MANHATTAN, Kan. — On the eve of Neal Brown’s biggest win at West Virginia, his most vocal believer outside of the Milan Puskar Center happened to be the drunkest guy at the bar in the team hotel.
We’ll get back to that guy in a minute. First, an explanation of how this lone wolf came to be.
In the wake of West Virginia’s humiliating defeat against Texas Tech, even those who fully invested into the concept of trusting the climb realized it might be awhile before they saw some real progress.
Sure, they still believed. Maybe things would come together in the 2020 season opener against Florida State. After all, the Seminoles will be breaking in a new coach. Finally the Mountaineers might have an edge going into a game. It was hard to visualize an instance where that would be true this season.
Those were the optimists.
Others were prone to more serious doubts.
Quite a few of them were in Las Vegas, where West Virginia was a 14-point underdog to Kansas State. Most bettors saw that as easy money, with 71 percent picking the Wildcats to cover according to Covers.com.
In some corners of the internet, a tiny but vocal minority questioned whether Shane Lyons should have hired Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell instead of Brown. Fickell had the Bearcats ranked, after all.
Needless to say, morale was at its lowest ebb since Brown was hired to mass acclaim in January.
Which brings us to the gentleman simultaneously holding court with no one and everyone at the hotel bar in Manhattan.
He was convinced that West Virginia was going to beat Kansas State on Saturday afternoon – although it wasn’t exactly because he was bullish on Brown. He was a diehard Wildcats fan concerned about his own team’s prospects against the Mountaineers due to their wardrobe.
“Why would you wear a throwback helmet from an 0-11 team?” he very loudly wondered about K-State’s helmets for the game, which featured a script “Cats” worn in the winless 1988 season. “It’s bad luck!”
Everyone else in the room laughed him off, as is tradition when someone appears to be approximately four sheets to the wind. They probably weren’t laughing after the game.
The moral of this story?
Never again will a random guy at the end of the bar be the only person convinced that a Neal Brown-coached team has a chance to win its next game. This was the signature victory Brown and his West Virginia program desperately needed to prove it isn’t a pushover and bring some positive momentum into the offseason.
The win helped West Virginia avoid the specter of ending the season on an eight-game losing streak. No matter how inspired a coach’s vision may be, it’s pretty difficult to build momentum for the coming spring when no one on the team can remember what it’s like to win. Given the boisterous volume of the celebration escaping from WVU’s locker room Saturday evening, it’s safe to say that’s no longer a concern.
The Mountaineers are still long shots to reach a bowl. They’ll be underdogs in must-win games against Oklahoma State and TCU. But no longer can those games just be written off as automatic losses. Perspective changes when you’ve beaten a ranked team on the road.
It’s not just the fact West Virginia won that’s encouraging. It’s how the Mountaineers did it. Some of the biggest plays were made by guys who showed they’re fully invested even if this program won’t peak until they’re gone.
Senior receiver George Campbell helped ease the transition for his roommate, new starting quarterback Jarret Doege. He was Doege’s favorite target, catching five passes for 92 yards.
Senior cornerback Hakeem Bailey saved the game with an A+ effort. Initially beaten on the final play for Kansas State’s offense, he hustled to erase a would-be touchdown pass and snag the game-winning interception on one of the best plays of his career.
And then there’s senior defensive back Josh Norwood, who sacrificed his own career to help contribute to the win. Showing no regard for his own safety, Norwood leaped up for a highlight-reel interception that demanded a crash-landing on his collarbone.
Any of those guys could have checked out by now. When seniors on a losing team are fully bought in, it’s a sign that the program itself is in healthy shape.
The next signature victories will have to be on the recruiting trail, but overall the future remains bright for Brown and the Mountaineers. And after Saturday’s win, you don’t even need a pair of beer goggles to see it.