Former WVU AD said he would keep Neal Brown, feels like a ‘scapegoat’ for football issues
MORGANTOWN — For the first time since his firing on Nov. 13, former WVU athletic director Shane Lyons spoke publicly Monday morning, appearing on MetroNews Talkline for an in-depth interview with host Hoppy Kercheval. In the segment, Lyons went into detail about his firing, the context around it and the current state of WVU’s athletic department and football program.
First, Lyons said he had a pretty good indication that he was going to be let go when a meeting with WVU president Gordon Gee was scheduled for that Sunday. All the same, Lyons said the decision came as a shock to him.
“After a few casual conversations about various things, he said ‘we’re going to make a change,”’ Lyons said. “Obviously that came as a great surprise. I wanted to see what his issue was and said ‘why a change?’”
Lyons said he left the meeting feeling “hurt” by the decision and said, looking back, he maybe should have considered leaving WVU of his own accord earlier. Ultimately, Lyons said he felt good in his position at WVU, especially after signing a contract extension in January of this year.
“The hurt comes from the loyalty that I had given to this university and specifically to President Gee,” Lyons said. “I had opportunities in the past several years to take other positions, but I didn’t feel like my work was done here in what I was trying to help build in the department as a whole. … Looking back, I probably should’ve jumped at other opportunities, and that’s hindsight.
“I just got a new contract (in January). I got an evaluation in June that was glowing. So what has changed? A football program that wasn’t winning and a fan base that was pretty riled up about it.”
Lyons said he believes the reason behind his firing centered around the current state of WVU’s football program, in particular the contract extension given to Neal Brown in 2020 that carries a hefty buyout if Brown is fired prematurely. Lyons said he feels that he is the “scapegoat” for the situation with the football team, noting that he didn’t give Brown an extension all on his own.
“That’s not done in a vacuum, that’s not just a Shane Lyons decision or an athletic director’s decision, there’s other people involved in that, including the president,” Lyons said. “We pitched it (to Gee) to say we wanted to keep Neal and we think he’s the future of our football program.
“This wasn’t overnight, this was several back-and-forths. President Gee was involved and (interim athletic director) Rob Alsop was involved and ultimately, the chairman of the board, Dave Alvares, signed off. … These types of deals and these types of contracts, especially with a high-profile football coach, it’s done in collaboration with other individuals.”
Lyons explained the reasoning behind Brown’s extension and why he felt it was necessary to do at that time.
“Go back to 2020, Neal had been here for two years and his record was .500 at the time,” Lyons said. “But I looked at the trajectory of the program and where it was heading and it was heading in the right direction.”
Brown’s contract at the time was paltry compared to his contemporaries and Lyons thought there was a real possibility that Brown could be hired elsewhere and WVU would get very little in return.
“His name had come up in a couple of job (searches), Auburn and South Carolina,” Lyons said. “As an athletic director, you start juggling this to say ‘what if he wins the next year?’ If he wins the next year, his buyout was like $1.5-2 million, which is not much in our business. My thinking was we need to increase his buyout, in case he ends up leaving, to close to $5 million, which we ended up doing. In turn, they negotiated on (Brown’s) side to say that ‘if he stays and you end up firing him, you owe a certain amount,’ which was 100% of his contract.”
Later in the interview, Lyons revealed that, if he were still the athletic director, he would bring Brown back for another season, rendering the conversations about Brown’s contract and buyout a moot point.
“Do I think that he deserves a chance? That’s not my decision, but if I was still sitting in this chair today, yeah,” Lyons said. “This isn’t about a contract, this is about the issue at hand of our football program and are we constantly going to get better. The answer is yes.
“I think he checks every box that we’re looking for in a head coach. Unfortunately, the big box is he needs to win more football games and I believe that’s coming in the future. Right now he’s sitting a little bit below a .500 record, but you look at it and you say, ‘can we build off of this?’ And I think the answer’s yes, we can build off of it.”
Lyons pointed to the way the Mountaineers finished the season, winning two of their last three games including the season finale at Oklahoma State on Saturday, as proof that the situation in the football program is not as dire as some make it out to be.
“I think last week really proved a point, which I had felt strongly when I was athletic director, that he had not lost this team,” Lyons said. “They played very, very hard Saturday at a tough place to play. Oklahoma State hadn’t lost a home game in two years so that just tells you how difficult it really is. The players played extremely hard; it was a great win. Is it where we need to be? The answer’s no. We were looking at probably seven or eight wins this year. … At the same time, if a couple of plays had gone our way early in the season against Kansas and against Pitt, we could be sitting at seven wins and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today, in my opinion.”
One of the main points Lyons made several times throughout the interview was that firing Brown would not make the football team better next year. He described firing Brown as taking “three years” worth of steps backward.
“I look at it this way, what Neal Brown took over and the players he had his first couple of years, and adding COVID in there, I honestly look at this as year two for Neal Brown, not year four,” Lyons explained. “If you make a coaching change, you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward. You’re going to lose kids to the (transfer) portal, you’re going to lose a very good recruiting class that he has right now and you may lose some of those kids now because of the continued talk of him being fired.”
The other aspect of Lyons’ firing, in his mind, was his refusal to be more involved with Country Roads Trust, the NIL non-profit set up and run by former WVU AD Oliver Luck and Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick.
“One thing that came up (with Gee) was about the Trust,” Lyons said. “I tried to explain to him we’re as aggressive as we can be without crossing the line in order to protect ourselves from getting involved in Title IX issues.
“I believe the Trust wants us to be more involved in the fundraising and they want us to be more involved in a variety of different areas we can’t be. I was not going to cross the line in order to jeopardize the department in federal funding. I was not willing to cross that line, I was willing to go up to that line as much as I could to promote it and be involved.”
Lyons said he felt like the Trust wanted the athletic department to be more involved in fundraising for the Trust, identifying potential donors and having WVU coaches promote the Trust.
“We can do education, which we do, we can do tax and contract litigation for our student-athletes, but making the deals ourselves, we can’t get involved as a department,” Lyons said. “If we start making the deals ourselves or identifying sponsors or people to give to the Trust, then that starts getting closer and closer that you, as a department, are involved and it could run into Title IX implications. If it’s all run by them, it’s not an issue.”
Ultimately, it did not take Lyons very long to land back on his feet after his firing was officially announced on Monday, Nov. 14. That day, the Alabama athletic director AD called Lyons to offer him a job and one week later, Lyons was announced as Alabama’s new executive deputy athletic director and chief operating officer.
“I’ve known (Alabama AD) Greg Byrne for a number of years and his CEO just left to go to Georgia Tech as the athletic director so that job had been open for several weeks,” Lyons said. “He called that afternoon and said, ‘I want you to come back to Alabama and be my No. 2 here as chief operating officer.’”
There was no pressing need for Lyons to find a new job right away as he had signed a separation agreement with WVU that is going to pay him upwards of $2.1 million over the next two years. After thinking about it, Lyons decided to return to Alabama, where he had worked prior to coming to WVU in 2015, instead of waiting around for something better to come along.
“Do I wait around for that or do I take the bird in the hand instead of two in the bush?” Lyons considered. “I felt that going back to Alabama was a great opportunity for me. It kind of gives me an opportunity to stay completely involved in athletics, but not in the main chair, and see where that heads in the future.”
Even as he prepares to pack up and move south, Lyons, a 1987 WVU graduate, said he’s not going to stop being a WVU fan just because he was fired.
“I’ll always be a West Virginian, you can’t take that away from me,” Lyons, a Parkersburg native, said. “It’s not about selfishness of saying they did this to me.”
Lyons did say, however, that he feels bitter about being “blindsided” by Gee and Alsop.
“I’m disappointed in the loyalty to some people, there’ll be bitterness there,” he said. “They called themselves friends and to blindside in this regard, that’s not the way I do business. To my knowledge, the board (of governors) was not the one who made this decision, the decision was made from a campus level and taken to the board. I’ll be a West Virginia fan. I have relationships with these coaches, I have relationships with these student-athletes. I want to see them perform at a very, very high level.”
Lastly, Lyons said he is confident that his time at WVU will be considered a success when looked back upon in the future.
“My mark will always be here,” Lyons said. “I built roughly $200 million worth of facilities, those things aren’t going away, that’s only going to help West Virginia in the future and I think you’ll look back and say ‘Shane Lyons left his mark here in a very, very positive way.’”