West Virginia Football’s Biggest Questions In 2019: No. 5 – New Coaches
(Editor’s Note – In our series of stories over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at each of West Virginia’s top 10 question marks heading into the 2019 football season. After that, we’ll also look at what we consider to be the top 10 strengths of Neal Brown’s first Mountaineer squad.)
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5. New coaches – Not only is head coach Neal Brown in his first year at West Virginia, but all 10 of his full-time assistants are new to the staff as well.
Turnover at the top is rare in Mountaineer football but not unprecedented. Brown is WVU’s 35th head football coach in the 128-year history of the program, and he’s the eighth in past 54 years. But since Jim Carlen took over at West Virginia in 1966, no Mountaineer football staff has experienced more significant change in its entirety.
Carlen had been the defensive coordinator the previous five seasons at Georgia Tech, his alma mater, before taking over at WVU in ’66. He swept clean Gene Corum’s staff that had been in place at West Virginia in 1965 and brought in his own complete set of assistants. Such a turnover wouldn’t happen again until Brown became the Mountaineers’ head coach this past January.
Bobby Bowden, who had been Carlen’s offensive coordinator during the duration (1966-69), was promoted to head coach at WVU when Carlen left after the ’69 Peach Bowl victory to take over at Texas Tech. Some of Carlen’s Mountaineer staff followed him to Lubbock, but Bowden not only stayed in Morgantown himself but he was also able to retain Hayden Buckley, who had been the defensive backs coach and would eventually be the offensive coordinator (1970) and then defensive coordinator (1971-72).
When Bowden left WVU for Florida State after the 1975 season, he too took plenty of staff members to Tallahassee with him. But Frank Cignetti, who was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach at West Virginia when Bowden departed, held on to several key assistants, including linebacker coach Donnie Young, offensive line coach Mike Working, receivers coach Paul Moran and running backs coach Garrett Ford.
When Cignetti gave way to Don Nehlen after the 1979 season, Nehlen retained Young and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich, who was a part-time coach in Cignetti’s final season. In addition, Gary Tranquill remained on the staff, moving from defensive coordinator to offensive coordinator. Nehlen also kept a couple graduate assistant coaches in Steve Dunlap and Doc Holliday, who would soon also become major components on his staff.
When Rich Rodriguez took over as WVU’s head coach in 2001, quarterback coach Bill Stewart was the only holdover assistant that was retained, though Young and Kirelawich remained on the staff in administrative positions. Kirelawich would again return to an assistant coaching role two years later.
When Stewart was promoted to head coach following the 2007 season, the staff split. Many followed Rodriguez to Michigan while Kirelawich and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel stayed at WVU, where they were joined by previous Mountaineer assistants Dunlap, Holliday and David Lockwood.
Then when Dana Holgorsen was hired to replace Stewart in 2011, he brought in all new offensive assistant coaches, but West Virginia’s four defensive assistants – Dunlap, Casteel, Kirelawich and Lockwood – stayed at WVU, though all would be gone by 2013.
Now Brown comes in and has brought an entirely new coaching staff with him, and for the most part, much of his support staff is new as well, with a few exceptions including strength coach Mike Joseph.
There are always risks that come with changing coaches, from the head man on down. Other than a few prominent veterans in the college game, like Nick Saban, there are no guarantees of finding a definite winner when it comes to a new hire. Certainly Brown seems of very high quality, and even if his cupboard is a bit bare this year, I’d think the odds are very good that he’ll eventually be successful at WVU.
As for his assistants, there are no guarantees either. All 10 seem very good to this point, but obviously the real proof will come when the bullets start flying. It’s nice that of the 10 assistants, nine of them come to West Virginia with a resume that features extensive coaching experience at the FBS level. Receiver coach Xavier Dye is the only outlier in that department, as his previous college work was as a graduate assistant at Clemson.
From the outside, this appears to be a good group. Admittedly, though, it’s hard to judge at this juncture. I’ve seen over 100 assistants come and go in my time covering Mountaineer football, and other than one or two who were questionable from the outset, everyone arrived with promise. They all didn’t leave that way, though.
I’m not so much worried about these assistants, though, because I do think it appears to be a quality group.
The biggest concern I have is how the players react to so many new teachers instructing them.
West Virginia’s running backs have learned from four different coaches in the past four years – JaJuan Seider (2013-16), Tony Dews (2017), Marquel Blackwell (2018) and now Chad Scott. Each of those running back coaches was very good, but that’s a whole lot of different voices that Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway and company have been dealing with in their college careers.
In the offensive line, the veterans like Colton McKivitz, Josh Sills and Chase Behrndt have been coached by three different assistants – Ron Crook (2013-16), Joe Wickline (2017-18) and now Matt Moore.
Every position has a new coach now, and every one of those new coaches has different ways of teaching things and different techniques that they emphasize.
That’s a lot to absorb for an 18- to 22-year-old.
Eventually I’m sure the Mountaineers will adapt to all this transition, but that may happen later rather than sooner.
Previously In The Series