Neal Brown has had a series of challenges since he took over the WVU football program 18 months ago—recalibrating the culture left untended by his predecessor, rebounding after a humiliating week two loss to Missouri, and switching starting quarterbacks in midseason to name a few.
But the second year head coach now faces his biggest challenge to date, and by his own admission he is “sick about” the events of this week.
You have heard and read the story by now. Sophomore safety KJ Martin posted a lengthy tweet earlier this week which began with this explosive sentence: “I myself have dealt with mistreatment and racism growing up in West Virginia, but I never would’ve thought I would deal with it while at a school I am supposed to be able to call my home.”
Martin, who is black, then detailed specific complaints about defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who is white. He accused the coach of “mistreating” him and other players by trying to force his Christian beliefs, disparaging Black Lives Matters protesters and being subjected to “his rants about politics.”
Within hours, WVU Director of Athletics, Shane Lyons, put Koenning on administrative leave and started an independent investigation. Brown followed up with his own statement, supporting Martin’s right to speak out. He said he told the team earlier in the day “Our program culture will be one of acceptance, respect, tolerance, and positive relationships.”
Koenning released a statement Wednesday. “I respect Kerry Martin’s right to share that some of my words and actions impacted him. I care deeply for KJ and, when given the opportunity to speak to him directly, am optimistic we can find common ground. In the interim, I want to offer my sincere apology to both KJ and the entire WVU Family.”
While some social media traffic has called for Koenning’s head, it is important to note that Martin has made clear that he has not called for the coach to be fired. “No, coach Vic is not a bad person,” he said in his tweet.
This is clearly a painful and difficult time for all involved.
Martin felt strongly enough about the situation that he was willing to speak out publicly during a time when the events were bound to become sensational news. That puts Martin in the middle of this tempest where people will inevitably choose up sides, supporting him for taking a stand or criticizing him for going public. That is a tough spot for a young man.
As for Koenning, his reputation and his career are on the line. His statement in support of Martin and the investigation seem like a good start toward resolution, but what matters most is what the investigation finds and whether Martin and his teammates want to reconcile with Koenning.
Brown is caught in the middle. He has a long and valued relationship with Koenning. However, a serious disconnect between his defensive coordinator and players, especially players of color, is antithetical to the culture he is trying to build.
Koenning said in his statement, “We will get through this together and be stronger as a team for it.” The outcome of the investigation and the ultimate impact on the WVU football program will determine whether that is a mission statement or wishful thinking.