Football, Sports, WVU Sports

COLUMN: WVU forced itself to retain Neal Brown

MORGANTOWN — If the powers that be at WVU truly wanted to fire head football coach Neal Brown, they did almost everything they could to make it impossible to do so. 

If WVU actually wanted to fire Brown, or at least legitimately consider it, those in charge made mistake after mistake after mistake until the only options left before them were to keep Brown for another year or conduct a controlled demolition of the football program.

Let me explain.

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room, Brown’s $16.7 million buyout. Yes, it’s big and yes, it’s a problem, but it’s been a problem all season and it will be again next year (albeit a slightly cheaper problem). If WVU wanted Brown gone, I firmly believe he would have been gone, buyout and all.

The real issue was that the man who could fire Brown, former athletic director Shane Lyons, seemingly would not even entertain the possibility. When Lyons went on MetroNews Talkline Monday morning, he said very firmly that he would not have fired Brown if he were still AD and didn’t express a shred of doubt in the man he hired in 2019.

Lyons won’t fire Brown and so what does WVU do? They fire Lyons. This is where the problems for the university started — President Gordon Gee waited so long to fire Lyons that it pushed the timeline of a potential Brown firing out the window.

Lyons was fired on Sunday, Nov. 13, with two full weeks left in the football season. That would have been a great timeline to fire a coach. WVU could have promoted one of the assistants to interim head coach and let them finish out the season while interviewing candidates for the permanent job.

Except they only fired Lyons. Trying to hire a new AD and a new head football coach at the same time would have been difficult and messy, but certainly doable. All they had to do was fire Brown right after Lyons.

Instead, Gee and interim AD Rob Alsop came out and guaranteed that Brown would finish out the season and a decision on his future would be left up to the new athletic director.

This is where the timeline falls apart. WVU initially estimated three to four weeks to hire a new AD. It took even less time than that as they announced North Texas athletic director Wren Baker as the new hire on Wednesday, just 17 days after firing Lyons.

Baker’s first official day at WVU is Dec. 19, two weeks after the NCAA transfer portal opens and two days before the early signing period for football begins. If Brown’s status was still up in the air at that time, or even if Baker fired Brown right on the 19th, how many of WVU’s current players would have already jumped into the portal and how few recruits would the team, with whomever they could get to be interim head coach, actually sign on the 21st?

By firing Lyons so late in the season, WVU left no time for a new AD to evaluate Brown, make a proper decision on him and hire a new coach, all before the transfer portal window and early signing period had already come and gone.

How much time does it take someone to fully evaluate an entire football program, a coach’s entire four-year tenure, and make a $16 million decision on that coach’s future? Probably more than a few hours, which is all the time that elapsed between WVU announcing Baker’s hire and Alsop putting out a statement Wednesday afternoon saying Brown would be retained.

But, let’s say that all would have been worth it for WVU’s decision-makers. Paying Brown’s buyout, giving Baker enough time to do a proper search and putting a new coach behind the eight-ball on recruiting would all have been worth it just because they wanted Brown gone that badly.

Let go back to Lyons’ Monday interview for a second. He, correctly, said firing Brown would set the program back three years. I’d add that doing so that late in the year would have done even more damage.

But, again, let’s say it’s all worth it. WVU is willing to put up with a bad 2023 season and is hoping a new coach could invigorate the fan base enough that those fans would be willing to put up with it, too.

Let’s fast-forward for a minute and take a glimpse at WVU’s football schedule for 2023. The Mountaineers open the season with a couple of exciting traditional rivalry games, at Penn State on week one and home vs. Pitt two weeks later.

Now, if everything up until this point would have been worth it for WVU to fire Brown — the buyout, the recruiting timeline, finding a new coach, setting the program back — would getting thrashed by Penn State in a coach’s first game at the school and then two weeks later losing at home to Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers be worth it? For the fan base, for the perception of the program and its new coach, would it have been worth it?

Make no mistake, all a new coach would have been able to put together over the offseason would have been a hodgepodge roster of underclassmen, second-tier high school recruits and afterthought transfers. A team like that would not beat Penn State and Pitt. It might not even be competitive.

Again I ask, would that have been worth it? 

It seems like the university decided, pretty quickly, that the answer is no, it’s not, and they might as well keep Brown for one more year.

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