Neal Brown: Getting here (part 2)

At age 38, Neal Brown became West Virginia’s 35th head football coach in January. His record during a four-year stint at Troy was 35-16

The QB Neal Brown wouldn’t let walk alone. The coordinator who hired him on the cheap. And his ace recruiter when it comes to mamas, grandmamas and aunties.


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The mad dash to National Signing Day was behind him, and West Virginia’s class emerged fortified. His coaching staff had been assembled, clustered into an extended-stay hotel near campus and handed their recruiting priorities for 2020 and beyond. Blueprints for the Puskar Center renovation were being scrutinized and revamped. High school coaches in every cranny of the state had met him personally or taken his call. And now, with his frantic introductory period starting to feel stabilized, the moving trucks arrived from Troy and Neal Brown was joined in the rental home by his wife and three children.

So the head coach allowed himself a breather.

He called defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and said, “I’m not coming into the office today.” Which only meant Koenning knew to brace for tomorrow.

“I’m sure Neal was around his family all day, but you knew his mind was still working. So of course the next day we all had a big, new list of things to do,” Koenning said. “Even when he’s not in the building, he’s always figuring out ways to get better.”

‘This guy is gold’

Seth Doege signed with Texas Tech to play quarterback under Mike Leach, to whistle passes through the Lubbock wind, to trigger the “Air Raid” offense. So after two years in development, Doege must’ve felt the West Texas earth quaking beneath his cleats  when Leach was fired, and of all replacements,  Tommy Tuberville — with a background for  SEC powerball — became the new coach.

“It was nerve-racking. On Leach’s staff was Lincoln Riley, Seth Littrell, the guys who recruited me,” Doege said. “When that new staff came in, all the quarterbacks and everybody offensively was skeptical.”

Fortunately for Doege, Texas Tech administrators insisted Tuberville’s staff continue using the aerial attack that had become the school’s brand. Even more fortunately for Doege, Neal Brown was the best available coordinator on the “Air Raid” coaching tree.

They clicked instantly during the spring of 2011 — the new play-caller anxious to refine his quarterback’s fundamentals, and Doege willing to adjust.

Brown scrutinized his dropback mechanics and issued daily breakdowns on how footwork tied into different routes.

“He was so precise. Every little movement was coached,” said Doege. “There was so much structure to it, that at first you don’t feel as free throwing the ball. But when you see the results getting better and better, like I saw, that’s when you trust it. He made me conscientious of all those little things every day.”

WVU witnessed Doege’s best game in 2012: A six-touchdown, 499-yard performance that culminated in a 49-14 win and the senior  being lifted atop the shoulders of students who stormed the turf.

In recounting the moment where Brown touched him the most, however, Doege rewinds to  his worst game.

It came Nov. 12, 2011, when Doege was a redshirt junior making his 10th start. The Red Raiders, sinking into a five-game  skid, had been crushed in their own stadium, 66-6, by No. 2 Oklahoma State. The QB’s psyche was nearly crushed in the process.

“I was just awful, and there was talk of me getting pulled,” he said. Rattled and despondent, Doege left the locker room alone and began walking home “because I just didn’t want to be around anybody.” He made it  several blocks  from the stadium when Brown’s truck pulled up next to him.

“Coach Brown knew I was worried they were going to put someone else in, but he said he wouldn’t let that happen. He knew I had worked way too hard, and that I was still the leader of the team, and he didn’t want to destroy my confidence.

“I always think of him having my back. He really stuck his neck out for me.”

Doege recovered to finish the 2011 season ranked eighth nationally in passing yardage and 13th in completion percentage. In 2012 he rose to third in both categories with 4,205 passing yards and a 70.2 completion rate.

They remained in touch through Doege’s three-year pro career and Brown’s meteoric rise at Troy. The quarterback was invited to volunteer coach at the Trojans’ spring practice and stayed at Brown’s house. When Doege’s wife gave birth last October, one of the first pictures was texted to Brown.

Doege’s advice for any Mountaineers players who might be skeptical about their own coaching transition: “I’m telling you, West Virginia got a steal. This guy is gold.”

West Virginia football coach Neal Brown, his wife Brooke and their children were introduced at a basketball game in January.


She’s coach at home

Brooke Brown snickers when her husband calls her “the coach at home.” He’s not the only one handing out laurels.

Troy’s longtime play-by-play broadcaster Barry McKnight, having witnessed a career’s worth of coaches’ wives, raved about Brooke: “She’s a phenomenon.”

Tony Franklin, whose four decades in football included stints at Cal, Louisiana Tech, Auburn and being Neal’s position coach at Kentucky, said of her: “She’s a star.”

Those close to the couple see a glove-like fit, a marriage of balance, teamwork and shared ambition. Maybe it’s because Brooke grew up the daughter of a small-college basketball coach, and recalls being “a gym rat from the get-go,” which helps her navigate the seasonal and weekly cycles that fluctuate with wins and losses.

“I take my cues from Neal before games,” she said. “If he’s not nerved up, I’m not nerved up.”

Having dated Neal since high school, she saw him progress from player to lowly paid graduate assistant to a head coach now earning $3 million annually. Though the job status has changed, the magnitude of each new final score makes it necessary to decompress when coach turns to father.

“I don’t know how he shakes off some of the losses, because the dude is intense on the field, but when he gets home he’s just dad. Our kids deserve that,” Brooke said. “Now, when the kids are in the bed and everyone else has gone home, there’s some sulking for sure. But if you can’t turn the page quickly it starts to taint the next week.”

When West Virginia offered Brown the job in late December, there was never a doubt Brooke and the kids would join him as soon as possible. (“We are better together than we are apart” has been their philosophy through every coach move.) Their Troy home sold within days of hitting the market — “definitely a God thing,” Brooke surmised — and the family reunited in Morgantown by early February.

“A normal person would probably finish the schoolyear before moving up there, but it’s a big deal for the kids to get to Morgantown and get locked-in. I want them to be part of the excitement,” she said. “Besides, we needed to get up there to make sure Neal is actually eating and sleeping.”

The Mountaineers also could use Brooke’s help as an unofficial recruiter.

When she jokes that “I know how to sell a program” it’s essentially a feel for reassuring the families of prospects.

“We’ve got players in our homes about as much as the NCAA will allow. It’s an important piece of recruiting for them to really see Neal and the coaches as husbands and dads,” Brooke said. “I try to connect with the mamas and the grandmamas and the aunties. I know someday my kids are going to go away from home, and I sure would like for someone to love them up.”

The life coach

Neal Brown surprised offensive lineman Josh Sills one morning outside the Engineering Research Building. Moments later across campus, he caught up with receiver Dillon Spalding and tight end Mike O’Laughlin.

“Another successful class check,” the coach tweeted.

Brown’s holistic approach to team-building starts by doing his own legwork to verify that athletes show up for courses. His drop-ins at Troy classrooms became so frequent they might as well have been part of the syllabus.

“One professor was like, ‘If Neal pops his head in today, this class is cancelled,’ and then it happened,” said SGA vice president Morgan Long.

A sports management major with intern experience for minor-league baseball, Long said Brown sometimes ate in the student dining hall and didn’t mind “if you wanted to talk X’s and O’s for a second.” That accessibility extended to the quarterly pep rallies around campus. Brown always showed up and always with a few players in tow.

When Troy qualified for the Dollar General Bowl in 2016 — its first bowl bid in five years — Brown showed up at the ticket line and paid for the first 100 students. By the time the Trojans made it three straight bowl trips in 2018, he and Brooke gave away 300 tickets.

“You saw him everywhere,” Long said. “At church on Sundays, at the rec fields with his kids, and he was always approachable. He didn’t act like he was better than anybody.”

[Brown prioritized mingling with former players too. When Troy invited lettermen back from its lower-division haydays, he researched more than their names. One old-timer was stunned that Brown knew he had scored two touchdowns against Delta State.]

Long happened to be in the visitors’ section at Death Valley on Sept. 30, 2017 — the night Troy jumped by 17 points and stunned LSU. The memories remain crystal: The disbelieving expressions from the LSU alumni nearby, and Brown’s self-assurance never wavering.

“Yeah, of course we were the underdogs, but seeing him on the sideline, he looked so confident,” Long said. “It was freaking awesome because we really controlled that whole game. For the atmosphere around the football program, that night changed everything.”

Tony Franklin vouches

In mid-January, as Neal Brown began familiarizing himself with high school coach across West Virginia and the mid-Atlantic,

61-year-old Tony Franklin was scouring the opposite coast, aiming to recruit California junior college talent to Middle Tennessee State.

No disrespect, but Franklin hopes to sign receivers who are much faster than the Brown kid he once coached at Kentucky from 1998-2000. (Brown made 10 career receptions for the Wildcats, averaging a robust 4.8 yards per catch.)

In 2003, Franklin found himself coaching Brown again, this time for the Lexington Horsemen of the National Indoor Football League, where teams practiced only a couple times each week and players received $250 per game.

“Neal was the typical overachieving possession receiver,” Franklin said. “But he loved that league because we could have three guys in motion at the same time. So he would start off about 20 yards behind the play and by the time the ball was snapped, his 4.75 40 looked like a 4.4. It’s probably the only time he ever felt fast in his life.”

At least Brown proved to be a faster learner.

When Franklin became Troy’s offensive coordinator in 2006, he needed a receiver’s coach and Brown soon had his first FBS coaching offer.

Along with being smart, young and energetic, Brown was affordable. “We couldn’t play a whole lot of money and he was willing to work for very little,” Franklin said.

And work he did.

On top of handling position duties, Brown prepared each week as if he were calling plays. That sometimes led to creative suggestions that Troy’s offense incorporated — and some suggestions that didn’t pan out.

“He wasn’t afraid to get his ass chewed,” Franklin said. “Just very meticulous and detail-oriented and extremely confident. Neal was preparing not only to be a coordinator but also to be a head coach.”

In 2008, when Franklin left to join Auburn for his own less successful brush with Tommy Tuberville, Brown earned the Troy promotion and became the youngest offensive coordinator in the FBS.

Franklin has worked with recruiters personable enough to go sign anybody, only they couldn’t evaluate talent. Others could spot upside but failed to connect with players. “Neal happens to be good at both,” he said.

Turns out the coach who came cheap 13 years ago turns out to be “a uniquely special coach and person,” and Franklin is unapologetically bullish on Brown supplanting Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia.

“I’ve known Dana a long time and I think he’s a really, really good football coach,” he said. “And there’s a tremendous heritage of good football coaches at West Virginia. But Neal Brown, I think he’ll end up being the best coach they’ve ever had.”

SECOND OF A TWO-PART STORY: Read the first chapter on West Virginia’s new football coach here.