By Mike Miller
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In May 2015, a letter was placed in Kevin Wilson’s Indiana University employee personnel file.
It was a memo from athletic director Fred Glass detailing the findings of a month-long investigation into IU’s treatment of injured players.
The investigation was spurred by concerns expressed by the father of former IU defensive lineman Nick Carovillano, who, in a series of meetings and e-mails, complained to athletic department administrators that Wilson and members of his training staff were not handling a back injury suffered by Carovillano with proper care.
In response, IU retained the Indianapolis law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP to investigate Dean Carovillano’s three claims: that the department’s medical care was inadequate, that the coaching staff exerted improper influence over medical care and that an “unhealthy culture” around the program led players like his son to avoid seeking necessary medical treatment.
Taft’s investigation produced a 26-page report, concluding that Carovillano did not receive inadequate medical care and that the coaching staff did not exert improper influence over the training staff.
However, the firm did note that Carovillano’s third clam had merit — there were noticeable behaviors by members of IU’s coaching staff that contributed to an unsatisfactory environment for players.
“The last conclusion was based on a variety of findings including your own admission that you made jokes to injured players about their injuries or implied that they are not useful members of the team,” Glass wrote to Wilson in the May 2015 memo, obtained by The Herald-Times, along with a series of additional documents related to Carovillano’s claims.
“Some players said that they felt pressure or witnessed coaches pressuring others and indicated that they found it depressing and demoralizing to have coaches make such comments when they were already frustrated with their injuries. It was found that coaches appear to push players to work harder than they should when they have injuries that are unconfirmed by an outside test.”
Complaints by the Carovillano family, alone, did not take down Wilson, who resigned on Thursday due to what IU athletic director Fred Glass characterized as “philosophical differences.”
But those complaints offer a conduit into the Indiana football experience under Wilson, an experience that the university ultimately determined was not worth sustaining.
The Carovillano incident is unsurprising, given Wilson’s public stance on injuries. Wilson often bristled at questions from reporters about injuries and the players who sustained them.
In most cases, Wilson would respond to an injury question in vague terms, with the implication clear: injured players couldn’t play and therefore couldn’t help him win games. Therefore, what’s worth discussing?
Wilson has not responded to repeated messages left by The Herald-Times. Glass did not respond to a message left Saturday.
In Nick Carovillano’s case, he injured his back during a practice on Sept. 23, 2014. When Carovillano approached an athletic trainer and asked to be checked out, the trainer dismissed the injury after asking a few basic questions, according to an email Dean Carovillano sent to assistant athletic trainer Anthony Thompson.
“My son’s never had a back injury and knew right when he was hit in that board drill against a 300-pound lineman,” Dean Carovillano told the H-T. “Nick was 230 pounds and knew something went wrong.”
Another trainer simply recommended that Carovillano stretch more, and it wasn’t until a trip home to Cincinnati during a week while IU was on the road in mid-October 2014 that a doctor diagnosed him with a bone fragment and two bulging disks.
“Once I actually proved I was hurt by saying, ‘Hey, I went to the doctor,’ they finally had me get an MRI,” Nick Carovillano said. “The attitude of the trainers turned from being like, ‘You’re soft, and you need to toughen up,’ to being like, ‘OK, you actually need to rehab.’”
Carovillano believes the trainers were operating under pressure from Wilson, who Carovillano says would berate the training staff with expletives if he believed they were coddling guys with extra care.
Tucked into a corner of Indiana’s practice field is a tent where injured players can ride stationary bikes, stretch or complete small-scale exercises while the rest of the team practices.
Carovillano says the medical tent was also a scene where Wilson would stop to shame players who were unable to contribute during practice.
“Midway through the season, Wilson got upset with the injured guys, because we were the first ones out of practice,” Carovillano said. “He was mad when he saw us laughing in the lunch room or having a good time. That’s when he created the tent. It was more of a shaming thing where, if you’re injured, you have to go to the tent. Kids who were having a bad day of practice or if they’d mess up, he’d send them to the tent to punish them or shame them.
“It was run by the strength coaches. They’d give you various exercises. The strength coaches took care of us 100 percent of the time, but it got to the point where injured kids had to stay after practice until everybody else left. Wilson would come over and make remarks and comments to us, talk down to us. Things like that.”
Since Wilson resigned, former players have come forward to give more positive reflections of Wilson and their interactions with the former coach, who early in his IU tenure developed a reputation for being naturally abrasive.
“Although he was tough on us,” former quarterback Nate Sudfeld wrote in a Twitter message, “he was always in our corner.”
Carovillano paints a different picture.
“A lot of the guys that are coming out were the starters or the star athletes, so it’s comparing apples to oranges,” he said. “I was a freshman, had never played, wasn’t starting, wasn’t a rotation guy. I was a scholarship player on the scout team. The way I was treated was completely different than some dude who had been there three or four years and was actually playing. That’s kind of how the mindset was there.”
Carovillano rehabbed until early in the spring 2015 semester, then decided to leave the school in April 2015. After his son’s departure and ensuing move back home to Cincinnati, Dean Carovillano reached out to Thompson to make his complaints known to the department.
“My son’s back is seriously injured, and he could have been crippled for life because of the unhealthy culture established by Kevin Wilson,” Dean Carovillano wrote in a message to Thompson, obtained by The Herald-Times.
Carovillano’s complaints initiated the investigation into Wilson, the team’s medical practices and the culture of the program later in April.
Although the Taft report absolved the medical staff of wrongdoing, it did come to the conclusion that Wilson’s approach to injured players was unsatisfactory.
In his memo to Wilson, Glass wrote that he wished to adopt the following recommendations from the report:
“Players should never be put in situations where they feel they have to defy the coaches in order to protect their own health. Coaches should listen to the players’ concerns and, if they doubt a player’s sincerity regarding the severity of an injury, they should send the player to the trainer for further evaluation before pushing a player to engage in activities that may create further injury. This not only protects the player, but also the coach from allegations of wrongdoing.”
During six seasons as head coach at Indiana, Wilson went through four head athletic trainers. That’s uncommon turnover for a position that typically sees individuals remain in place for years, even through coaching changes.
For instance, Purdue’s football trainer has been in the same for nearly six years. Maryland has had the same head football trainer for a decade.
“I feel like they wanted to get out of there because they were tired of Wilson and the way he treated them,” Nick Carovillano said.
Indiana retained Taft last month to investigate Wilson when Glass noticed old issues “bubbling up” once again. At his Thursday press conference, Glass declined to discuss specifics about the nature of that investigation.
“I would emphasize that a major conclusion of that report was that medical care was not compromised in the program at all,” Glass said Thursday.
But Wilson’s approach to the medical aspect of his former program does appear fair to question.
“He would say, ‘You’re this, you’re that, get out there,” Dean Carovillano said. “You’re nothing until you start contributing.”