FORT WORTH, Texas — In the 150 years they’ve played college football, there probably hasn’t been a scene quite like the one that greeted Neal Brown Friday evening.
Walking away from his final postgame press conference of the season, Brown received a standing ovation from a group of West Virginia fans and boosters gathered to the side of TCU’s makeshift press area.
A standing ovation. For a 5-7 football coach.
Thing of it is, in no way did it feel unwarranted or excessive. Those people weren’t handing out participation ribbons or accepting mediocrity. They were acknowledging that while West Virginia has not yet arrived, the Mountaineers certainly appear to be going places.
Begin with the secondary.
Most of Friday’s big plays were made by guys who will be back next year — safeties Tykee Smith (interception), Sean Mahone (the hit that led to Smith’s interception, plus one of his own), Kerry Martin Jr. (a pass breakup in the end zone that forced TCU to settle for a field goal) and cornerback Nicktroy Fortune (a fourth-down pass breakup in the two-minute drill).
“In the future, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with,” said senior linebacker Shea Campbell.
And that’s another interesting thing. Campbell wasn’t the only senior speaking as if this wasn’t his final game. The most impressive thing Brown did this season was getting a group of players recruited by another coach to buy into the concept that they could impact the program’s future.
One could hardly think of a better example than running back Kennedy McKoy, who has had every reason to pack it in since early in the season. Brown cited McKoy as a potential all-conference player in the preseason, but stuck behind a young offensive line McKoy never had a chance.
McKoy admitted that his patience was tested in a year no one could have seen coming for the running backs. But he also wanted to make sure that no other West Virginia running back knows what it’s like to be on one of the country’s bottom five rushing offenses.
“It was very important for me and this team to finish out this season strong,” McKoy said. “And for us seniors to leave a legacy of how we want to be remembered — and that’s to jump-start these young guys and the rest of the team into the next year.
“It was all about keeping the right attitude. Sometimes, stuff is not going to go your way. But you’ve got to learn to control the things you can control and keep fighting.
“We became more of a team as the year got on. Obviously, we went through some struggles this season. Things didn’t go how we wanted them to. But our team stuck together. I was proud of how we fought in really all of our games.”
Of course, the goal for West Virginia is to make sure this is the only time Brown is commended for finishing under .500. TCU finished the year with the same record as the Mountaineers, but based on the reaction from the other end of Amon G. Carter Stadium it felt like Gary Patterson was going to mimic his team’s namesake and shoot blood from his eyes.
“Only a few times in my life since I’ve been here that we’ve lost when holding a team under 300 yards and that’s happened twice this year,” Patterson said. “Plain and simple. There won’t be any players talking. I’m not very happy with them and they aren’t very happy with me to be honest with you. I feel sorry for my seniors, I didn’t get them back to a bowl game. Plain and simple.
“We got beat, we’re not going to a bowl game and I’m not happy with them because we gave it away to be honest with you. So plain and simple.”
One of these days, Brown might be the grumpy old coach if his team fails to meet expectations. But right now he’s the young, bright-eyed coach who led his team to meet or even exceed its modest set of expectations.
Those expectations will only raise from here. Based on how Year 1 ended, there’s no reason to think they won’t be reached.