Morgantown, West Virginia – I no longer trust the climb. However, this is not a call to fire Neal Brown. Rather this is preemptive; a “preventative doctor’s appointment.” Things can be fixed, but it is going to require significant changes to Neal Brown’s coaching philosophy, player management, and coaching personnel choices. First, let’s talk about how we got here.
The 2018-2019 season was underwhelming. The defense had turned around under Tony Gibson’s tenure and the offense had been the most potent it had been since the Geno Smith era. Will Grier was the best pocket passer at WVU since Marc Bulger, and he had exceptional weapons surrounding him with David Sills, Gary Jennings, and Kennedy McCoy. However, the team did not meet expectations, finishing 8-4 on the season in a year where many thought 10+ wins was not out of the questions.
The Mountaineers were potentially one illegal block in the back away from knocking off a top 10 ranked Oklahoma team and potentially making an appearance in the Big 12 title game. This was always the story under Dana though. Mistakes, poor game management, and poor discipline.
While the offenses were almost always fun to watch with Dana on the sidelines, the fans and grew tired of his leadership. Dana seemed to be tired of the being the head coach of WVU as well as he took the head coaching job at the University of Houston shortly after the season ended, a rare diagonal move of a head coach moving from the power 5 head coaching gig to a group of 5 head coaching gig.
Despite the strange decision by Dana, it didn’t create too many waves among the Mountaineer faithful. Dana was polarizing. While his offenses were electric, his poor game managing and apathy for recruiting pushed many fans to grow tired of Dana. Dana’s departure was a chance to right the ship; build things back up the right way, and play Mountaineer football again. This would also be Shane Lyons first big test as the Athletic Director of WVU. After weeks of speculation, it seemed like WVU had narrowed its search to two names: Cincinnati University’s head coach Luke Fickell and Troy’s head coach Neal Brown.
I, and many other fans of Mountaineer Nations, preferred the young head coach out of Troy. He had lead Troy to 3 straight 10-win seasons, an exceptional feat for any head coach. On top of that, he seemed to be the exact opposite of Dana; he was personable, valued recruiting, and seemed be exceptional at game planning and game managing. Fickell, on the other hand, had one season of head coaching experience at a Power 5 school, Ohio State, as interim head coach after Jim Tressell’s dismissal, and he underwhelmed. Neal seemed like the right choice.
When Neal was hired as head coach, we all knew he had his work cut out for him. Top players from both sides of the ball were leaving: Will Grier, David Sills and his 15 touchdown receptions, Gary Jennings, Yondy Cajuste on the offensive side and Kenny Robinson, Ezekiel Rose, Dravon Askew-Henry, and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, David Long, on defense. On top of this, Dana was notorious for relying heavily on the transfer portal and players from junior colleges to fill out his roster late in the season. With Dana leaving in early 2019, Neal had little time to fill out the 2019 recruiting class with quality players. The years of poor recruiting left WVU’s football roster thin at most positions, including quarterback.
The first season was a throwaway season with the lack of depth. Matters were complicated even more by the expected transfers that come with a head coaching change, including starters on both sides of the ball entering the portal. The offense and defense featured new faces at 7 of the 11 starting positions on each side of the ball, including the highly touted transfer from Oklahoma, Austin Kendall, at quarterback. The defense also feature 7 new starters. However, Kendall was underwhelming, leading to Jarret Doege’s ascension to the starting QB position late in the 2019-2020 season. WVU finished with a 5-7 season, with a 3-6 record in the Big 12, beating only Kansas State, Kansas, and TCU.
In the 2020 season, Neal Brown’s recruiting chops showed during the offseason, pulling in the 37th ranked class in all of college football (per 247 sports), good enough for 4th in the Big 12. We also saw move experience returning with 5 starters on both the offensive and defense returning. Expectations were tempered, but WVU outperformed, finishing with a 6-4 record, a 4-4 record in the big 12, and a bowl win.
Things seemed to be trending in the right direction. We had superstars developing on the defense with the stills brothers, Tykee Smith and Dreshun Miller all drawing looks from NFl scouts. Jarret Doege throwing for nearly 2,500 yards in the 10 games to go with 14 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. However, Doege struggled in the bowl game against Army, leading to Neal Brown replacing him with Austin Kendall to lead the comeback win. This was a promising sign from the young head coach, though. It’s not easy to pull your quarterback mid-game; but he did and it worked.
After the impressive 2020 campaign where Neal Brown showed the ability to make tough decisions, building winning game plans, and recruit at a high level, expectations for the 2021 season were high, and justifiably so. WVU was returning 6 starters on offense and 7 on defense. The defense was expected to dip a bit from their performance from the previous year with the shocking departures of Tykee Smith and Dreshun Miller, but if the WR core could fix their drop issues, the offense was expected to be better than the past two years.
However, as we have seen throughout the season, the offense has not improved, despite our WR corp making drastic improvements over the offseason. The offensive line has not improved, despite 4 of the 5 starters being hand selected and developed by the current coaching staff. Jarret Doege has regressed. Leddie Brown has regressed. Drops started becoming an issue again as displayed in the Kansas State game. Discipline and roster turnover has not improved over the past year either, with WVU having more than 17 transfers in the past year as of the writing of this article. Despite the losses of WVU’s top two defense players, the defense has remained solid and the strength of this WVU football team. The biggest issues, once again, have been with penalties, discipline, and roster turnover.
Player regression, roster turnover, and discipline fall directly on the head coaches plate of responsibilities, whether its something directly managed by him or someone else on his staff. He needs to make the decisions to address these issues, either by firing assistants, benching players or developing plans to help players get through funks. We have not seen these happen yet. The only coaches that have left are coaches that showed the ability to be great coaches. The only players we’ve seen leave are young players or players that have shown they have the ability to play at this level. Neal Brown needs to come up with answers and start planning on how to right the ship. NOW.
My co-host on the Voice of Motown Podcast, Tyler, frequently notes that college coaches should get 5 years before they are let go. I agree with this, but we need to see improvement, even if it just is incremental. Neal is an offensive minded head coach, but only the defense has shown improvement despite running into more adversity than the offense has faced. I don’t know if Neal should be given a 5th year with the way things have been in 2021. It could be Year 3 if we lose to Kansas, which isn’t out of the question. It could be Year 3 ½ if we start slow out of the gate next year, even if we have a young QB or Jared Doege at QB. And of course if we finish at .500 or worse again next year, year 4 should be the longest amount of time he should be allotted.
Neal Brown has had 3 years to bring in the right guys, coaches, and develop philosophies to win the Big 12. The honeymoon phase is over, and he needs to fix things now. Period. The next two games will go a long ways to show how he can rally the team from the poor performances in the last two games. But he has already lost the trust of many fans, and its possible he has already lost many players on the team. Its time to focus on rebuilding the ladder so we can all trust the climb again.
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— Voice of Morgantown Podcast (@wvusportspod) November 12, 2021