COMMENTARY

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For West Virginia’s football team, the scorekeeping began in January.

That’s when Neal Brown’s new coaching staff launched its offseason accountability competition, whereby the 100-man roster was divided into 10 teams. No longer were weightlifting and conditioning the primary metrics that mattered; now class attendance, nutrition and community service also were assigned numeric values. 

Arrive 5 minutes late for a tutoring session? Points deducted. Make time to play bingo with nursing home residents? That’s a plus. 

“People really cared about it,” said center Chase Behrndt. “At 6 in the morning, guys were looking at the wall seeing if their team was in first.”

Utilizing the power of peer pressure, Brown’s intrasquad competition appointed 10 team leaders — upperclassmen like Colton McKivitz, Kennedy McKoy, Dylan Tonkery and T.J. Simmons — each of whom drafted a 10-man crew. The chance to play amateur GM required strategy, considering the diverse range of categories.

“You have to draft intelligently,” Brown said. “You got think about, ‘Who are my community service guys? Who are my academic guys? Who is going to make the biggest gains in the weight room?’ All that factors into your team.”

When the final scores are tallied in June — after spring semester grades are calculated — the top three teams will receive special packs of gear. The underlying payoff isn’t so tangible.

Sources within the program suggested Dana Holgorsen’s previous regime was so football-focused it overlooked certain character-building exercises that can make the offseason more productive. Academics and other off-the-field accomplishments rang hollow because they weren’t necessarily celebrated.

When Brown arrived in January, he espoused how teams become “defined” by their eight weeks in the winter and eight weeks in the summer. That’s when habits are refined, leaders blossom and standards enacted. For the new staff, those expectations emphasize players becoming stronger and faster on the field, and better ambassadors outside of football.

“They really push for you to be the best person you can be all-around,” said linebacker Shea Campbell. 

The senior from Morgantown recently devoted two hours on a Friday night to joining elderly residents for several rounds of bingo that were every bit as competitive as the Mountaineers’ workout warrior sessions.

“Sometimes it’s hard for the people at the nursing home because it’s the same thing every day,” Campbell said. “It makes me feel better about myself, just knowing they appreciate us being there for them. This teaches us a different lesson. There’s a lot of people that really admire what we do. It’s definitely something I’m glad I did.”

Quarterbacks coach Sean Reagan witnessed the accountability competition’s impact at Troy, where over the past three seasons the Trojans produced a 12-3 record in one-possession games.

“All those pieces slowly add up when you’re trying to build a culture,” Reagan said. “Ultimately we want a players-led football team. Once you have that, you’re going to win championships.”

“Ultimately we want a players-led football team. Once you have that, you’re going to win championships.”
— Quarterbacks coach Sean Reagan

With stars such as Will Grier, David Sills, Gary Jennings and David Long heading to the NFL, West Virginia desperately needs the next group of leaders to take command. The accountability squads have expedited that process, said Behrndt, because “you’re not being spoken to from a higher-up, you’re being dragged along by someone who’s in your shoes.”

Behrndt, a member of Team McKivitz, envisions the exercise helping build chemistry. Because linemen mingle with skill players and specialists, it cuts across cliques. “For guys who aren’t outgoing, it brings them out of their shell and really opens them up to everyone on the team,” he said.

Simmons, a transfer who started six games as a sophomore, sees the compounding value in “doing the little things right” — especially when it comes to initiating younger players. Amid the demands of film study and spring practice, players don’t have as much free time, but Simmons still encourages his guys to perform more community service or assist with recruiting visits. 

Being prompt for class is mandatory, considering the whole group gets penalized for one tardiness. Leaving class early also costs a team points.

“Everybody knows what they’ve got to do, and when you mess up, it was you who decided to mess up,” Simmons said. “So if I say something to you about it, you know what you did wrong. I’m just bringing it to your eyes.”

You’ll have to check back in October to see whether the Mountaineers finally beat Oklahoma because players showed up promptly during March. But Brown sees a foundational connection.

“Discipline means consistently doing what you’re coached to do,” he said. “It’s easy to be disciplined some of the time, but it’s difficult to be disciplined all the time.”

For the moments when lethargy tempts, Brown reminds his new team:

“The decisions you make affect everyone within our organization. We’re all linked together.”

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