Neal Brown says WVU job ‘fits my DNA’
MORGANTOWN - Neal Brown was at an uncle’s house back in Kentucky, celebrating a late Christmas with his family. In the background, the West Virginia University football team’s Camping World Bowl game against Syracuse was on the television.
On top of being Troy University’s football coach, Brown is a football fan, so he noticed the game was on but he really didn’t pay it much mind.
Just a couple of weeks later, he was standing in the team meeting room at WVU, meeting the media for the first time as the Mountaineers’ new football coach.
Life can happen fast, Brown said Thursday, but he knows he made the right decision in becoming WVU’s 35th head football coach.
“Culture, vision, passion,” Brown said. “Those are the things that have been very important to me and (wife) Brooke. Those are three criteria that have factored into each move we’ve made and every opportunity we’ve evaluated over the years.
“West Virginia is culture. It is vision and it is passion. And it’s a great fit. It fits my DNA.”
West Virginia University brass agreed Brown was the right man to replace Dana Holgorsen, who took the football coaching job at the University of Houston days after the Mountaineers lost to Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl. WVU athletic director Shane Lyons figured it out during his seven-hour interview with Brown.
Lyons wanted a sitting head coach with a track record of success. He wanted a coach who fit the athletic program’s culture and who showed a strong work ethic.
“Every box I talked about was being checked by Neal Brown,” Lyons said. “As we entered the interview process and had a chance to sit down with him in person, it was very clear and evident that he was going to be the next West Virginia football coach.”
At just 38 years old, Brown, a former offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and Kentucky before heading to Troy, had become one of the hottest names in Power 5-conference coaching searches.
He took over a Trojans program that had seen success before and fell on rough times.
Brown went from four wins his first year to 10 wins his second. He won 11 games and a Sun Belt Conference championship his third season at Troy and won 10 games last season. Each of Troy’s last three seasons ended in a bowl victory.
Yet, since being officially announced as WVU’s new coach Saturday, Brown admitted he hasn’t spent much time looking at the X’s and O’s of the program. He said there were much more important matters to attend to before that.
“In full disclosure, what my initial days on this job have been about is building relationships with the players,” he said. “I’ve not watched one clip of film yet. When you take a new job, there are so many things to do. And I think the mistake a lot of people make is that they go into immediately hiring staff and immediately doing things.
“To me, you’ve got to evaluate the players here as far as how they fit what you want to do,” he said. “Who are they and what are they about? These guys are 17 to 22 years old, but they’re kids in a lot of ways and their whole world just got rocked. I think it was important to sit down and get them to understand who I was as a person and get to know them.”
As far as staff, Brown made one announcement Thursday that his defensive coordinator at Troy, Vic Koenning, would be his defensive coordinator at WVU. Koenning, a former head coach at Wyoming, also has been a defensive coordinator at Clemson, Kansas State and Illinois.
Other staff announcements, Brown said, would be coming in the next few days.
Brown said the Mountaineers’ Koenning-led defense will be aggressive and fundamentally sound, with the primary goal of getting back the football. He wants those players reacting, not thinking.
“Vic has a history of putting together some of the top attacking defenses in the country,” Brown said. “It was a huge part of our success at Troy. He has experience in (the Big 12) and I couldn’t be more excited about having him here.”
The Koenning announcement answered one of the larger questions about the WVU staff, whether Holgorsen’s defensive coordinator Tony Gibson would be retained in any fashion. Lyons said Gibson is no longer with the program and will be paid the $950,000 owed on his contract. Any WVU assistant with time left on his deal - offensive line coach Joe Wickline, running backs coach Marquel Blackwell and cornerbacks coach Doug Belk all do - who is not retained will be paid the remainder of those deals.
Lyons said, though, there is mitigating language in all those contracts.
“If they get a new job, whatever they make, we’ll verify that with their new institutions and subtract that from what we owe them,” Lyons said. “But whatever their contract is, we will honor that salary and make them whole for that given year.”
There were no announcements Thursday other than Gibson as to whether any of Holgorsen’s assistants had been retained or let go.
Brown, a former player for “Air Raid” offense godfather Hal Mumme, is best known for his offensive mind. He said Thursday that the high-octane style of play WVU fans had gotten used to in recent years isn’t going anywhere.
“We’ll be a fast-paced, attacking offense,” Brown said. “We’ll get play makers in space and put points on the board. We’re a get-it-done offense, by any means necessary to win the game.”
Brown emphasized that he wants the staff and players to have fun in the quest to win football games. He wants to keep more Mountain-State Football Bowl Subdivision-level talent inside state lines and in WVU’s program. He wants former West Virginia players to feel welcome and to come back to be a part of the next chapter of West Virginia football.
He also knows that, in becoming WVU’s coach, he’s taking a big leap - from the Sun Belt to the Big 12, which featured a College Football Playoff semifinalist in Oklahoma and is home to the last two Heisman Trophy winners.
But Brown said he won’t change his philosophy in running a program. He oversaw Troy like it was a major-conference team, so life won’t be much different now that he’s in Morgantown.
“We’ve been running our program at Troy just like a Power 5,” Brown said. “I just said we’re ballin’ on a budget. We’ve got a little better budget now, so we’ll continue to have success.”