Getting To Know WVU Head Coach Neal Brown
MORGANTOWN, W.Va — You’ve read a lot lately about Neal Brown, the new football coach at West Virginia, you’ve seen video of him, checked his record as a coach.
But do you know him?
And so it was on a blustery Wednesday morning with snowflakes beginning to fall when we pulled into the Milan Puskar Center parking lot to try and get to know the man who is Neal Brown.
We’re looking more for life philosophy than football philosophy from the man who replaced Dana Holgorsen, what he thinks about life in general and how being a football coach, a husband and a father is made to work.
Who is Neal Brown?
We’ll let him tell you.
Q: A coach or an athlete has to have a large ego to be successful, yet one of the things you said when you came into this job was ‘This program is not going to be about me.’ In reality, it can’t help but be about you, the coach, can it?
Brown: This program has won championships and won games a long time before me and will a long time after me. So, the decisions we make here will have little to do about me and be about taking us forward.
Now, will I be at the front of this now? For a while, yes. That’s not necessarily what I want it to be but do I understand it’s part of the job and that until we get into the season I will kind of be the lead as far as publicity goes, yes.
This is how I talk about this and it will make sense to you. There’s a time and a place for all of this. There’s coaches that lead the team out of the tunnel and coaches that come out behind the team on game day.
To me, my philosophy is more about that. It’s going to be about the players, not me. My philosophy isn’t to make it about me.
Q: You also said ‘We’re going to have fun’ and have done a lot of fun things are team bonding like bowling with the players or watching the Super Bowl together. That’s sort of off the wall to the way football coaches traditionally present themselves, tough guys, tough camps, sleeping in the office, etc. Where does that come from?
Brown: I think that if people enjoy being around each other and have real relationships, your chemistry grows. The more they care about somebody, the more they know about the person who is playing next to them, then the more they are going to produce for that person next to them.
I think it’s the same way player-to-coach. Once that player understands the coach really cares about them and they’re just not No. 99 or No. 1 or John Doe from this or that part of the country to the coach, then you get more out of them.
I believe in any workplace, any organization, if someone really enjoys going into that office or locker room you will get more out of them.
The pressure is real. We’re playing in the Big 12 Conference, it’s a huge business, there’s a lot of money involved. With all that being said, the players and coaches should still enjoy going to work or going into the locker room or going on the practice field and enjoying what they do.
I think you have to be intentional with having fun. If you are not, it’s always next, next, next, next, next. That’s part of it, too, but there’s no reason you can’t do that with a smile on your face and enjoying the people you are around.
Q: Everyone says you are a person of high integrity but you are in a profession where not everyone is that way. You see cheating scandals and rules violations and school’s and players put on probation and it probably gets worse the higher up you go.
How do you handle that and survive in that atmosphere?
Brown: That’s a fair question. To me doing the right thing is important. How many decisions do you make during a day? A bunch, right. You are going to make some mistakes. To me, it’s how are you going to handle those mistakes?
Are you going to take ownership about it? That’s what we’re going to try to do as a staff. We’re not going to be perfect. I’m not going to be perfect as an individual . . . and that’s in any aspect of my life. I’m going to take ownership of it and try to make improvements.
As far as integrity goes, I talk to my guys and tell them you have to protect the brand — your name and West Virginia football. You can’t do anything to harm your name, your family’s name or West Virginia University and the football program in specific.
Q: That leads me to this. I look over there on your desk and see sitting “The Coach’s Bible”. It looks like you use it, too.
Brown: I didn’t mean to have it out. Here’s what I’m not. If I was a little more organized I would not have left that out. I’m not a person who would do that so you write about it.
Let’s just say I’m very much a work in progress.
Q: Family life, can it be normal? There’s long hours, travel, a lot of pressure in this business.
Brown: That’s a good question. I think it is what your evaluation of normal is. It’s normal for us.
My kids, they don’t know anything different than to be a coach’s child. I got the head coaching job when my oldest was 5 and my youngest was 2. My wife was 8 1/2 months pregnant with my son.
So, Adalyn, may have some memory of me being assistant coach at Kentucky or Texas Tech, but Anslee and Dax don’t remember that. It’s normal for them.
I think my wife does an amazing job of keeping them grounded, keeping them sheltered from some things. Now my daughter turns 11 on Friday and we’re getting close to where the sheltering isn’t going to happen any more.
Is it normal if we took a poll of family life in Morgantown and asked if our life is normal, no. But it’sr normal to our kids and that’s a real testament to Brooke.
Q: Does the fact that you are gone so much make your family life mean even more to you?
Brown: It’s about quality more than quantity much of the time. You have to be intentional about building your work hours around it. Here’s an example: I used to not be an early morning person but I am now a very early morning person.
I am because I can get a lot of stuff done before my kids get up. Then when we get in season, I can still get a lot done early, drop them off at school, come in here, then maybe come home maybe a little earlier than some of the people and have dinner with them, put them to bed and then do some more work.
My hours are probably not traditional for a coach but they are probably the same or more.
Q: Does it amaze you that at age 38 you are sitting in that chair as head coach of the West Virginia football team in the Big 12, a Power 5 conference?
Brown: I don’t really think about the timing. I look at this way, everyone’s career paths are different. I was really fortunate that when I went to the University of Kentucky as a player, on that staff Hal Mumme was there as head coach and calling the plays, Mike Leach was my receiver coach, Tony Franklin was the running back coach, Guy Morriss was the offensive line coach and two GAs were Sonny Dykes and Chris Hatcher.
So, if you go back and look Hal Mumme is the architect of the Air Raid offense, which is throughout football now. Mike Leach has gone and done great at Washington State and Texas Tech. Guy Morriss was head coach at Baylor and Kentucky. Sonny Dykes has been head coach at Louisiana Tech, Cal and SMU. Chris Hatcher won Division II national championships. Tony Franklin had a long, successful run as an offensive coordinator.
Then I transferred to UMass and played for a guy named Mark Whipple. He’s been in the NFL. Now he’s back, ironically enough, as offensive coordinator at Pitt. He left and went to the Steelers and a guy named Don Brown came in and he’s now one of, if not the best defensive coordinators in college football.
So, at a young age, the timing was good for me. I got around a bunch of good people.
Then, one of the best things that happened to me early in my career was I was working for Don Brown at UMass and guy I played for my last year at UMass, who passed away over the summer, got a job at Sacred Heart, which is a 1-AA non-scholarship school.
I was 23 or 24 at the time and he brought me there. He called the plays and I was coaching quarterbacks and receivers and I was kind of his right-hand man at a young age and got to learn a ton of things trial by fire.
From there I went to Delaware where I worked for Kirk Ciarrocca, who is now the offensive coordinator at Minnesota and I got my first experience at a lot of ‘gun and run’ stuff.
Then I went to Troy, which had been good on defense but had struggled on offense. Tony Franklin went there at offensive coordinator, brought me in and we won two championships. I was 27, 28 years and I got the offensive coordinator job at Troy.
It was a combination of right place, right time and we got some good players.
We had a receiver at Troy we recruited in 2007, Jerrel Jernigan, and I laugh and tell him this, he’s probably the reason I’ve been able to make money since ‘07 because he was special. In 2008 and 2009 he was probably the best player in our conference. He won games for us and we were like the second and third ranked offense in the country and that got me the opportunity at Texas Tech.
Q: You’ve bitten off a big challenge here at West Virginia. You’re in a tough conference with big time opponents like Oklahoma and Texas and there’s a lot of travel and you in a small state. How do you approach that?
Brown: I think you look at the positives. I think it’s an advantage to be geographically located away from the rest of the conference. I really do.
We have a great recruiting base. We have a small state and population but if you draw a five-hour radius around Morgantown it’s pretty impressive what you can get to. There’s a lot of high level players and we are not really competing against the schools in our league to get them.
Then, to me the history of this program sets it apart, 14th winningest program in college football. The history here is strong.
It is a tough league, but being familiar with the league is a positive for me. I coached in every stadium in the league. I understand the dynamics, the offensive firepower.
We are looking forward to the challenge but West Virginia has been extremely competitive since joining the Big 12. We can continue to be competitive and push this thing forward.