Phil Koons hearing
With one of his lawyers holding his shoulder, Ringling Public School principal and coach Phil Koons exits the Jefferson County Courthouse on Tuesday, March 12, 2024, amid a crowd of reporters and supporters. (Bennett Brinkman)

WAURIKA — In a packed courtroom this morning, Jefferson County District Court Judge Dennis Gay allowed a criminal case against Ringling Public Schools principal and coach Phil Koons to head to a jury trial after rejecting a plea deal more than two months ago.

Gay said the trial will likely happen in September. Koons initially had been set to be sentenced Tuesday after pleading no contest to one charge of outraging public decency Jan. 2 as part of a plea deal that would have resulted in a seven-year deferred sentence.

Koons was charged Oct. 17 after an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation inquiry into alleged verbal harassment of his players. Former players said Koons regularly belittled them with profane language and sometimes called them slurs.

But while Gay accepted Koons’ no-contest plea, he rejected the rest of the deal at a Jan. 2 hearing after victim-impact statements were read in court. Instead, he set a sentencing hearing for Tuesday.

Koons on Tuesday asked the judge to withdraw his no-contest plea, which Gay allowed after a 30-minute hearing that included Koons taking the witness stand.

“What you’re telling me today, though, is that you now understand that you don’t want the court to determine your sentence. You would rather have a jury determine the sentence, correct?” Gay asked Koons.

Koons answered: “Yes, your honor.”

When questioned by his attorney and by the prosecutor, Koons maintained he was unaware of what a blind plea meant and that he did not know what “outraging public decency” entailed. Assistant District Attorney John Weedn attempted to cast doubt on Koons’ apparent ignorance, but Gay said it was part of the reason he was allowing Koons to withdraw his plea.

Phil Koons has served as Ringling High School’s principal and head football coach. (Provided)

“Part of the reason the court rejected the original plea agreement was because of the defendant’s statements at the time of the plea,” Gay said. “The statements then and today indicate to me that the defendant either didn’t understand or things weren’t explained to him appropriately, and he doesn’t even believe that he’s committed a crime, and for all those reasons, the court will allow the defendant to withdraw his no-contest plea and set the matter for trial.”

Weedn said his office, led by District Attorney Jason Hicks, might now add additional charges to the case. Currently, Koons is only facing one misdemeanor count of outraging public decency “by willfully and wrongfully committing an act that was injurious to public morals by using profane, degrading and derogatory language towards student athletes under his supervision at Ringling Public School,” according to the charging document.

The charge carries a punishment of up to a $500 fine and up to one year in jail.

At the Jan. 2 hearing, Koons had initially been given the chance to withdraw his plea after Gay rejected the rest of the deal. Koons opted to retain his plea, a fact that Weedn attempted to use to convince the judge to deny the withdrawal motion.

“Defendant simply argues that he was under duress and did not thoughtfully consider the terms of the plea and the potential impact of the rejected conditions,” the prosecutor wrote in a court filing. “No defendant from the most insignificant of traffic offenses to the most heinous of murders appears before any judge without experiencing duress.”

But in his own court filing, Koons argued that the quick change in circumstances caused him to make a hasty decision.

“Given the circumstances, the defendant was under duress and unable to take the necessary time to thoughtfully consider the terms of the plea and the potential impact of the rejected conditions,” one of Koons’ lawyers, Shelby Shelton, wrote in the motion to withdraw the plea.

Gay said his trial docket begins in September, and it could features Koons’ case. He is set to appear back in court May 7, at which point attorneys will decide how to proceed with the potential additional charges. Weedn also said he eventually plans to turn over more than 500 pages of the OSBI investigation to Koons’ lawyers.

Attorney Michael Johnson, who appeared with Shelton on behalf of Koons on Tuesday, declined to comment after the hearing. Shelton said he might release a statement on Koons’ behalf later.

While Koons has been listed as the Ringling High School principal on the bottom of the district’s website for months since he was charged, the site now lists Jackie Matherly in that position. Koons was placed on administrative leave during part of the investigation, but he was reinstated by the district.

Lawyer: Case has ‘split the town in half’

Phil Koons hearing
Observers of the hearing for Ringling Public School coach Phil Koons congregate outside the Jefferson County Courthouse on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. (Bennett Brinkman)

Dozens of spectators made the 30-minute drive west from Ringling to the Jefferson County Courthouse to watch Tuesday’s 9 a.m. hearing, including multiple Ringling High School students. Founded during a petroleum boom and known as a home to strong men who worked in the oilfields and for the circus industry, Ringling has about 1,000 residents now and takes community pride in its football team.

One observer at Tuesday’s hearing said he estimated the crowd filling the courtroom to be “three-one” in favor of Koons.

“My opinion is it went well for Coach Koons, because now he’ll get his day in court,” Steve Howard said.

Howard was at the hearing with his son, Rance, who is a student at Ringling High School. Rance has played for Koons and has been his student for years.

“He’s been good to me,” Rance Howard said of Koons.

Steve Howard called the sequence of events that led to Koons being charged “a perfect storm” that included a “disgruntled player” and a teacher who wasn’t happy with the way Koons was leading the school.

“I think when it comes out in court, I’m pretty sure this thing will be settled favorably for Mr. Koons,” Steve Howard said.

Koons is also facing a civil lawsuit brought by some of the alleged victims in federal court. Tod Mercer, a lawyer for the victims in that case, attended Tuesday’s hearing and said the decision was “expected.” He said every new court event is hard for the victims.

“Every time this comes up for somebody that’s been abused — it’s a trigger for them — and so every time this comes up and they have to come to court or some kind of issue comes up with the case, it’s another trigger for them to relive the abuse that they went through,” Mercer said. “So, it is difficult, and it’s difficult for their parents.”

Mercer said that the criminal and civil cases have divided Ringling.

“It’s split the down in half. It’s divided the town since it happened, and I really don’t understand why, because what is right about getting behind somebody that abused kids?” Mercer said. “Maybe when it finally all comes out and our civil case is heard, and they have to pay a judgment or a verdict, then maybe they’ll understand.”

Multiple students who played for Koons attended the hearing and expressed support for him afterward.

“He never said anything that didn’t need to be said,” football player Payton Waldie said of Koons, adding that he is a “great coach.”

Another player repeated Waldie’s comments and added one other.

“(I) never felt like I was harassed or any type of harm when I was next to him,” sophomore Leland Johnson said.

Student and player Rhett Roberts called Koons “just a great guy.”

“He’s taught us a lot, for real,” Roberts said. “A lot of responsibility, a lot of discipline.”

The three students all agreed the reason Koons has found himself in court was because of “bad parents” and “soft people” who “can’t take it.”

“Everything he did or said was necessary. People like us — we didn’t leave,” Roberts said. “Everything he did was for good.”

But at the Jan. 2 hearing, the four victim impact statements read aloud from other students told a different story.

“Players are cursed and belittled for missing practice. I was called a pussy when I missed practice because my mother was put in the hospital. I was told I didn’t deserve to play and humiliated in front of the team in the locker room after a game,” one player wrote. “The constant verbal and mental abuse had made some players depressed, anxious, and/or thinking about committing suicide. I have tried to be there for those going through these troubles. (…) One player would get upset after Phillip Koons would call him racial slurs. He felt targeted for his skin color, and we were upset seeing how much this hurt our teammate.”

Another victim impact statement referenced prior allegations about Koons’ behavior at past coaching and teaching jobs.

“I have at times had some suicidal thoughts due to the situation, the pain, and the betrayal. I have felt that the ones I have trusted most and thought were great people have turned their backs on me and others,” the student wrote. “I cannot stand the fact that Phil and the other abusers have continued to get away with this for so long and are still able to keep doing this to kids and other people. I have been traumatized by all of this. I feel I have suffered academically due to the mental strain and depression making it hard for me to focus on my work. (…) My family has been hurt and attacked by the people who support him. My family, friends, and I have been harassed on social media as well as my family and friends have been harassed face to face. I have been hurt and stressed by this entire process. This man and others that are involved deserve to be punished for what they have done.”