Football, Sports, WVU Sports

When hiring assistant coaches, WVU’s Neal Brown values hunger, trajectory over experience

MORGANTOWN — WVU’s Neal Brown likes his assistant coaches like he likes his stocks, on an upward trajectory.

“I like trajectory,” Brown said Thursday. “It doesn’t matter if I’m buying a stock or if I’m hiring people, I want people on a trajectory.”

Since becoming West Virginia’s head coach in 2019, Brown has developed a clear pattern in the kinds of assistant coaches he hires — young, motivated and high-energy. 

Those things matter more to Brown than previous experience, evident by the fact that of the 21 full-time, on-field coaches he’s hired at WVU, 10 of them had never worked for a Power 5 team before.

“Hunger is really important,” Brown said. “If you look at what we’ve tried to do from a staff standpoint, we’ve got systems that we believe in and we don’t want those systems to change. You’re going to have some personnel movements player-wise and staff-wise, but I think the leadership in those positions is really important.”

All four assistant coaches Brown had hired in the last two off-seasons — Bilal Marshall and Blaine Stewart in 2023 and Tyler Allen and Vic Cabral this year — had never worked full-time for a Power 5 school before.

“When you bring in guys at lower levels, you want to bring in guys that are extremely hungry and that are extremely thankful for that opportunity and have a lot of growth in them,” Brown said.

That lack of Power 5 experience does not equate to a lack of talent or a lack of qualifications.

Marshall was a graduate assistant at WVU in 2020 and 2021, Stewart was on staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers for two years, Allen was promoted internally after helping to develop WVU’s current quarterbacks and Cabral is coming off a successful stint as an assistant at Appalachian State.

“I like people who haven’t had a silver spoon in coaching; I like people that have worked their way up,” said Brown, who worked up through multiple levels of college coaching himself. “I do like hiring individuals who have not had the easiest path. When you have jobs at a (Division-II) or FCS level and then you go up to a (Group of 5), you learn how to do more with less and you have to do more things earlier in your career.”

Brown’s first full-time coaching job was at FCS Sacred Heart. He made stops at Delaware and Troy before getting his first Power 5 job at Texas Tech in 2010.

“The best training, in my opinion, is on-the-job training,” Brown said. “I’m so thankful my first full-time job was at Sacred Heart which, at the time, was non-scholarship FCS football and I had to do a whole lot. I probably learned more in that year I had that job than any other job I’ve had. I like people who have learned on the job and have progressed up through the levels.”

A byproduct of hiring coaches on the upswing of their careers is that they all skew younger. Marshall graduated college in 2016, Stewart in 2017 and Allen in 2018. Cabral is the oldest of the bunch, graduating in 2006.

That, too, Brown sees as an advantage of his hiring practices.

“One of the nice things we did last year hiring offensively with Bilial and Blaine is younger guys and their day-to-day energy is really consistent,” he said. 

The Mountaineers started holding morning practices last season and Brown said he really noticed how Marshall and Stewart’s energy early in the day affected their players.

“A byproduct of when we flipped to morning practices is our guys start their day with us,” Brown said. “In the past when we practiced in the afternoon, there was a whole lot of stuff that went down before they got to our unit meetings. Now, each of our players start their day in this building and having those positive, energetic people in our offensive unit meetings really positively affected our offense.” 

Before anyone thinks hiring young, relatively inexperienced coaches is actually just a cost-saving measure that Brown is simply trying to talk up, Brown has, quite literally, put this money where his mouth is.

Earlier this month, Brown signed a one-year contract extension to take his deal with WVU through 2027. While it added an extra year, Brown will actually make $400,000 less over the next three years in the new contract compared to his original one. It was reported that money would be moved into the pool to pay assistant coaches and Brown went just short of confirming that on Thursday.

“I think most of what you’ve seen is pretty accurate,” was all he said. “I think in leadership, you should never ask somebody to do something you would never do. I think you’re investing in people and so they need to understand the importance level of it.”

West Virginia begins spring practices on Monday. The Mountaineers will practice 14 times leading up to the annual Gold-Blue Spring Game on Saturday, April 27.

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