The contrast was stark.
Shortly after Neal Brown was named the new WVU football coach, he was captured on film thanking Troy fans at a basketball game.
Dana Holgorsen, meanwhile, left Morgantown for Houston with nary a glance back. He tweeted out a picture of him in “H-Town” mugging with Andre Ware. See ya, he seemed to be saying, wouldn’t want to be ya. (Although later he did put a letter of thanks in the Dominion Post.)
It was a somewhat frosty divorce from Holgorsen. But then came the warmth of the ongoing Brown honeymoon.
WVU president E. Gordon Gee and athletic director Shane Lyons pared a list to Brown and Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell (with a de riguer interview with player favorite Tony Gibson tossed in). And, in the end, Gee (who was stumping for Fickell) acquiesced in favor of his A.D.
The response from Mountaineer fans and experts within the world of college football hailed the hire. “Kneel down to Neal Brown” was the headline in the Daily Athenaeum, WVU’s student newspaper.
Now, is Brown well-known? No. Yet is he well-respected? Big time. And WVU’s athletic department nicely rolled out the red carpet by showing video of him flying to Morgantown. There was a terrific clip of him meeting Don Nehlen, who built the foundation of the Mountaineer program. There was a shot of Brown meeting his new team.
Now, though, Brown has work to do. As in a bunch. The thought from here is that’s why Holgorsen bolted. The stellar offense, most notably QB Will Grier, is gone. The best defender, linebacker David Long, is gone. The 2019 season doesn’t set up as pretty. So Holgorsen was out there taking swings at jobs like Texas Tech and Houston. He connected on the latter.
So Brown’s charge now is to clean up some of Holgorsen’s messes – as well as improve the culture left behind.
Like in the area of recruiting. Holgorsen couldn’t piece together Top 25 classes – despite the national media’s love of the coach’s persona – and began relying on transfers.
That’s tough to maintain at a high level. And while Holgorsen claimed Morgantown is difficult to recruit to, I disagree. Draw a 500-mile radius map around the city. There’s Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. There’s Ohio. (Kentucky just beat Penn State with a roster of those left behind by Ohio State.) There’s Washington and Baltimore to the east. There’s Chicago and New York to the north. There’s Virginia and the Tidewater area. You can probably find over 300 Division I recruits in that circle. And how tough would it be to sell the Big 12 – especially to skill recruits – over the Big Ten and ACC? You want an education that sets you up for the NFL? See the Big 12. See Patrick Mahomes. See Baker Mayfield. Heck, see Grier.
Which leads us to roster management. Holgorsen’s staff routinely operated with a roster short of the allotted 85 scholarship players. That can’t happen going forward. Every college football team needs players to blossom – but especially WVU, which mostly has to recruit outside its state lines. The more players, the more possibilities, correct? Pretty simple.
Aside from that, Brown needs a vibrant office infrastructure – something missing under Holgorsen. No one could argue with Holgorsen’s ability in the area of X’s and O’s. As a CEO, though, there was something missing. Too many were in the circle because of personal relationships rather than talent.
Also, there was a disconnect between the football program and the players’ families. That has to change. Organize family groups. Have a hotline for concerned parents.
In sum, Brown has a chance to bring warmth back to the program. He can be inviting. Perhaps he can develop a robust walk-on program. Treat those guys well. Maybe bring back a well-organized and fun spring game – if only to allow the fans to cook hot dogs and meet the team. If only to lift the non-starters by allowing them to put on those helmets and playing a little.
See, despite what some might say, this WVU gig is a good job. A great coach can win at a high level.
As Nehlen told Brown, coaches just have to work their tails off.
And do it the right way.