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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)

 

Coray Keel sat in Kevin Wilson's Chevy Suburban and listened.

Keel had just let Kevin Johns, his wide receivers coach at Indiana, know that he intended to transfer. Wilson, IU's head coach, told Keel he wanted him to stay, Keel said.

"I told him the same thing (I told Johns)," Keel said. "I feel like the relationship that we have, me and him and his coaching staff, the people around here, I feel like this is not the environment for me."

The conversation was, according to Keel, more than a year in the making. Signed out of South Gwinnett High School in suburban Atlanta in 2014, Keel spent one season at Indiana, a season he said was often defined by verbal abuse, mistrust between himself and his coaches and mistreatment through injury.

Keel is the latest former Hoosier to tell his version of an increasingly familiar story.

Wilson left Indiana last December, with athletic director Fred Glass citing "philosophical differences" and elevating defensive coordinator Tom Allen. It later emerged that Indiana had investigated Wilson's treatment of injured players during his time as IU's coach.

Keel said he suffered a concussion during his first preseason, in 2014, the result, Keel said, of being made to engage in one-on-one contact drills with a teammate over and over again.

"I was doing board drills with the (defensive backs), and I was the second guy up. At this time, I'm a freshman. We're going one on one with a senior, and I end up beating him," Keel said. "Kevin Wilson gets mad and yells at his DB, and we just kept going.

"It was to the point where, I was like, 'My head is hurting,' so I just let him win."

The concussion factored into the decision to redshirt Keel, not an uncommon practice for true freshmen. But Keel said he began to feel singled out and ostracized by the staff, particularly IU's offensive coaches.

He spent most of that fall on Indiana's scout team, helping prepare the Hoosiers' defense for upcoming opponents.

"It became kind of like a pride thing, once I started lining up, to be key players for the opposing team every week, when I would hear coaches come up to me and tell me I'm not (excrement), I'm not this and that. It was Kevin Wilson and position coaches, but mostly Kevin Wilson," Keel said. "Every day, it was a constant reminder of how much I wasn't doing good, and how I was doing more harm as a scout-team player, not giving the team the right looks. I was the reason we were losing, the reason why we were not doing good."

Keel was named scout-team player of the week once that season, during the Hoosiers' preparation for North Texas.

"As my time at IU extended, it got worse," Keel said. "To the point where it made just being there uncomfortable. It made the overall experience of it, it was to the point where I didn't want to wake up and go to practice."

During an offseason throwing session that winter, Keel planted in the middle of a comeback route and tore the labrum in his hip. Doctors initially told him the injury wouldn't require surgery, he said, but changed their minds after further scans.

"I had my surgery in early February, and then after my surgery, that's when my relationship with the coaches shot down completely," Keel said. "That's when I really felt like a sore thumb at Indiana, like I didn't belong there. It was really uncomfortable."

Keel said it was Wilson who advised him to have the procedure.

After undergoing surgery, Keel said he initially felt supported and encouraged by his coaches.

"They were there for me my first week," he said. "It was a lot of encouragement. Stay the course, it's gonna get tough. ...

"As that week or two changed, once I got off my crutches, I'm still totally nowhere near ready to play but I'm back walking, it was more, now you're not on crutches. Now that you're not doing anything, now that you're hurt, what can you do for us?"

Keel said his relationship with the staff sank to an all-time low, that he was made to feel unimportant and, in some cases, belittled in front of teammates. Wilson, he said, would not allow injured players to eat at team training tables until after healthy players had eaten, and would repeatedly come over to the tent where injured players spent most of practice to scold them, telling them they were a waste of scholarship money.

"Multiple times, he told me I should pack my (stuff) up and leave," Keel said. "Multiple times he told me while I was in the middle of a route or working out or in training tables, he'd come up and just tell me I wasn't (excrement)."

Keel's story bares similarities to others told in the wake of Wilson's departure from Indiana last winter. Wilson eventually took a job as offensive coordinator at Ohio State. Numerous former Hoosiers, including Keel's signing classmate, Nick Carovillano, outlined similar treatment, particularly when going through injuries.

Johns is now the offensive coordinator at Western Michigan, after being let go by IU last winter. Johns declined comment for this story through a university spokesman and Ohio State did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Wilson.

Some players came forward at the time of Wilson's departure saying they didn't experience mistreatment, including a number of former Hoosiers who had dealt with injuries in college.

"I don't feel that I was ever forced into anything," said Jason Spriggs, now with Green Bay. "I always remember coach Wilson saying, 'If you're hurt, you're hurt, and you can't go.' He doesn't know your body. If a player felt that they were hurt, that was their choice. If they didn't feel that they could compete, then he wasn't going to put them on the field."

Wilson has spoken about his departure from Indiana since moving to Ohio State, telling local media in the spring: "We wouldn't be here doing this job if those things were true. ... Anyone can have an opinion. I know their department looked into everything, I know this school has looked into everything. I know we're very, very comfortable with what we're doing, where we're at and we're excited to move forward."

Keel said he felt the coaching staff often categorized players as either reliable or not, particularly with regard to the physical punishment they were willing to absorb.

"If you were 'soft,' you could go dodge in front of a damn bullet, and they'd still say that," Keel said. "We just didn't want to be labeled."

Whatever the case, at that point, Keel said, his relationship with IU's offensive staff began to change. He began talking back more, or avoiding them altogether.

"I started treating them like they treated me," Keel said. "Everything just became overwhelming and uncomfortable."

Some teammates, Keel said, talked about taking their concerns to Glass, or Anthony Thompson, IU's senior associate athletic director and sport administrator for football. But Keel said he never considered it for fear any potential blowback might make things more difficult.

Instead, Keel said, he rode out his injury and elected to transfer, first informing Johns, then Wilson.

"He said he doesn't want to see me go," Keel said, recounting his conversation with Wilson. "He wants me to stay. He said it's a phase, all phases can work themselves out. But I told him this phase went over (a year) and I'm over it."

Keel transferred to Fullerton College, a junior college in California. He played one season there before quitting football. He said he's now a regular student at the University of West Georgia, about an hour west of Atlanta.

"Nobody forced me," Keel said of his decision to leave IU.

Keel said he stays in touch with several current and former teammates, and he is impressed by what he's heard of new coach Tom Allen.

"I still love IU, I still love all my teammates there. I'm rooting for them this year," he said. "I love the new coaching staff and Tom Allen, and what he's got going on, the ('love each other' mantra). I wish he was there when I was there."

It wasn't just his IU experience but also his time in junior college that sapped Keel's interest in football, he said. He considered transferring to another two-year school after one season at Fullerton, but ultimately decided to leave the sport.

"I don't blame Indiana for me stopping playing football. My love for the game went down a lot when I left Indiana," Keel said. "Football's just been in the dust."

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