KANELAND—The Kaneland School Board on Sept. 29 voted 7-0 to release Kaneland High School softball coach Brian Willis from his duties as head coach.
Willis had spent the last five years as head coach for Kaneland varsity girls softball. He also teaches drivers education, physical education and adaptive physical education at the high school.
Willis at the Sept. 29 School Board meeting said that he had been asked to resign from his coaching position, but declined to do so. He also read a prepared statement prior to the School Board’s vote
“I am writing this letter to ask the Kaneland School Board and the high school administration to reconsider the decision to release me from the head coaching position of varsity softball,” Willis read from his statement.
Willis’ letter continued, noting his 25 years of teaching experience—13 of them at Kaneland—and 10 years of coaching with the Lady Knights.
“(I’ve) never had an accusation made against me for something I have done illegal or immoral,” Willis read from his statement. “This continues to be the case this evening.”
He said that a harassment charge had been filed against him in May 2014.
“After an investigation, it was found to have no basis,” Willis read from his statement. “The root of the complaint was because an athlete was not playing as many innings as the parents thought she should. And they had to come up with something, thus the harassment charge.”
In his statement, Willis said the reason he was informed of the decision to release him from coaching was “vague.”
“When I asked for the reason, I was told of concerns administration had about the program,” Willis read from his statement. “Those concerns were also documented in the harassment charge, and again possessed no evidence of wrongdoing—only the opinion of people who disagree with my softball philosophy.”
Willis said that he had been told any information gathered had to remain confidential and that it could not be shared with him. He noted that a person usually loses a job because of illegal activity, immoral judgment or poor performance.
Willis also acknowledged that his coaching performance last season was not equivalent to years past and by his own standards.
“The reality was, I couldn’t perform at the same mental or physical level I am accustomed to because of my ongoing battle with cancer,” Willis read from his statement. “I did my best in the classroom and on the field with tremendous support from everybody. I was not told by high school administration my performance was substandard.”
The KHS girls varsity softball team went 20-12 last season, after going 24-4 in 2013.
Regarding his release, Willis had just one question: why?
“I think that is a fair question,” Willis read from his statement. “And out of respect for my commitment towards Kaneland High School the past 13 years, I have earned the right to have that answered honestly.”
Willis said that both he and his staff worked hard to create a “winning program” on and off of the field. He said that tough decisions had been made that some didn’t agree with or like, but mentioned that he always has tried to teach his students and his athletes to be accountable for their actions.
“If you have done something out of favor, face the consequences,” Willis read from his statement. “If not, stand on the highest mountain and declare your innocence. Tonight, I stand on the mountain.”
Community members stood up to offer supporting words for Willis. Molly Cohrs, whose daughter plays for the Lady Knights, spoke of Willis putting together fundraisers for field improvements and returning Kaneland’s softball program to both a respected and winning program.
“Having recently waged a winning battle against cancer, he practiced until he could no longer stand, and then sat on a bucket so practice could continue,” Cohrs said.
She also spoke about what was expected of the Lady Knights softball team.
“Expectation is high, effort is required, and you have to be able to produce—defensively and offensively on the field, and in the classroom,” Cohrs said. “And yes, if a coach believes you are not giving 110 percent all the time; if he believes you are playing below your potential; he’s going to let you know it.”
Cohrs called student playing time the “most sensitive topic” in any high school sport played.
“I don’t think it is a coincidence that if you look back at the families and players who have complained about any Kaneland coach, their history of playtime at Kaneland will likely show that they were either cut from a program or they did not play as much as other players,” Cohrs said.
Paige Kuefler, senior Lady Knights player, wore a Team Willis gray T-shirt during the School Board meeting. She also spoke on behalf of the team about the one she calls “Coach Willis.”
“He wants the best for us,” Kuefler said. “Does he get frustrated with us? At times, yes. Because he knows we can do better; he knows how we play. He’s seen our 100 percent, and if he doesn’t, he will push us until he sees it.”
Kuefler mentioned that positions on the Lady Knights softball team had to be earned.
“Our positions were never handed to us,” she said. “Each and every athlete of the softball team had to earn a position.”
Following the meeting, Willis reflected on the support he received at the meeting.
“I’m very happy with the support I got tonight,” he said. “And the fact that even if I’m not reinstated as coach, I can lay my head on my pillow knowing that I had a positive effect on these young ladies’ lives.”