The West Virginia Mountaineers are in the midst of finding their next head football coach. This will be their first real coaching search since Don Nehlen’s retirement, and we’re here to break down the top candidates and grade them based on how they would fit in Morgantown.
Troy Trojans head coach Neal Brown may be everything West Virginia needs to elevate to the next level in the Big 12 Conference. He’s a young, up-and-coming coach with a detail-oriented approach to coaching and an infectious personality, according to those who know him. Quite frankly, I, as well as virtually everyone that follows the yearly coaching carousel, am baffled by how he hasn’t already been plucked out of Troy, Alabama - especially during a season that has seen Mack Brown and Les Miles reemerge in Power 5 programs.
Brown was named head coach at Troy following former Trojan head coach Larry Blakeney’s retirement in 2014. In his first season there, the Trojans posted a 4-8 record. In each of the three seasons since, Troy has won at least 10 games and is 3-0 in their bowl games. Among Brown’s defining wins at Troy is the stunning 24-21 upset win over the No. 25 ranked LSU Tigers, bringing an end to the Tigers’ 46-game non-conference home winning streak, and a 24-19 win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2018.
While he is young, Brown has shown that he can win in a difficult place. Mountaineer fans may also be interested to know that Troy lost their starting quarterback, Kaleb Barker, to a season-ending knee injury after the Nebraska win, and still managed to go on to win 10 games on the season.
Brown runs his own version of the Air Raid, like most coaches who played or coached under Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, but also employees some option pitch, misdirection runs and cutback runs in the playbook. While his offenses at Troy haven’t consistently finished ranked in the top 40 in the nation, his defense has been the quiet surprise. 2018 will be the third straight season that the Trojans defense has finished in the Def. S&P Top 50, with the 2017 defense finishing at No. 17 nationally. If Brown can bring his defensive coordinator, Vic Koenning, with him, the tradeoff of a drop in offense with an improved defense could be a pitch that Shane Lyons listens to.
Recruiting & Player Development
My one major knock against Neal Brown is his a lack of proof that he can recruit well. In his time at Kentucky, he served as the lead recruiter for three four-star prospects - all of whom ended up transferring out of Lexington after Brown left. He’s had one player drafted into the NFL during his tenure at Troy - offensive tackle Antonio Garcia. Garcia was selected by the Patriots in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but was later released due to blood clots in his lungs.
I, personally, think recruiting prowess is going to be a key characteristic that Shane Lyons looks for in our next head coach, and I’m not sure Brown can keep up with some of the other candidates in this field. Again, not a knock on his ability, just a limited sample size to judge on.
The buzzword I’m hearing thrown around for the next regime is “culture change.” Dana Holgorsen was notoriously tight-lipped about happenings in the program. This created tension between with the local media outlets that almost came to a head this season when the athletic department announced a change in how player interviews were handled. From all accounts, Brown is the opposite of that - going as far as taking the time before a press conference to sincerely thank the local media in Troy, Alabama for the work they do on the Trojan beat.
The other goal for this hire should be to unite the Mountaineer fanbase behind a coach, which hasn’t actually been a thing that has happened since the morning of December 1, 2007. Compared to some of the other rumored candidates, Brown gives you one of the best opportunities to energize donors and fans.
Original reports from USA Today had Brown’s buyout at Troy is $2.9M, but it turns out to be just $300,000. West Virginia can pay the buyout from the million owed by Dana Holgorsen and still have $700,000 left to put in the bank.
Interest in West Virginia
Brown was born and raised in Kentucky and played for the Wildcats. If he’s looking to get back to his Appalachian roots, West Virginia may be right up his alley. Morgantown is just about six hours away from his hometown.
Of course, a hire with no real ties to West Virginia University is always going to lead to the fear of the coach using the Mountaineers as a stepping stone into a blue blood program or, perhaps in Brown’s case, a move back to where they began their career. I think that fear is a little overplayed. I mean, we just had a coach stick around for eight seasons while having absolutely no ties to the Mountaineers or the state of West Virginia.