SAN FRANCISCO - On New Year’s Day nearly two years ago, Parker Kinney spent the day with Brian Lilly Jr. at picturesque Scripps Beach in the San Diego area and realized his friend had become a shadow of his former self.
Kinney and Lilly walked on the sand for hours and went to dinner. At the end of the night before saying goodbye, they opened up about their shared struggles while rowing for the coach at the time at University of California-San Diego and how it had affected their well-being.
Yet Kinney couldn’t possibly fully grasp the depths of Lilly’s despair that afternoon: The 19-year-old college rower took his own life just three days later.
Kinney is convinced his friend had been pushed to the edge by verbal abuse from coach Geoff Bond. Lilly’s parents feel the same way.
"This guy basically squashed Brian’s self-esteem, his threat to push Brian off the team. And I don’t need to have a sports psychologist in here to tell me how damaging that was," father Brian Lilly Sr. said.
Brenda and Brian Lilly Sr. have filed a wrongful-death suit against Bond and the school, alleging the coach mistreated their son largely because he challenged Bond’s decision to allow a rower to remain on the team despite allegations of sexual misconduct against the athlete. They are adamant their son was verbally abused by Bond, leading to his suicide in January 2021.
Kinney said he saw the abuse.
"I felt like they were trying to sweep the whole sexual assault allegations under the rug and a decent amount of kids had legitimate concerns about this, being like, ‘This is pretty messed up,’" Kinney said. "A lot of kids didn’t speak out about it. Brian did speak out about it, so Geoff retaliated against him. Brian’s main concern was that this would harm the integrity of the team, which I agreed with."
The defense team for Bond, who coached at UC San Diego until last January, filed a motion to dismiss the Lillys’ case. The defense said Bond hadn’t seen Brian Lilly Jr. for the nine months prior to his death and that the coach reached out during the pandemic lockdown period to inquire whether Lilly would return to school in San Diego from the East Coast where he had been living.
Several of Bond’s former collegiate rowers from Cal, Penn and UCSD also reached out to The Associated Press in support of the coach.
"I absolutely loved his style of coaching and feel it is a great fit for young college kids," Gary Champagne, who rowed for Bond at Cal as a freshman in 2002-03, said via email.
Lilly family attorney Nicholas Lewis said Brian Lilly Jr. remained involved with the rowing program from home by attending the regular team video calls.
UC San Diego declined to comment through a spokesman, citing pending litigation. The school offered no details when Bond departed as coach on Jan. 13.
The Lillys said they are determined to save others from the kind of treatment they say their son endured.
"My whole thing right now is to give my son a voice," his father said. "He was the ultimate underdog. He was a hero."
Lilly’s parents said their son never had a history of mental illness prior to rowing at UCSD.
Lewis said the teen briefly underwent in-patient treatment in July 2020 after experiencing what the attorney called psychotic and schizophrenic symptoms such as paranoia and disorganized thoughts before Lilly stabilized in a matter of days then continued outpatient therapy the rest of that year. Bond’s defense has argued the coach was never aware of Lilly’s emotional state.
The Lillys said their son overcame a great deal to even emerge as a collegiate rower. Formerly, their son had been "a chubby little fellow," his father said, because of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that he eventually outgrew through hard work and the right diet. He ran the New York City Marathon and completed an Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid.
Brian Lilly Sr. recalled how his son pushed himself so hard during a rowing-machine session in February 2020 that he vomited multiple times and that Bond referred to throwing up as being a response of "sissies."
Some rowers who competed for Bond at UC San Diego have shared similar experiences, describing a culture in which Bond used crass and offensive language among other put-downs regularly uttered in front of athletes.
Kinney said that in March 2020, Bond yelled at him on the water using inflammatory language because of Kinney’s friendship and support of Lilly.
"I was paralyzed with fear. I was 18," Kinney said. "I called my dad. I was losing respect for the program."
Kinney eventually quit the team and others also departed, with at least some of them sharing with each other that rowing for Bond had taken a toll on their mental health.
Now, Kinney dearly misses his friend and a sport he used to love: "I’m pretty numb to it myself at this point."