MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – While discussing the overall state of West Virginia athletics with reporters on Wednesday, WVU athletic director Shane Lyons was quick to temper expectations for the Mountaineers football team in 2019.
“We have to be a bit realistic here,” Lyons said. “We lost five guys to the NFL Draft. Several key players on the offensive side of the ball.”
The Mountaineers are replacing quarterback Will Grier, left tackle Yodny Cajuste, tight end Trevon Wesco and wide receivers Gary Jennings and David Sills.
Lyons was blunt in addressing the challenges facing Neal Brown in his first year as head coach.
“(Neal will) talk about how our running backs are good, but we’ll be a little weak in a receivers’ standpoint,” Lyons said. “On the offensive line we can be OK if everybody’s healthy, but we don’t have a whole lot of depth. On the defensive side a lot of players have seen some playing time in the past, but (there’s) no big, big names. Hopefully a few have a breakthrough year.”
The biggest name among the returning defensive players was safety Kenny Robinson, but the all-Big 12 selection left the school due to a reported academic violation.
Lyons’ level of expectation is certainly lower than last year, when part of the rationale for not rescheduling a hurricane-canceled game against N.C. State was the expectation the Mountaineers would be playing for the Big 12 championship on that day.
That said, Lyons likes the long-term trajectory Brown is trying to put the program on.
“There are some holes to be filled. But he’s filling those holes and building a great culture,” Lyons said. “Part of coaching is building that culture in the locker room. Talking to some of the student-athletes that are returning, they believe in Coach Brown and his staff. That’s a great thing to hear. Hopefully that resonates on the football field starting in the 2019 season.”
West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class is far from being filled, but Lyons thinks Brown’s overall approach will serve the program well in attracting new players.
“He and his staff have done a tremendous job getting young men here who may not have had an interest in West Virginia before,” Lyons said. “Selling the family atmosphere as a program; I couldn’t be more pleased from that standpoint. We joke that he hasn’t won a football game yet, but he’s on the right track.”
Lyons fishing for big donor
At the conclusion of the 2019 football season, renovation will begin on the Milan Puskar Center football facility. An updated locker room, team rooms, academic center, coaches offices and Hall of Fame are the next phase of the $55 million project that began with updating the athletic training and team dining areas.
A number of donors have chipped in to fund the project, but Lyons is still looking for the big kahuna.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from our donors,” Lyons said. “But we have not had that big, transformational gift come in yet.”
The Puskar Center renovations are part of an overall $100 million master plan that includes updates to WVU Coliseum as well as the gymnastics and golf facilities.
“The goal is to have that $100 million in hand,” Lyons said. “But we have to keep moving forward. We can’t pause; when you pause you’re moving backwards.”
What’s in a name?
Lyons broached the possibility of selling naming rights to facilities, with WVU Coliseum being the most logical candidate.
“My job is to continue to look at other possible revenue streams,” Lyons said. “Some of those are naming rights. That’s not just me making a decision. There’s making sure it’s the right partner and going through the board of directors to make sure it’s right for West Virginia University.”
Holding at 18
Don’t expect to see new sports at West Virginia any time in the near future. Men’s golf was restarted in 2015, bringing the program up to 18 total sports.
Lyons is frequently asked about adding sports such as softball, men’s track and field or men’s tennis, but he said it is not in the cards.
“What I’m trying to do now is focus on the 18 we currently have,” Lyons said. “On my plate right now, I’m not looking at adding sports. I’m looking at the bricks and mortar we need.”