MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Former WVU head football coach Don Nehlen remembers a game at Bowling Green, a game that was a tough game to lose, much like the one Neal Brown and West Virginia had to suffer through at Oklahoma State on Saturday.
He remembers this one, though, because his daughter, Vicky, who wound up marrying Jeff Hostetler later in life, was seven or eight years old.
At dinner one night that week, Vicky Nehlen looked at her father and asked a question he’ll never forget.
“Daddy, how come nobody likes you?”
“Bowling Green was a small town and we’d lost a tough game and you know how kids are at school. You go to school and you’re daddy’s a football coach and he wins he’s the town hero, he loses and he’s a bum. It can be tough on kids, no question.”
Neal Brown knows and understands that, and that is why he works hard at not taking losses home with him.
“You know, Dax didn’t miss any blocks,” Brown responded, laughing at the thought. “Ansley didn’t make any bad calls, so I’m not going to take it home.”
Besides, there’s a critic waiting for him at home … and no, it’s not his wife.
“My 12-year-old critiques everything,” he said. “So, Adalyn, she has some good advice.”
You have to separate the good from the bad, Brown believes.
Nehlen was a bit more of an old school coach. Tough losses were hard to shake for him.
“Sometimes you felt better when you got the crap kicked out of you. Then, the other team was just better than you,” he said. “It’s hard when you give the game away.”
That was what happened to Brown on Saturday.
“You are going to lose some tough ones. That was one of the tough ones, maybe as tough as we’ve had here,” Brown admitted.. “You go home, flip the page and move on. I don’t think it’s fair to your family if you take it home.”
There are reasons why this one was so tough to take.
On the surface, WVU wasn’t expected to win this game. It was a road game. It was against a ranked team.
But Brown knows it was there for the taking, too.
Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback, Spencer Sanders, was out, which meant the Cowboys had to start true freshman Chase Illingworth. It was his first start, although he did rally the team a week earlier in its opener.
But there were chances to win. The Cowboys fumbled the ball four times and WVU could recover none of the four.
“The one on the kickoff, you can practice because we were the first one to get to it. We do that every single day. The others, we didn’t get to. The ball was right at their feet. There’s not much you can do.”
Certainly, your wife, Brooke, can’t fall on it.
Then there were 12 penalties, the kind of thing that echoes through a coach’s mind for days.
“I didn’t necessarily agree with all of them,” Brown admitted.
That alone is something that you might find on the seat next to you in the car on the way home. A coach works so hard to get things right and then there’s a play where an official throws a flag and it lands on top of what you thought was a good play. That’s something that can eat at you for a week if you let it.
But Brown figures he has to let it slide, understanding that even if officials look like zebras, they are people too.
Besides, there’s penalties that he can’t disagree with, such as illegal procedure penalties or selfish penalties.
“Procedure penalties have to be eliminated because they kill you,” he said. “Then the selfish penalties, we have to eliminate those. The aggressive penalties, you have to be careful with. Holding penalties, for example. We have to stress technique. But where we are right now as a program we can’t beat ourselves whether it’s turnovers, penalties, missed assignments, we can’t do that.”
He understands that he can’t eliminate those things at home.
Neither can he do anything to get back the shots downfield that he had that were overthrown or dropped.
That has to be worked out at his second home, the practice field.
The same goes for 16 negative plays that included five sacks of Jarret Doege. That’s something Brown realizes is going to happen when you are so inexperienced at the tackle position. Opponents, especially on a team like Oklahoma State that is veteran on the defensive side, are going to take advantage of that inexperience.
“The offensive line play was a mixed bag,” Brown admitted. “At times, in the interior three, we did some really nice things, created some movement. Short yardage wise, we were successful. At tackle, we got to get better. We got compressed, lost some one-on-ones.
“It was a mixed bag, but I do think we are improved from last year I need to do a better job of not putting our quarterback in a position to get hit.”
Brown will always try to figure out what went wrong, work out a fix for it, but not until he gets to the office the next day.
At home he becomes father and husband … at least on the outside.