MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Within moments of sidling up to the podium, Neal Brown saluted “Country Roads” and Don Nehlen, making him unofficially 2-0 in his young stint as West Virginia’s head football coach.
His introductory press conference drew an overflow crowd of media, boosters and administrators inside the Puskar Center, the same area where five days earlier Brown privately addressed Mountaineers players.
“On Sunday night I was looking at a group that was bigger, faster, stronger than the group I’m looking at now,” he joked. “At least they better be.”
The narrative surrounding Dana Holgorsen’s exit — that West Virginia flubbed its best shot in 2018, and that 2019 will demand a rebuild — doesn’t resonate with Brown. He encountered actual rebuilding at Troy in 2014, when the Trojans were flatlining after four non-winning seasons.
“This is different,” he said.
You could hear the computers whirling over at the season ticket office as Brown began selling hope, and you could see Twitter buzzing with news of Tate Martell’s transfer from Ohio State. Brown inherits a recruiting class with at least seven vacancies remaining, and finding a quarterback is paramount.
Armed with a .794 winning percentage over the past three years — and an aw-shucks story about the origin of that fabulously awkward dance video at Troy — Brown rides into Morgantown on a wave of relief. His hiring. Three Big 12 jobs and two nearby ACC searches had opened and closed by the time Holgorsen bolted for Houston, timing that in some years could’ve left West Virginia digging through the bargain bin.
Never fear, though, because athletics director Shane Lyons — acing the first make-or-break exam of his tenure — delivered a targeted, efficient pitch to land Brown. With presidential sidekick Gordon Gee hitting all the right notes, WVU offered a harmonious marriage of academia and big-time sports.
“The alignment was evident,” Brown said Thursday.
And Gee, scoring one for serendipity, sensed clarity in Brown being the perfect fit: “Very infrequently do you know immediately what is right.”
With the Mountaineers preparing to make him a millionaire three times over, Brown folded his loved ones into the ceremonial day.
His wife Brooke sat in the front row, along with their three little Brownies: 10-year-old Adalyn, 7-year-old Anslee, and 3-year-old Dax. The coach’s parents were there, too, and so were his in-laws. Brown even saved a seat for his sister, whom he praised for recently graduating law school. We came within a broccoli casserole of staging a family reunion.
“These people define me,” Brown said.
He vowed to define his own success at West Virginia on three pillars: Developing young men, graduating student-athletes, and, the metric always emphasized most, “we’re going to win football games.”
Harping on a player-first approach, nothing about Brown’s arrival smacked of a roster house-cleaning. He reminded the current players that “I chose them” and not the other way around. From academic advisors to compliance staffers to facility architects, he said decisions and workflow should benefit the team.
“They are why we are here, why we do what we do. This program will not be about me.”
Yet it most certainly will be about his leadership brand and the culture that flows top-down. Brown pledged discipline would be “a program mandate from Day 1” and players must appreciate investments made on their behalf.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” he said, laying down some New Testament truth.
The Power Five level rewards and requires much of assistant coaches, too. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was in the audience, giving his folksy take on football shaped during stops at Clemson, North Carolina, Illinois and K-State. Over the coming two weeks, Koenning will help assemble a group of assistants that Brown is challenging even before they’re hired.
“Our coaching staff will be active and they will be visible. Our staff will be expected to work extremely hard, to evaluate players, to build relationships, and close on the best prospects that fit our program,” he said.
While the state of West Virginia rarely churns out FBS prospects, Morgantown isn’t some desolate outpost for last-resort types. Trace a five-hour circle around campus and you’ll find fertile recruiting grounds.
“I know the type of players in our footprint,” Brown said. “They will know who we are and what we’re about. We have a tremendous product to sell here.”
It sounded genuine, sounded like truth. For a man like Brown, he couldn’t sell it otherwise.