Getting to WVU (part I): Purpose, humility mark Neal Brown’s rise

FIRST OF A TWO-PART STORY: Read the next chapter on West Virginia’s new football coach in Monday’s edition of The Dominion Post.

 

TROY, Ala. — A Tuesday evening on the downtown square, where a comforting southern breeze mingled with the clackety-clack-clack of kids arriving for tap lessons at the corner dance studio. Further along the block, in the giant storefront window of Momma Goldberg’s Deli, the play-by-play voice of Troy University, Barry McKnight, sat cross-legged beside a tiny table and donned headsets for his weekly edition of “Trojan Talk.”

It’s the first radio show after football coach Neal Brown left for West Virginia. Left for a quadrupled salary, for Power Five amenities, for the inevitable climb head coaches make by stockpiling 31 wins in three seasons at a place like Troy.

It’s a place McKnight, without a hint of condescension, compares to “a progressive Mayberry.” A town of 18,000 year-round residents and another 7,000 students, where Brown could upset LSU one week and enjoy being a soccer-league dad the next.

Brown’s youngest child, Dax, was an ambling 2-year-old when the Trojans won seven straight games in 2016 and breached the AP Top 25 for the first time. He also made unscheduled appearances on Trojan Talk.”

“Dax would come up and start tugging on the headsets in the middle of the show, but Neal would just pick him up, put Dax on his lap and keep rolling. He wasn’t just shooing him back to mommy,” McKnight said. “And whenever we’d have a commercial break, Neal would go through the crowd greeting people. He’d make sure he spoke to everybody who came out. With other coaches it seems contrived, but with him it’s all genuine.”

McKnight worked alongside Brown for eight years across two stints at the Sun Belt program — dating back to 2006 when the baby-faced receivers coach arrived for his first FBS job. “He was 26 at the time, but he looked 18,” said McKnight recalling how on road trips, the hotel staff sometimes mistook Brown for a student manager.

There was no mistaking him in recent years, though, when Brown’s reputation as an up-and-comer linked him to coaching searches at Arizona, K-State, and Louisville, and less formally to openings at Texas Tech and North Carolina. Some fans even surmised that Brown could’ve been a contender for the Auburn job next season with Gus Malzahn’s seat heating up.

Within coaching and administrative circles, Brown’s plan for program-building rings comprehensive. They saw nothing flukish about the stretch of success he enjoyed at Troy, where recruiting classes steadily improved, wins piled up and game-day crowds set campus records. Colleagues and former bosses portray a man bent on detail and organization. In fact, he would enter every press conference and radio interview carrying a legal pad — on it were the items he intended to discuss. On point. On message. On schedule.

“Everything he does is with a purpose. He’s not a frivolous guy at all,” McKnight said. “We joke that he even has that notepad by his bed so that he can check off ‘sleep’ when he lays down at night.”

The truck test

Brown grew up in Bardstown, Ky., only an hour from the hometown of Phil Cunningham, the Trojans men’s basketball coach. They didn’t know each other until intersecting at Troy in 2015. When they found themselves living in the same neighborhood, it began a competition only workaholics would relish.

“Neal lived in the first house when you enter the neighborhood, so I drove past it coming and going,” Cunningham said. “I could always tell whether or not he was home. I would kind of test myself by that.

“When I left in the morning, if his truck was gone, I was like, ‘Oh, man, he beat me to work.’ And when I came home at night, if his truck wasn’t there, I knew he was working longer than me.”

Two years ago, Cunningham’s team won 22 games and Troy celebrated its second-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Brown was as zealous a fan as anyone, channeling the basketball love he developed throughout his Kentucky childhood.

Aside from Cunningham and his assistants, Brown may have known more about Troy’s basketball players than anybody on campus. “He could give you a pretty good scouting report on all of them,” Cunningham said.

Because Troy has long been a small-college football power in a football-crazy state, other sports tend to exist as side dishes. Yet Brown’s affable nature undercut any jealousies, as did the sight of his wife, Brooke, and their three children becoming fixtures at games across campus.

“His talent and his intelligence, it’s very obvious how high-level those things are, but he’s so humble,” Cunningham said. “In college athletics, a successful coach gets all the attention, but Neal never made it about himself. He never took credit. And that was all genuine, too.”

Football’s success became a perk to other coaches in various ways. That buzz surrounding Veterans Memorial Stadium when a school-record 29,612 fans filed in for the Boise State game? “We all benefited from it,” Cunningham said. “When they really got rolling here in football, our weekends for recruiting visits were terrific.”

Rebuilding Troy

During the four seasons Brown served as an assistant from 2006-2009, the Trojans four-peated as Sun Belt Conference champs. The program was still new to the FBS, and long-time fans presumed the good times would persist just like when Troy won D-II national titles in 1984 and 1987 and then became an FCS playoff fixture in the 1990s.

Sometimes that proud nostalgia trumped reality. When Brown returned as head coach in 2015, he took over a team that hadn’t posted a winning record in four years.

“We had had success in NAIA, Division II, I-AA and we won five straight Sun Belt Conference titles at one stretch. We had even beaten Missouri and Mississippi State,” McKnight said. “We thought we knew what it took. But Neal showed us really what it really took. He dragged us kicking and screaming into modern college football.”

That meant spending money on stadium renovations. When Troy raised $24 million to enclose its north end zone, fans saw club seats, premium concessions and a 35-by-90-foot videoboard. Players experienced much more beneath the surface — a new weightroom; a training facility complete with plunge pool and nutritional fueling station; a players lounge and a spacious locker room sharpened up with the kind of wow factor you’d expect at a Power Five school.

Athletics director Jeremy McClain recounted the floorplan being nearly complete when Brown spotted something awry. He didn’t like that all the players’ areas were located downstairs with the coaches’ offices and meeting rooms sequestered on the second floor. He didn’t want to lose that casual interaction between the players and coaches that existed in the old, cramped fieldhouse, McClain said. So architects transformed a large upstairs space into the lounge where players could hang out and bump into coaches without the conversation always centering on football.

Though Troy’s $29 million athletics budget last year ranked only seventh among the 10 football-playing schools in the Sun Belt, Brown wanted players to enjoy a major-college experience. The guy known for aggressive play-calling was equally audacious at prodding his bosses for amenities.

“I don’t wanna say Neal broke ’em, but he got more things out of the administration down there than I ever dreamed,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “I just used to sit back and think, ‘Good for him.’ He really took it to another level. He showed the people there that if you invest in something you’re going to get rewards.”

That included copious amounts of gear. When Koenning first coached at Troy during 2003 and 2004, he recalled having “one game shirt, one sweat shirt, one pair of sweat pants and one pair of shoes — that was it.” This time, when he made the move to West Virginia, Koenning left a closet stocked with Trojans apparel.

“My wife said she gave away 40-something shirts,” he said.

Offensive line coach Matt Moore saw how the gear elevated morale and made players “start feeling like this is big-time football.” Recruits enjoyed their own profile boost when Brown lobbied to add a director of football operations, Mark Perry, and the school’s first full-time recruiting director, Brian Bennett. No longer were assistants like Moore forced to pull double-duty of setting up weekend visit itineraries.

“Before, it was never run well, and once recruits got on campus there were a lot of mess-ups,” Moore said. “But Neal’s big on organization. The off-the-field guys he hired were huge.”

Those additions paid off as Troy signed the top four-rated classes in school history.

McKnight anticipates Brown making an equally sharp appraisal of how the football program operates in Morgantown.

“To the outside world of college football, West Virginia is a very good program, and some people up there likely think they’re doing fine. But doing fine isn’t what Neal’s about. He’ll pull some people in line.”

No jacket required

As Dana Holgorsen hauled off to Houston in late December, a pocket of fans encouraged Mountaineers AD Shane Lyons to court Rich Rodriguez. Their pleas were a non-starter because of RichRod’s messy exit at WVU in 2007 and his messier exit at Arizona last year amid a sexual harassment lawsuit. But whereas Rodriguez carried too much baggage, the coach Lyons desired most didn’t have enough of it.

“We were on vacation at my parents’ house in Kentucky when WVU called about the interview,” said Brooke Brown, “and Neal realized he didn’t bring a suit home for Christmas vacation.”

Turns out the daylong meetup with Lyons, deputy AD Keli Zinn and university president Gordon Gee featured a laid-back tone that felt more like a get-to-know-you session. Whereas Neal Brown impressed with his fundamental critiques of WVU’s quarterbacks, the conversation steered to what family life looks like in Morgantown.

“Shane and Keli were just awesome to talk to — warm and welcoming,” Brooke said. “You felt like you’d known them for a long time.

“Then Dr. Gee walks in showing me his socks and his bowtie, and I’m thinking my kids are going to love him. He’s kinda quirky but he’s a straight-shooter, says exactly what he’s thinking. I thought, ‘OK, I like this.’ ”

Having recently been in the mix or on the fringe of coaching searches across three time zones, the Browns were at peace about whatever opportunity awaited them at WVU.

“Not to sound pompous, but I felt like it was as much us choosing them as them choosing us,” Brooke said. “We were blessed to currently have a job at Troy, so we weren’t desperately seeking anything. It had to be the right fit for us, all five of us.”

Saying goodbye to Troy

As Jeremy McClain mulled an offer to become Troy’s AD in August 2015, he sought advice from Brown, who was barely eight months into his tenure as head coach.

That launched a trusting partnership in which the two became as much confidants as colleagues. When Brown’s reputation blossomed, and his name surfaced in coaching searches in the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12, he made sure to keep McClain informed.

“Neal was always open with me when something came across his radar. If it intrigued him or he felt like he needed to listen, he never waited to tell me that,” McClain said. “We would have discussions about pros and cons. That’s one of the reasons he was able to leave here the way he did, because he handled things the right way.”

The right way involved a closed-door meeting with staffers. Brown expressed his gratitude for their work in rebuilding Troy, loyalty that revealed itself when eight coaches and directors followed him to WVU.

The right way featured Brown making a halftime address at a Troy basketball game on Jan. 5, the day his West Virginia hiring became official. Brown choked up while giving his midcourt farewell, and after relinquishing the mic, he lingered for another hour in the corner of the arena, hugging necks and shaking hands as fans formed a greeting line.

“Neal didn’t have to do that, but he hit all the right notes,” McKnight said. “For a town like this, that warmth goes a long way.”

Before exiting the gym, Brown sat down to chat with Nick Cervera, the university’s longtime general counsel, who has been rooting on the Trojans since 1961 when he drove from Brooklyn to enroll at what was then Troy State Teachers College. Cervera once had been leery when former coach Larry Blakeney retired at age 67 and bequeathed the job to a man half his age. Those misgivings faded quickly, once Brown shared his player-focused vision for scaling up the program.

Now, seeing Brown leave for a Power Five job rang bittersweet.

“West Virginia could not have selected a better person,” Cervera said. “We’re sure going to miss him, but we love him so much, we want to see Neal enjoy every success in life.”

Leaving the right way saw Brown purchase a full-page ad in The Dothan Eagle thanking fans who placed the Trojans among the Sun Belt Conference attendance leaders. And when it came to his players, leaving the right way compelled Brown back to Troy’s campus days later, so he could give a proper goodbye once the full team reported for winter workouts.

Some 800 miles away, Brown made another solid impression on Gee, who said: “I love the way he left, with such enthusiasm and such class.”

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