Has WVU become a "leftist sycophant institution" and other emails from fans about Vic Koenning

PLUS: Here's how to file a FOIA for every single D1 institution

Photo credit: Getty Images

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

I’d like to quickly make you aware of a really cool resource here from myself and Daniel Libit of our sister publication, The Intercollegiate. We’ve created a comprehensive listing of the FOIA instructions for every single public D1 university. This listing tells you where to send your request, whether you need any school-specific forms, and more.

Sending FOIAs shouldn't be complicated. After all, the Freedom of Information Act, and related state-level acts, are about giving the public access to public records. We hope this tool makes it easier for everybody, from journalists to regular ol’ taxpayers, to file requests and inspect public documents.

If you file some requests and find something interesting, let us know! My email is MBrown@TheIntercollegiate.com.

Now, creating FOIA databases, filing requests and writing regular newsletters all takes time and resources. The only way we’re able to do stuff like this is with your support. The vast majority of Extra Points’ revenue comes from reader subscriptions and support. You can make sure you never miss a newsletter, by signing up for a paid subscription. They’re just $7 bucks a month, or $70 for the entire year. You can also subscribe for free, and get two newsletters a week. The folks who pay get four. Paid subscribers also get an invite to our Discord Server, run by our pals in the Moon Crew.

Today’s story is an example of what we can learn from FOIA.

This was a tumultuous offseason at West Virginia, particularly because of Vic Koenning

A summer of protest and athlete activism all over the country reached Morgantown on June 23. Then, Mountaineer football player Kerry Martin tweeted that WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning had mistreated him and others. Specially, Martin claimed that Koenning called him “retarded” for making a mistake during practice, and that he made made inappropriate comments about religion, politics and race.

Following the tweet, West Virginia put Koenning on administrative leave, while the school investigated. A month later, the school announced that Koenning and WVU had “mutually agreed to separate.”

Historically, concerns that a coach was using too rough of language on players would be handled internally, if at all. But what worked in 1952 isn’t so effective, or palatable, in 2020, especially for a school like West Virginia.

On one hand, West Virginia has to be seen a player’s program if it wants to survive

West Virginia has plenty of fans and historical success, but demographics will always make building a consistent winner a difficult challenge. West Virginia is a small state, and just doesn’t produce many college football players. The 247 Composite has only ranked five high school seniors in West Virginia in the class of 2021, and likely only three would be good enough to play in the Big 12. In 2020, the state has ten players ranked, with only three signing with P5 schools. West Virginia signed two of them.

There is good high school played in eastern Ohio (Joe Burrow, who won the dang Heisman Trophy last year, is from Athens, Ohio, not too far from the West Virginia state line) and Western Pennsylvania, but population shifts are moving more of those families to other parts of the country.

There simply aren’t enough high school football players who live close to West Virginia to build a Big 12-caliber program on local talent alone. West Virginia historically has recruited all over the country, from Georgia to Alabama to Florida to Texas to New Jersey to Nevada and beyond. And many of those athletes are African-American.

If African-American recruits felt that West Virginia was not a place where they would feel respected or validated, or if they felt their coaches were racially insensitive, they wouldn’t go. And there would be no way for the Mountaineers to compete in the Big 12 without them. Taking prompt action to address those concerns would be a critical priority for the athletic department.

But on the other hand, West Virginia’s fans might not always like that

Right now, West Virginia is one of the most culturally conservative states in the country. It’s also 92% white, dramatically more white than the athletic department at West Virginia University. If the bulk of the Mountaineer fan base comes from a 100 mile radius around Morgantown, it’s fair to say that those fans might not see racial justice issues the same way as their players might.

Some of those Mountaineer fans also donate to the program. And upon hearing that the school was investigating Koenning, they weren’t happy about it.

The Intercollegiate filed a FOIA for all emails regarding Koenning sent to West Virginia Athletic Director Shane Lyons, and Senior Associate AD Michael Fragale, from June 15 through June 24. Those documents were then shared with Extra Points.

The school sent back 28 pages of documents, most of which were emails from fans. Every single email supported Koenning, and many of them threatened to withhold financial support if he was disciplined or removed.

Here’s an example:

The idea of WVU bowing to “mob mentality”, “cancel culture” or “group think” came up repeatedly in these emails. Here’s another example:

This complaint makes it clear how athletic department decisions can potentially have university-wide repercussions. If West Virginia state lawmakers felt the same way as this particular fan, and decided to make the school or athletic department a political punching bag, a lot of money and resources could be at stake. Campus protests at the University of Missouri, for example, helped lead to strained relationships between school administrators and state lawmakers.

At the end of the day, there could be real potential risk if state leaders and residents shared the opinion held by this emailer:

How did the school respond?

In this batch, either AD Lyons or Senior Associate AD Fragale responded to every single person who responded, even folks who accused West Virginia of becoming a leftist sycophant institution. Most of the responses looked similar to this:

I appreciate you taking the time to send several emails to our staff and for voicing your concerns. The department is working with an external party to conduct an investigation and we will act appropriately once the review is completed.  

Thank you again for writing and for your support of the Mountaineers!

That seems like a pretty reasonable and fair response! You want to validate the concerns of your fans, without necessarily agreeing with them, and control your department’s messaging.

As tempting as it might be sometimes, you probably don’t want to spend your day arguing over the internet with strangers. Take it from me, somebody who has spent a good chunk of his professional career arguing over the internet with strangers.

What’s the takeaway here?

To be fair, these emails represent a small sample size of Mountaineer fans and supporters, all taken relatively early in the story. It’s entirely possible that many of these fans will decide to continue to support Mountaineer athletics, even after the school elected to move on from Koenning. It’s possible that these emails do not represent the majority opinion of West Virginia fans during that particular period of time.

To us, the most interesting takeaway is how these emails illustrate the balancing act an athletic department may have to handle. The school’s biggest priority, of course, is to serve the best interests of the athletes in the department, to make sure that they feel safe and supported. Occasionally, other stakeholders, from fans to boosters to local media to lawmakers to other entities, might have different opinions.

Does the school bend to those outside pressures? Do they hold firm? What happens if threats over withholding money turn out to be genuine?

This summer, this was a West Virginia question, but tomorrow, it could be a question for any other school in college athletics.

Thanks again for supporting Extra Points. To support independent journalism, get four newsletters a week and access to our Discord Server, be sure to subscribe here.

Give a gift subscription

Questions, comments, concerns, business inquiries, angry missives and more can be sent to MBrown@TheIntercollegiate.com, or to @MattBrownEP on Twitter.