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When coach Urban Meyer promised change for the Ohio State offense after the shutout loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, Kevin Wilson was an obvious option.
Meyer long had lavished praise on Wilson, Indiana’s football coach the past six years. The Hoosiers aren’t typically loaded with blue-chip recruits, but they consistently gave Ohio State and other top programs fits with their offensive scheme.
Wilson’s body of work as an offensive coordinator at Miami University, Northwestern and Oklahoma is unquestionably gaudy.
“His resume speaks for itself in that area,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in an email interview with The Dispatch.
But the final entry on Wilson’s resume is cloudy. Indiana unexpectedly decided it had to “separate” — that was IU athletic director Fred Glass’s word — from Wilson at the end of the 2016 regular season.
“There is no smoking gun or single precipitating event that led to where we are today,” Glass said during the Dec. 1 news conference announcing the coaching change. “I think it’s a realization by myself and Kevin that we’re just not on the same page about some … key ways the program needs to be led.”
The Indianapolis Star and other outlets later reported that the departure followed two university investigations about Wilson’s treatment of and attitude toward injured players.
One of those injured players was Nick Carovillano, whose father remains bothered by Wilson’s conduct toward his son but is happy that Indiana took action.
“They knew what was going on and they got him out of there,” Dean Carovillano said. “It’s unfortunate it took a year to get him out of there, but it took them a year and two investigations.”
After Meyer expressed interest in hiring Wilson as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, Smith spoke with Glass. Smith wouldn’t share details of their conversation, but the talk and OSU’s own research evidently provided enough reassurance.
“After talking with colleagues in the business who know him, and Urban doing the same thing, we felt comfortable in our environment with our culture and how we run things,” Smith wrote. “Our standards for behavior of anyone in our department are high. When you are in our culture, it becomes clear and evident what behaviors are accepted or not. There are no compromises there.”
QB in his corner
Northwestern quarterback Zak Kustok had just thrown the go-ahead touchdown pass with 32 seconds left in the 2001 Big Ten opener against Michigan State.
While the Wildcats celebrated on the sideline, Kustok was told that Wilson wanted to speak to him from the press box. Kustok expected congratulations.
Instead, Wilson told Kustok to tell his teammates to cease and desist. Michigan State could return the kickoff for a touchdown, Wilson said, and Kustok needed to be ready.
“I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Kustok recalled.
Wilson was serious — and prescient. The Spartans did return the kickoff for a touchdown. But Kustok was prepared. He had told kicker David Wasielewski to warm up. Sure enough, Kustok completed a 54-yard pass to set up Wasielewski’s game-winning 47-yard field goal as time expired.
“That’s coach Wilson in a nutshell,” Kustok said. “He wants to be prepared, and all he cares about is winning.”
Kustok loved having a coach who demanded his best.
“He is extremely competitive and intense, all in good ways,” Kustok said. “For me, he was absolutely the perfect coach. The week in practice was intense getting ready for the game. But come Saturday morning, coach Wilson was the loosest person.
“It was, ‘OK, this is what we’ve worked hard for. Let’s go out and execute and have fun.’ There were more jokes Saturday before kickoff than there were all week.”
Kustok began his career at Notre Dame, where Meyer was the receivers coach.
“I have a ton of respect for coach Meyer,” Kustok said. “I think they’re going to be a really good pair working together. I see them being very similar.”
After Meyer became head coach at Bowling Green, he visited Northwestern in the offseason to study the Wildcats’ version of the spread offense under Wilson and head coach Randy Walker. Kustok was in the meeting room when they dissected plays.
Wilson and Walker, who died of a heart attack in 2006, came from Miami, which relied on a power run game with record-breaking Travis Prentice.
“Our first year at Northwestern, we tried doing that, and it didn’t work with some of the competition we were going against,” Kustok said. “Coach Wilson and coach Walker went out and adapted a version of the spread that fit our offense.”
Wilson’s coaching accomplishments are undeniably impressive. Two of his running backs — Northwestern’s Damien Anderson and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman — ran for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Adrian Peterson ran for 1,925 for Oklahoma in 2004.
Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy under Wilson in 2008. In Wilson’s nine years at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops, the Sooners won six Big 12 titles and played in three national championship games.
“He was a big part of our success,” said Stoops, adding that Wilson’s ability to innovate sets him apart.
“He does a great job of understanding his personnel he has to work with and maximizing it,” Stoops said. “He’s very smart at understanding what different players can do, going to their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses.”
In 2008, Wilson won the Frank Broyles Award as the country’s top assistant. Two years later, Indiana hired him to rebuild the downtrodden program.
He succeeded, to a degree. The Hoosiers ceased being a Big Ten laughingstock, though their defense usually didn’t allow them to finish most potential upsets. But the seeming upward trajectory with Wilson at the helm came to a sudden halt in December.
In his news conference announcing Wilson’s exit and Tom Allen’s hiring as successor, Glass did not provide definitive answers as to why he felt compelled to part ways with Wilson.
Glass acknowledged that his explanation about philosophical differences “may be an unsatisfying meal full of empty calories.”
In Cincinnati, as Dean Carovillano watched the news conference, it was perfectly clear why Wilson was told to leave. His son Nick injured his back as a freshman for the Hoosiers. Carovillano faulted the way his son was treated.
At first, according to Dean, Nick said the medical staff dismissed the seriousness of the injury, telling him he should be able to play through it. But the pain got worse. While at home, a doctor examined him, ordered an MRI and diagnosed three severely damaged disks and bone fragments. He told Carovillano he couldn’t continue playing.
Dean Carovillano said he doesn’t have evidence that Wilson himself pressured his son to keep practicing after the injury. “There is a chance that Wilson didn’t even know that Nick was injured at that point,” he said.
But he said that Wilson was unsympathetic to injured players. Instead of rehabbing inside during practice, Carovillano said that Wilson had a tent erected adjacent to the practice field for injured players; it was dubbed the “Tent of Shame.”
When Carovillano didn’t heal and couldn’t play, Wilson questioned his toughness.
“He told him he’s not injured. ‘You’re soft. You’re a (expletive),’ ” Dean Carovillano said.
By the middle of spring semester in 2015, a hurting and discouraged Nick Carovillano decided to withdraw from school. When Dean arrived to take him home, he was told that Wilson wanted to meet with them.
At first, Dean was thrilled because he thought it would be a chance to explain what had happened. When he got to Wilson’s office, he realized otherwise. With several other coaches and administrators in the office, Wilson told the Carovillanos that Nick’s leaving mid-semester would hurt Indiana’s standing in the Academic Progress Rate.
“This went on for 30 minutes,” Carovillano said. “They badgered him, berated him.”
Apparently, Carovillano wasn’t the only IU player to have injury issues with Wilson. Glass ordered an external investigation conducted by a law firm to look into the matter. Carovillano said his family did not ask for the investigation and cooperated in only a limited way.
The law firm interviewed 20 people and issued a 26-page report in 2015. According to the Indianapolis Star, Glass wrote a memo to Wilson saying the report concluded that Carovillano had not received inadequate medical care. It said there was no evidence that the coaching staff exerted improper influence regarding care. But Glass told Wilson that there were “behaviors that may create an unhealthy environment for injured players.”
Through an IU spokesman, Glass declined an interview request with The Dispatch. Ohio State has not made Wilson available.
During the hiring process, Smith said he discussed what happened at Indiana with Wilson.
“I was clear about our expectations and how we run our program,” Smith said. “He was accepting and excited to join.”
Dean Carovillano said he was disappointed that Ohio State hired Wilson. But he doesn’t believe the issues that arose at Indiana will occur here because Wilson is an assistant, and not the head coach.
Kustok said he doesn’t know the details of what happened at Indiana. He still remains in frequent contact with Wilson.
As a Northwestern grad, he said, “I can’t say I’ve been an Ohio State fan. But I think Ohio State is getting a fantastic coach. I think he’s going to have a huge impact.”