West Virginia coach Neal Brown brings strong track record
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Self-described as “completely average college football player,” Neal Brown accepted his bachelor’s degree in business management from Massachusetts and wasn’t sure of his next step.
“I was trying to put off going into the real world,” he said.
So he played indoor football for a short time in Lexington, Ky., before he heard from an old friend and mentor.
Mark Whipple, the football coach at UMass, offered him a job coaching tight ends and offensive linemen. That was in 2003.
“Two or three months into it, I knew this was my passion,” Brown said. “I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
One job led to another and another and another, and, finally, Brown showed up at West Virginia on Thursday as the school’s 35th football coach, replacing Dana Holgorsen, who resigned last week to take the same job at Houston.
Brown signed a six-year, $19,050,000 contract, WVU President E. Gordon Gee said.
Brown comes from Troy, where he was one of six FBS coaches to win 10 or more games in each of the past three seasons. Among his 35 victories in four years were three in bowl games and a stunning 24-21 upset of No. 22 LSU in 2017, stopping the Tigers’ 49-game nonconference home winning streak. That year, Troy won the Sun Belt, and Brown was named coach of the year.
Brown also led a 24-19 upset of Nebraska in 2018 after nearly upsetting eventual national champion Clemson in a 30-24 loss in 2016.
He doesn’t expect the transition to the Big 12 and Power 5 to be daunting because, he said, he’s been running the program at Troy “just like a Power 5.”
“We got a little better budget now. We’re going to continue to have success.”
Brown, who is two months short of his 39th birthday, said he likes to mix work and fun, a concept that came to life in a video produced by the Troy athletic department. Brown has a starring role in it.
“The next day, it went viral,” he said. “It was most-watched video in Troy athletic history, even more than the win over LSU.
Brown, who grew up the son of two teachers, said “in a lot of ways, (in coaching), you really don’t have to grow up.”
“There’s work time and play time, and you can accomplish both,” he said. “I just don’t want to be miserable. I don’t think there’s anybody having any more fun than (Clemson coach) Dabo Swinney right now.”
Brown said Whipple, who was Ben Roethlisberger’s first quarterbacks coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was “a mentor for me. Somebody I leaned on.”
The offense Whipple ran at UMass drew the label Whiplash, Brown said.
“They were scoring points and putting up passing numbers, but they were doing it in a different way, lots of play-action passes. They were running the ball.
“What I learned from him, when the weather changes, you have to be able to run the football and take advantage of the opportunities downfield.”
Since then, Brown said, he has added option elements to his run game “to make us hard to defend.”
Brown said he has spoken to each of the recruits who signed letters of intent with Holgorsen last month. He said he will continue to recruit Western Pennsylvania, an area he handled when he was an assistant at Delaware.
“That was one of the key recruiting areas for us. Tough, hard-nosed kids, really well-coached kids. High school football coaching in that area is as good as it is anywhere. It will definitely be part of our recruiting landscape.”
While Brown was winning games at Troy, his name kept moving up the list of coaching candidates West Virginia athletic director keeps in his desk.
Shane Lyons said he spent seven hours Jan. 3 interviewing Brown, a process that eventually included Brown’s wife, Brooke.
“When you’re hiring the coach, you’re hiring the spouse and always hiring the family,” Lyons said.
Indeed, Brooke and the couple’s three children, plus parents, in-laws and Brown’s sister attended the news conference Thursday at Milan Puskar Center.
Lyons said he doesn’t plan to seriously look at his list of coaching candidates for a long time.
“His teams play with a chip on their shoulder,” he said, “with a blue-collar mentality that fits us entirely.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.