Neal Brown Putting His Stamp On WVU Renovations
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s new football coach Neal Brown and his family currently are living in a condo not too far from Mountaineer Field.
He and his wife Brooke are searching for a permanent home. They’re mainly interested in finding property where they can build a place specifically crafted for them and their three children – Adalyn, Anslee and Dax.
Neal is also looking to put his own personal touches on the building that serves as the home of WVU football – the Puskar Center.
Last August West Virginia Director of Athletics Shane Lyons announced the plans for a major redo to the Puskar Center, with $55 million targeted for the renovation and expansion of the facility.
The design for that work on the Puskar Center is still on the drawing board, which is fortunate for WVU’s new head coach, because now he can have a great deal of input.
“I’ve had four or five meetings with the architects to put our spin on the renovations,” noted Brown recently in an exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News. “Those meetings have been productive. We’re just trying to stamp out a timetable right now.”
Brown knows exactly what he wants in the renovated Puskar Center because he oversaw a similar project just a couple years ago while the head coach at Troy University. Shortly after Brown became the head coach at Troy in 2015, the Trojan football program began planning a brand-new $25 million, 70,000 square foot facility that was connected to the north end zone of Veterans Memorial Stadium. The new TU facility opened to rave reviews this past fall. The weight room is in the basement, the ground floor consists of locker rooms, a team room and a training room, while the coaches offices are on the second floor. The top level contains a banquet center and premium suites that look out over the stadium.
“From creation of the design to the completion, we were right there in every step,” explained Brown of the new facility at Troy.
And now he plans to be very hands-on in the redesign of the Puskar Center.
“This needs to be a player-friendly building,” Brown stated, who turned 39 on March 11. “This needs to be a place the players look forward to coming in to. It needs to be set up in a manner that builds chemistry and creates interaction between players and staff. I think that’s really, really important.
“I think the players’ areas have to be as nice as they can be. I think there has to be some ‘Wow’ items in the building that are points of reference for recruits.
“Facilities are important, especially during recruiting,” he continued. “To me, you have to have some things that differentiate your facility from other places. What we’ve been doing these last several meetings with architects is trying to figure out things that are our ‘Wow’ items, things that differentiate our facility from the other ones these recruits will go through.”
Brown isn’t ready yet to reveal his “Wow” visions – “We have some ideas, but nothing we’re going to share right now.” – but they will be incorporated into a tale he wants to weave throughout all of West Virginia’s football facilities.
“We have some things that are unique to our state, and I think we need to do a good job of telling those stories in our building,” said Brown. “Graphics and the things you put on the wall and the words you use, there needs to be consistency with all that. To me, your facility is the best place to tell your story. We’re going to take advantage of those things. Things that are unique to West Virginia and things that are unique to West Virginia football, we need to tell those stories. When visitors or recruits or our current players, when they come in they need to understand these are the things that set us apart from everybody else.”
Some areas within the Puskar Center have received little more than a fresh coat of paint and some new carpeting – if that – since it opened nearly 40 years ago. The first game at Mountaineer Field was in 1980, and what was then called the Facilities Building went into operation shortly thereafter. Like the stadium itself, the Facilities Building, originally constructed for $3 million, has undergone numerous changes over the years, but many of the basics remain the same. A new $5 million team room was added to the west side of the building in 2015, and then this past summer the medical facility on the first floor was replaced with a new athletic training area, while the old cafeteria was completely redone with a multi-million dollar training table taking its place.
“They’ve been doing facility improvements here in the Puskar Center in a phased system,” said Brown. “I think if you look at what’s been done, from the team room to the training table to the athletic training room, I think they’ve done a great job. Those venues, along with the weight room, are as good as anybody has in college football. Where we’re behind is the locker room, the players’ lounge, meeting space, the flow of the offices. All those are in the plans to get done in the next 12 to 24 months.”
The main floor of the Puskar Center, other than the new team room and training table, are slated for pretty much a complete makeover.
“It’s sectioned off for the most part,” said Brown of the current layout. “There is really an offensive side and a defensive side for staff, and then the players, outside of academics and training table, most of their space is downstairs on the first level. We need to have some places where there is interaction. We’ve got to create some player areas around the staff areas. You need to create those areas so there is daily interaction; the flow of a building can create that. For instance, we need it so a student-athlete has to walk by the coaches’ offices to get to the training table or academics or whatever. As we go about designing this space, we have to do it with that interaction in mind.
“The new areas that have been done have been done well,” he added. “From the team meeting room to the athletic training area to the training table to the weight room, they all have been done very, very well. Those areas by themselves are comparable to those programs we recruit against. Where we’re below is in the areas we’re about to address.
“Our thoughts are that after these renovations, then it’s going to put us at a level to compete against the people in recruiting that we need to compete with.”
The stadium itself received $75 million in renovations just a few years ago. Most of those changes were in the fan areas of the concourses on the east and west side where the old restrooms and concession stands were razed, and new ones constructed on a footprint that allowed more space for fans.
WVU’s outdoor Steve Antoline Family Football Practice Field also underwent some significant upgrades just a couple years ago, but Brown would like to see some work done on the inside and outside of the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility. That building, which houses a 90-yard long field, is now 21 years old.
“We’re going to replace the turf in the IPF after the spring,” West Virginia’s coach noted. “We also need to do some more things branding-wise in that building. We’re going replace the front entrance and the front stairs there as well. That’s a big need. We’ll also do some landscaping around the front entrance. For the lack of a better term, we just need to dress up the IPF. Would we like it to be 100 yards? Sure, but the space is sufficient for us to get done what we need to get done. We can do everything in there but punt. It needs new turf, and we need to do a better job of branding there, so we can tell our story there just like we are elsewhere.”
Talking to architects and looking at blueprints is not something Brown dealt with prior to becoming the head coach at Troy in 2015. As an assistant college coach and then offensive coordinator (2003-14), he spent most of his time in darkened rooms watching video, on the practice field or traveling to visit recruits. He was not involved in meetings with construction and design people. An assistant coach focuses in the basics, while the head coach has to broaden his horizons.
“When you become head coach and you’re in charge of the totality of the program, you have to look at the big picture,” Brown said. “Things like branding and how you present your story to all the shareholders is something that takes on a whole new meaning to you when you become a head coach.”
Only on the job at West Virginia a couple months, Brown is already deeply involved in putting his stamp on the future of Mountaineer football … while also trying to find a place for a new home for he and his family.