The letter, penned by a current EHS football player and delivered to Luke Sobba, an attorney with the Kansas Association of School Boards, began bluntly. Written on Sept. 30, it arrived to Sobba and the Emporia Board of Education earlier this month anonymously; retribution, the athlete and his family feared, would follow otherwise.
“To whom it may concern,” the letter, as read to The Gazette by the student’s mother, opened. “I am a football player at EHS who has gotten the courage to speak out about how Coach (Corby) Milleson treats the football team.”
According to the letter, biting words and targeted criticisms from Milleson toward select players went beyond the sphere of coaching.
“It’s not easy to witness him degrade us,” the athlete wrote, alleging that he and his teammates felt their own appetites for football crumble as they watched their coach turn players into “verbal punching bag(s)”, tearing them down to the point that they felt their only option was to quit. The letter mentions the names of several athletes who have left the program this season; as many as nine have removed themselves from the team altogether this fall.
The stories and sentiments shared in the statement are not uncommon among current and former Spartans, as well as parents involved with the program, and provides further evidence to support the allegations that led to Milleson’s abrupt firing Wednesday night. In the letter, the author offers the perspective of a teenager whose passion for football has been stripped from him, and paints the picture of a coaching style predicated on mental and verbal abuse, bullying, favoritism and a pattern of harsh treatment.
The letter continues with examples of mental games, preferential treatment and further bullying, contributing to a one-man culture of fear that according to former EHS players has been festering long before the 2020 season.
In his conclusion, the athlete signed his statement. “Thank you,” it read. “A hopeless football player.”
The BOE voted 5-0 to terminate Milleson’s contract Wednesday night at the conclusion of an investigation this month into allegations of abuse, Community Relations Director Lyndel Landgren confirmed to The Gazette. Milleson, who spent six seasons leading the Spartans, will receive the remainder of his pay for the 2020-21 season, and will remain in his teaching role with the high school. Offensive line coach Keaton Tuttle will serve as interim head coach for the rest of the season.
While The Gazette confirmed aspects of the allegedly abusive physical interactions reported by KSNT earlier this week, some parents and former players interviewed by The Gazette were not aware of such incidents.
Milleson twice declined to comment when reached by The Gazette; Superintendent Kevin Case could not be reached by phone. But in interviews with families and ex-players, some of whom were granted anonymity by The Gazette in order to protect their identities, those who have been around the program allege numerous occasions in which Milleson’s coaching crossed the line from tough love to alleged abuse, gutting the core of a program and the hopes of so many of its players.
‘‘I’ve had 26 coaches in my entire life,” another current player said during his meeting with Sobba. “I have never had one who has treated me like this.”
A fractured tenure
The road that led to Milleson’s termination earlier this week began far earlier in his tenure.
In the fall of 2014, Tyler Arndt approached Milleson to let him know that he intended to transfer to Ottawa High School. After splitting time between Emporia and Florida, Arndt’s father was settling in Ottawa. Arndt didn’t come to Milleson for a consultation or for advice; the starting cornerback just wanted to inform his coach in person.
When Arndt delivered the news, he was shocked by the response. In addition to telling the sophomore that he was jeopardizing his future in the sport, Milleson told Arndt that his father had moved away from him for a reason.
“He told me that my dad did not love me, and that it would be a waste of my time for me to transfer schools because I would end up regreatting this decision,” Arndt wrote in a post to social media this week.
Six years later, Arndt is still shaken by the conversation.
“I was 15 years old and unsure of a lot,” Arndt told The Gazette. “I was transferring high schools, which is scary enough as is because I know nobody at Ottawa. I knew that what he was telling me about my dad was untrue, but he hindered my confidence in making the right decision.
“Now, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders in being able to share my story.”
Instances such as these unfolded over the first few weeks of this once-COVID threatened season, and were far from isolated. According to those interviewed, they have been a component of the football program’s culture since Milleson took over in 2014.
But a spate of incidents over the first month of the 2020 season is what prompted several families to set up meetings with EHS Principal Dathan Fischer.When one of the families filed a formal complaint with the district, the investigation that resulted in his firing began in late September.
“I think that should have happened a long time ago,” John Highley, a former lineman for EHS, said.
Players like Highley, who graduated from EHS in 2017, have been familiar with Milleson’s treatment for some time. He was there when Milleson became head coach in 2014, and watched as he turned from “mild” to “outright nasty” as the coach made the Spartans capable of competing in the Centennial League.
An open secret among players — current and former — and parents was that the Spartans head coach played favorites. The idea that a high school coach might favor certain players is anything but uncommon, but the mean-spirited, discouraging way Milleson treated those who were not at the top of his list is what stuck out. One former defensive lineman remembers what it felt like to be singled out by the head coach.
“It always felt demeaning,” he said. “It wasn’t like he made you feel like you could do better. It was more like you’re a piece of shit.”
Other players felt Milleson ignored them in their pursuit of college football. While providing playing time and sending film and messages around to college programs for some, many players were left to do the work of getting on the college football radar on their own. One former player remembers Milleson asking if he needed help only after most of his target schools had already filled out their rosters. Common advice from former players to those pursuing college football was to travel to recruiting camps, because “(Milleson) has nothing to do with camps.”
Talent is most certainly what drove the program, but a majority of those interviewed felt that other components, such as last names, often dictated trajectories. And while none of this particular treatment rose to the level of abuse, many former players felt held down, with few opportunities to improve their standing.
“If Milleson didn’t want you to succeed, he wasn’t going to let you succeed,” Highley said. “He was going to make it so it was known that you weren’t any good.”
But not every instance during Milleson’s tenure was quite as subtle, and many mirrored the moments that surfaced this fall.
Two years ago, during the offseason, one player opted out of a team-mandatory weight lifting course due to injury, instead taking the written portion of the class. According to the then-15-year old student’s mother, Milleson told the student in an email that if he could not attend a makeup lifting session at 6 a.m., he could “just get off my f-cking team.” The student was stunned. The mother said she organized a meeting with Milleson and school officials, but nothing came of the matter. The tone of that incident was consistent with other stories relayed to The Gazette in regard to Milleson's phone, email and text conversations with players.
Former players interviewed this week confirmed that physical interactions were a part of Milleson’s program, as well. They recalled being grabbed by the pads or the face mask, being shoved by coaches or being yelled at so closely and intensely they could feel the spit spraying their faces.
Some players experienced nothing from Milleson. Some became victims of his words, others victims of his physical actions, but many who were a part of the program where insults and clipboards commonly flew, shared the same overall sentiment.
“Anytime under him, I didn’t really want to play at all,” Highley said. “It just wasn’t any fun. There’s quite a number of players, especially seniors, that stopped liking football because of him.”
Inside the Mary Herbert administration building, the brown-brick space that houses the Emporia Board of Education, families and their sons met with Fischer and Sobba earlier this month.
One family cajoled their son to attend, but he refused to speak in the meeting. Another player regretted his words immediately. “He was so scared that (Milleson) was going to find out that he said it,” the player’s mother said. One family sat patiently in the waiting room and prayed.
Once the formal complaint against Milleson was filed to the district in September, families who had previously met with the school regarding the head coach were invited to speak with the KASB attorney. The district scheduled one day for families to come in. Then another. And another, as more and more families decided to speak up. Attorney-client privilege barred Sobba from revealing how many families spoke to the school, but one parent estimated at least 15. Others guessed it was even more.
When the investigation was complete and presented to the board during several executive sessions, two members — Board President Michael Crouch and Vice President Leslie Seeley — recused themselves due to “conflicts of interest,” but the 5-0 vote from the remainder of the board sealed the decision.
In the community, some responded to the firing with comments calling the players who spoke up as “soft” or “weak,” pointing to a social climate that no longer allows a coach to be tough on their players anymore. But the players interviewed by The Gazette believe Milleson’s treatment of his players went beyond coaching and football itself.
“It’s not just football when the person makes you not love football,” Highley said.
“I know that a lot of people probably grew up playing football back in the day when coaches yelled at you and stuff,” another former player said. “But this was different. This was different. This wasn’t trying to make you better. It wasn’t trying to make you a better person. It just always made you feel shitty.”
On Friday, the 2-5 Spartans were led by Tuttle in Manhattan. The sense of relief among parents and their sons was palpable. Reached Friday afternoon, one team parent says she hadn’t seen her son this excited for a game all season with the well-liked assistant coach of five seasons now in charge.
With just one regular season game remaining, the damage for some, such as EHS’ seniors, was largely done. The same can be said for many former players who themselves watched their passion for football become sapped by their head coach. But for the underclassmen on the Spartans’ roster, and those coming up through Emporia’s football pipeline, many are hopeful that the future will be different.
“I’m glad,” one former player said. “I didn’t feel like he was fit to be a coach. There were some really good coaches in football who did really well in making sure that was their top priority, I didn’t feel like he ever took the means to do that. I hope that changes.”