virginia finished 33rd last year and 41st in 2017.
But Seiler’s special teams haven’t been flawless, and that’s what he’s shooting for. West Virginia has allowed a punt block for a touchdown and had a late game-tying field goal blocked at Baylor. And though Winston Wright broke a kickoff return for a touchdown at Baylor, West Virginia is 111th in the country in punt returning.
“We’ve done some good things,” Seiler said. “We haven’t had a complete season. We need to be more consistent. The kids are bought in and trying hard. But I’m greedy. We need to be around here. My motto is to change the game on special teams. We didn’t get that done last week. But there’s an opportunity to get it done every week.”
This week, there would be no more appropriate tribute to his roots.
For both Seiler and Koenning, it will be the first time as visitors at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. They hope to spoil the day for their fellow Wildcats.
“Thinking about going in there on the other sideline, it’s a little unique,” Seiler said. “But we’re in a losing streak, and we need to get out of it.”