Mountaineer head football coach Neal Brown is typically bright and cheery during his press conferences.
Whether it was an in-person media gathering of the seemingly ancient past or the coronavirus-necessitated video sessions of the present, Brown normally is all smiles.
Wednesday’s Zoom conference call was different, though, as Brown was noticeably glum.
The events of the day before obviously weighed on West Virginia’s head football coach. A series of tweets by WVU sophomore defensive back K.J. Martin Tuesday morning contained allegations of insensitive comments by Mountaineer defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. That brought about statements from both the WVU athletic department and eventually Brown himself. As a result, Koenning was placed on administrative leave while an investigation is conducted into the allegations.
A virtual press conference had already been scheduled for Wednesday, and Brown didn’t back away. He answered 32 minutes worth of questions, though he deflected any inquiries about the Martin/Koenning situation, noting the University is currently investigating the matter and he didn’t want to comment while that inquiry is ongoing.
“Yesterday was a tough day,” Brown said at the outset of Wednesday’s press conference. “I care deeply about everyone involved and everyone in our program. We will continue to build a culture that is relationship-driven.
“As I said in my statement last night, we have to respect the University’s process, and I will not talk further until it is complete,” he continued. “I’m confident that it’s going to be a quick process. I hope you respect that. That’s all I can talk about because it is an on-going matter.”
That is just one of many issues Brown’s program is dealing with currently. The Mountaineers reopened their voluntary summer football workout on June 15. As part of that, WVU tested its student-athletes for COVID-19. Two WVU players tested positive, and they have gone into self-isolation.
“To this point, we’ve conducted 167 tests – 33 staff and 134 student-athletes,” explained Brown. “We’ve had two positives, and I do want to state that neither of those positives participated in voluntary workouts. We’ve got a protocol that if they come in from out of state, they’ve got to quarantine for five days, and then the testing process goes through.
“We also quarantined a group due to contact tracing,” WVU’s coach continued. “They retested yesterday (Tuesday), and they were all negative. We have another big group that is going to test on Friday.”
Brown noted that both of the individuals who tested positive were asymptomatic.
“Part the precautions we’re taking is our student-athletes are not in the Puskar Center. Our workouts are outside. We’re weightlifting in the concourse (of Mountaineer Field), and we are running outside. Our guys are wearing masks. All our team and position meetings continue to be on Zoom.”
While any positive coronavirus test is cause for concern, WVU’s positive rate is actually lower than many other college football programs have reported as they also open their voluntary summer workouts.
“I’m hesitant to talk about it, because a lot of it is out of our control,” noted Brown. “We can control what we do in our facility and how we go about our protocol, precaution and procedures, and our testing, but we don’t have control over our student-athletes 24 hours a day, nor do I want that. So, we’re trying to educate them on the best practices, and hopefully they follow through. Hopefully we continue to keep our numbers down. We’re taking every precaution possible while in workouts.”
As the 2020 football season limps closer to its opening, many wonder how games can be played in the midst of the pandemic. Brown isn’t necessarily one of those.
“I continue to be cautiously optimistic,” said WVU’s coach when asked if the season can be played. “I do think it is going to be different. I think it’s going to be unique. I don’t know if we ever go back to a normal activity until there is a vaccine. I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to play football, though. That’s how we’re preparing. I just think it’s going to be different. We have to be outside-the-box thinkers about how we get our players to the games while keeping our virus numbers as low as possible and preventing injury. Those are going to be important issues.”
Coronavirus, civil unrest, socially-distanced workouts, COVID-19 testing, self-quarantine, Zoom conference calls – those are just a few of the items no one envisioned four months ago. But a good football coach learns to adapt, and Brown is adjusting to the “new normal.”
“It is a challenging time for us, and it’s a challenging time in a lot of professions,” stated WVU’s second-year head coach. “You just try to navigate it. You just think about the different aspects we’ve talked about on this call. Did we have any of these conversations on our lead-in to spring? No.
“It’s complex times, and we’re going into new territory at all points. Unfortunately you can’t have a plan for everything,” he concluded. “We’re learning as we’re going. We’re trying to be proactive rather than reactive. It is a difficult and challenging time in a lot of ways.”
Notes – Brown also announced a number of award winners from this spring. Normally those awards are handed out during the Gold/Blue Spring Game, but since that contest was cancelled this year because of the coronavirus, the presentation of those awards was pushed back. The Iron Mountaineer Awards, which go to the standouts in the winter strength and conditioning program, went to senior safety Dante Bonamico, sophomore offensive lineman James Gmiter, junior safety Noah Guzman and sophomore receiver Bryce Wheaton. In addition, senior safety Osman Kamara was named the winner of the Tommy Nickolich Memorial Award, which is presented annually to West Virginia’s top walk-on.
• Mountaineer football players are currently participating in voluntary workouts, but have not set foot in the Puskar Center yet. Starting July 13, the next phase of summer activities begins, as teams will be allowed to move to required sessions, with up to eight hours per week of strength and conditioning, as well as film review. At that time, players and coaches, while still split into different groups, will begin using that facility.
Brown said he hasn’t inquired much about how the voluntary workouts, which started June 15, have been progressing to this point.
“I have an idea of what guys are in town, but I don’t know who is going (to the strength and conditioning sessions) every day,” explained Brown. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be because these are voluntary workouts.
“I know a high percentage of our guys are in town. I trust our athletic training staff totally, and I trust our strength staff. I know they’ll get the guys in a good position.”
• While the student-athletes aren’t currently using the Puskar Center, that football operations facility still is a beehive of activity. Renovation work on the building has been ongoing since last December, and according to Brown, that effort remains on schedule. The plan is for the locker rooms and some parts of the building to be available once the next workout phase ramps up starting July 13, though the entire renovation won’t be completed until the spring of 2021.