When Dudley DeGroot arrived in Morgantown in 1948 to coach the WVU football team, he already had nearly 20 years of college and professional head coaching experience. His first year with the Mountaineers continued his previous history of success—the team went 9-3.
His second, and what would be his final season, was a disappointment. The Mountaineers finished 4-6-1. The criticism of DeGroot was so withering, he quit and took a pay cut to become the head coach at New Mexico.
On his way out the door, DeGroot delivered a parting shot to Mountaineer fans. “A person must coach professional football and then come to West Virginia to get a real education,” he told the Charleston Gazette. “In all my years of coaching I have never known so many wise guys who know all the answers than I have met in West Virginia.”*
Coaches in every sport at all levels must have hide as thick as a rhinoceros to hold up under relentless judgement. The cacophony has increased exponentially with social media.
With this in mind, Mountaineer Nation is preparing for the first game of the inaugural season of new head coach Neal Brown. Optimists are hoping for enough wins for a bowl bid. Dispassionate oddsmakers put the line at five victories. Pessimists scan the schedule to try to find three or four victories, noting that JMU is not a gimme.
However, Brown starts his tenure on the sidelines with an inordinate supply of goodwill. His stock is higher than the average new coach because of how he handled himself in the eight months since he arrived.
The coach was everywhere in West Virginia.
If you follow him on Twitter you wondered if he had a clone. He was always popping up somewhere in the state. Sometimes it was a big event, like welcoming the freshman class to WVU or speaking to an alumni group.
Brown was at the Davisson Brothers concert the other night where he was invited on stage to join in on Country Roads. Brown and the Mountaineers visited a coal mine. He took several of his senior leaders to an etiquette class in Pittsburgh.
There are hundreds of pictures circulating on social media of fans posing with Brown.
But there were also quiet off-the-record moments, like a hospital visit with a wounded state trooper or joining with mourners at the funeral of a high school football player who died unexpectedly.
It is evident that Brown worked hard during the off-season to ingratiate himself with Mountaineer Nation, and that’s important. Mountaineer fans want to know that their coach is one of them, that he gets what it means to be a West Virginian.
There’s no real job description for that, and it’s hard to fake. You either understand that being the head coach of the Mountaineers is more than just about what happens in the games or you don’t.
Dana Holgorsen failed badly on that part of the job, so much so that his decision to leave for Houston was met with an odd ambivalence. Could you lose a friend you never really had? It already feels as though Brown and his family are part of the fabric that holds Mountaineer Nation together.
Of course, coaches must win and ultimately Brown’s tenure here will be judged by the Mountaineers’ successes and failures on the football field. When the Mountaineers do not meet expectations, like DeGroot, Brown will have his chorus of “wise guys” in his ear.
However, heading into the first game Neal Brown already has a winning off-season to his credit.
*(The History of the Mountaineers by Jon Antonik)