WVU’s new football coach begins building his legacy by listening.
Neal Brown didn’t know much about Morgantown before taking the job as WVU’s 34th head football coach. He had visited town only a few times. Most of his interactions involved “passing by on the interstate,” he says.
Brown says he’s been pleasantly surprised since moving to town in the spring—surprised by the level of diversity in town, by the quality of the local school system that his children attend, and, most of all, by the welcome his family has received. “The people always make the place,” he says.
He has met lots of people since moving to the Mountain State. In May and June, he traveled the state as part of the annual Coaches Caravan, which gave him some quality time with WVU basketball coach Bob Huggins. “He loves this place—it’s evident,” Brown says. He also got some face-time with the fans. “That’s one of the things that drew us to this opportunity. It’s a passionate fanbase.”
Some of those passionate fans fretted when WVU announced it was hiring Brown, who has never run a big-time football program before. But he says those naysayers are ignoring the time he spent as an offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and the University of Kentucky. In particular, his two seasons with the Red Raiders gave him a crash course in Big 12 football. He’s been to all the stadiums, played against all the teams, and is familiar with the nuances of the conference’s officiating. “I’m not doing things for the first time,” he says.
Brown has spent time engaging the fanbase here at home, too. The team held a student appreciation day during spring practices and plans to hold another this fall. Brown doesn’t see connecting with the student body as an extra credit assignment—to him, it’s vital to the success of a team.
He attributes his accomplishments at his last job as head coach at Troy University in Alabama—the 35–16 record, the three bowl wins, a new state-of-the-art athletics facility, the attendance records—at least in part to his program’s success in rallying the student body behind the team. “You’ve got to go embrace them,” he says.
Brown has also been spending time with one of WVU Athletics’ elder statesmen: Don Nehlen. “He’s one of the first names you think of when you think West Virginia football,” Brown says. “I drive to work on a road named after him. He’s done a ton for this program. I have a ton of respect for him, not just as a coach but as a man.” He won’t get into specifics about what they discuss, but Brown wants to keep the relationship going. “I ask a lot of questions whenever I can.”
That’s the cornerstone of Brown’s leadership style—asking questions and listening to the answers. That’s how he has gone about building his first football program as head coach. “We spent the first three or four months just listening and getting a feel for how things work. Who our players are. Who the support staff is,” he says. “I don’t think you can go about creating your vision or correcting any issues until you know what the issues are and know what the real positives are.”
So what can we expect from a Neal Brown–led Mountaineer football team? Brown wouldn’t make us any specific promises. He had 15 practices with his players this spring, but the roster is still in flux—he’s still waiting for some players to show up, and others have left for other schools. Brown will say just one thing: “We’re going to be a group that’s young and fun to watch.”
No matter how the season goes, one expects Coach Brown will soon have even more people to talk with—at the grocery store, at the barber shop, at the gas pump. He doesn’t mind. Recognition comes with the position. “If they don’t know you, you’re not doing a very good job,” he says.
Photograph courtesy of WVU Athletics.