Behind the Scenes With Troy: How Neal Brown Runs a Power 5 Giant-Killer

What's the secret to slaying a Power 5 program on the road? Ice cream, parking lot walk-throughs and pregame dance parties—or business as usual for Neal Brown and Troy.
Publish date:

This story appears in the Sept. 24–Oct. 1, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Image placeholder title

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 9:45 a.m. CDT

Neal Brown is mad, not only at the player who skipped a class but also at his strength staff. Brown, Troy’s fourth-year coach, has just found out that the truant was punished with a grueling workout—but not in the way Troy football players are supposed to be punished. Every Trojan who misses a class or a workout is to be tasked with pushing a weighted sled across the practice field. Each subsequent screwup adds weight to the sled. “When we mess up,” Brown tells his strength coaches, “we push the sled.”

Why does Brown care so much about exacting one punishment instead of another? Because he believes that if his coaches are consistent, his players are more likely to be just as consistent. And then they will treat this week just as they would any other week.

In some respects it is like any other week. There are practices Monday through Friday and a game on Saturday. But this game will take place in Lincoln, Neb., in a stadium that holds almost 60,000 more fans than Veterans Memorial Stadium, which sits just off U.S. Highway 231 in Troy, Ala. (pop. 19,000). It will be against a program whose $42.5 million budget—including a $1.15 million payout to Troy for scheduling this matchup—is five times greater than the Trojans’. It will be against a team whose backups would have been Troy’s top recruits. Yet the Trojans faced even bigger disparities last year and still came away with a win at LSU. Two years ago, they had eventual national champion Clemson on the ropes in Death Valley before the Tigers pulled out a win. Nebraska may be impressive, but it won’t awe Troy players.

The support staffers leave and the offensive coaches remain to screen video of Nebraska’s defense. Troy’s offensive line averages 6'4" and 310 pounds. At 6'5" and 315 pounds, Cornhuskers nosetackle Mick Stoltenberg looks carved out of granite. Freedom Akinmoladun, a 6'4", 295-pound senior who lines up on the inside eye of the opposing offensive tackle, probably would play nose at Troy. (At 6'3" and 250 pounds, even Huskers punter Caleb Lightbourn is the size of an NFL rush end.) Another set of plays shows UCF’s defense, because first-year Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost and his staff have coached just one game since leaving UCF following a Peach Bowl win against Auburn. When the UCF video appears, the biggest difference between those Knights and these Cornhuskers becomes apparent. UCF had linebacker Shaquem Griffin making plays all over the field. Nebraska has excellent athletes, but the Cornhuskers don’t have a dynamo like that who can wreck every third-down play.

As the coaches discuss rushing plays for junior quarterback Kaleb Barker, his position coach, Sean Reagan, urges that they send their QB outside. “I don’t want him to run up in there and get drilled in his earhole,” Reagan says.

Tuesday, 4:29 p.m.

“That’s not a moth,” Troy director of player personnel Brian Bennett says. “That’s a pterodactyl.”


The massive insect rests on the wall of the $24 million building the Trojans moved into in August. He’s welcome outside, but the inside is gloriously pest-free. The new building features a new weight room—which the strength staff hasn’t moved into yet because the weights are arriving any day now—spacious and bright coaches’ offices and meeting rooms, a fueling station for players that features four Powerade slushie machines* and a palatial locker room. The new locker room has two key features that the old one didn’t.

• A mud room between the locker room proper and the entrance to the field that would make the folks on Love It or List It jealous. Pads, gloves and shoes get stored here, and the naturally occurring odors that tend to cling to those items stay here and never enter the locker room.

• There are no mice. Troy’s old locker room, which smells like the inside of a pair of shoulder pads that has been worn for months by a 300-pound lineman, left in the rain for two weeks and then baked in the sun for another two weeks, had a mouse problem that required frequent extermination.

*A Powerade slushie on a 92-degree day is a thing of wonder.

Some programs would have hidden this from the players, but Bennett—the brains behind Troy’s recruiting operation—says Brown demanded that the recruits see everything. He didn’t want to hide anything, because he didn’t want anyone to think the staff had pulled a bait-and-switch.

Now, instead of dreading the locker room tour, Trojans staffers can proudly parade recruits and their families through the new building. That makes Bennett’s job much easier.

Troy’s staff tries to recruit from a four-hour radius that includes Alabama and parts of Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. Proximity to home is a huge selling point, but sometimes the Trojans find players who don’t need to be sold on the school because Troy is either their only FBS offer or their best FBS offer. Bennett, who worked for Charlie Strong at Louisville and Texas, and the Trojans’ on-field assistants excel at finding players other schools overlooked.

One such player is linebacker Tyler Murray, who grew up in Baldwin, Fla., about 30 minutes west of Jacksonville. Troy linebackers coach Bam Hardmon, a Jacksonville native who played the position at Florida, pleaded with his fellow coaches to give Murray a spot in the 2017 class. Murray was a 180-pounder who projected as a cornerback, but Hardmon saw him as an eventual Spear linebacker in Troy’s scheme. Troy beat out Elon and Samford to get Murray, who now weighs 209 pounds and would make one especially huge play in Lincoln.

Barker, the quarterback, is another example. He played at tiny Priceville High in north Alabama. On top of the small-school stigma, Barker suffered a knee injury in high school that limited what colleges could see him do. His saving grace? He could cover and hit. Troy defensive coordinator Vic Koenning told Brown he’d take Barker as a safety, so the Trojans used a spot they’d been saving for a safety or a linebacker to sign Barker, who had no other FBS offers. (Current backup Sawyer Smith already occupied the slot in that class reserved for a quarterback.) Coaches gave Barker his first camp to prove he could play quarterback, or he was headed to play safety for Koenning. Two years later, Barker has replaced departed starter Brandon Silvers as QB1.

Tuesday, 10:09 p.m.

“I can’t take it anymore,” Koenning says. Koenning and his assistants have just spent 90 minutes—with one five-minute break to discuss which college football coaches wear the tightest shirts and another to analyze the brain-eating scene near the end of the 2001 film Hannibal—figuring out how the various alignments and stunts in Koenning’s defense match up against Nebraska’s Dart concept. On the Dart, an offensive tackle pulls toward the center and rumbles through the middle of the defense. The quarterback can either keep the ball and follow the tackle or throw it to the perimeter. If dual threat Adrian Martinez plays, Troy coaches expect to see the Dart frequently, and it terrifies them. But after the true freshman from Fresno, Calif., hurt his right knee late in a 33–28 loss to Colorado on Sept. 8, sophomore walk-on Andrew Bunch replaced him. They need to be ready if Martinez, an electric runner, returns to the lineup.

Wednesday, 9:15 a.m.

Every team, no matter the budget, has to post a uniform reveal on social media in 2018. That’s why Troy linebacker A.J. Smiley is in the locker room putting on a game uniform. Andrii Rutnytskyi, a sports information graduate assistant from Ukraine, prepares a camera to shoot beauty shots of the helmet, jersey and gloves while Smiley flexes. A member of the equipment staff double-checks the uniform combination with communications director Adam Prendergast.

“Chrome [helmet], white [jersey], cardinal [pants],” Prendergast says. “Just like LSU last year.”

Wednesday, 4:25 p.m.

Nearly all the members of the staff have been checking the weather apps on their phones. Any lightning strike within eight miles means the Trojans aren’t allowed on the practice field for at least 30 minutes, and they need to practice. Lightning destroyed their practice schedule before their 56–20 loss to Boise State in the season opener, and it allowed barely one day of real work before a 59–7 win over Florida A&M in Week 2. On Tuesday it had chased the Trojans off the practice field and into their new weight room, which has remained empty until new weights arrive.

If lightning strikes near Lincoln, the Cornhuskers can simply practice on their indoor field. The Trojans must adjourn to their weight room—or, if they need more space, hope the volleyball team isn’t using the arena. The 38-year-old Brown wants two uninterrupted hours of practice, and he wants to know when that can happen. Desperate for information, communications director Adam Prendergast calls the only person who might have better intel: the meteorologist at Montgomery’s WSFA. TV’s Josh Johnson says the small storm currently near Eufaula should miss Troy. The Trojans might have a window. “Tell Coach we probably should go now,” says Prendergast over the laughter of staffers who tweak him for calling the station.

The forecast is correct, though. The Trojans put in two hours of work with no delays. The only annoyances are the swarms of lovebugs (Plecia nearctica), which fly in connected male-female pairs and invade certain Gulf Coast states every May and September. The Huskers don’t have to worry about lightning or lovebugs, but they should worry about the Trojans.


Thursday, 8:45 a.m.

The coaches sit at their long table staring at their depth chart board, which has magnets bearing each player’s name. They stop at nosetackle, which has been a question mark with starter Trevon Sanders injured. After sitting out on Tuesday he practiced in a limited role on Wednesday.

Sanders might be the only Trojan who can clog the spaces between Nebraska’s center and guards, who average 325 pounds. “We’re going to have to get some snaps out of [number] 90,” Brown says. Everyone nods, but no one knows exactly how many “some” will be.

Friday, 7:15 p.m.

After arriving at the hotel, the Trojans drop their bags in their rooms and head downstairs for dinner. Some load up on lasagna or turkey breasts. Others go directly to the ice cream bar, which the Troy staff sets up every Friday before a game. Brown sits with the specialists. Kicker-punter Tyler Sumpter and backup kicker Evan Legassey explain how every Troy kicker from this point forward must grow his hair as long as theirs—which falls past their shoulders when unbound. “Things I never thought I’d have to say as a football coach?” Brown says. “Your hair has to be in a ponytail.” This is slightly inaccurate. Sumpter and Legassey rock man buns.

Later, the team meets in the hotel parking lot, where they swat mosquitos—no lovebugs, though—and walk through their formations under a crescent moon. They’ll return to the lot on Saturday morning to ensure the special-teamers understand their assignments. But before that they’ll listen to chaplain Lonnie Cochran, who has noticed the weights on Nebraska’s roster. “These giants that you’re going to see tomorrow, are they too big to kill, or are they too big to miss?” Cochran says. “It’s a matter of perspective.”

Friday, 9:23 p.m.

Troy video coordinator Aaron Corneil marches toward the electronics section in the back of the store. He is sure the speakers he brings to pump music into the locker room at road games made the 54-mile trip from Troy to the Dothan airport, but when the Trojans’ buses pulled into the hotel in Lincoln, the speakers were nowhere to be found. So he has requisitioned $300 to buy new speakers.

After testing several soundbars, he settles on a Vizio and a Samsung. With the proper connections that will allow him to daisy-chain the soundbars together and connect his iPad to provide the music, his total comes to $292.

Meanwhile, Prendergast splits away from the speaker-buying party to replace a forgotten essential. “I need to buy deodorant,” he says. “Pick me up a stick, too,” Corneil says.

Saturday, 10:51 a.m.

Big news: Corneil found the lost speakers! And they are bumping in a way those soundbars—which may find a home in the players’ lounge in Troy’s new building—never could have. After a pregame dance party that includes hits from Waka Flocka Flame (“Hard In Da Paint”) and Meek Mill (“Dreams And Nightmares”, the same song the Eagles took the field to at the Super Bowl), Brown addresses his team. “One of the best things in all of sports,” he says, “is you go to a venue like this and you create silence.” Just before Brown spoke, the Trojans played one last song. It was by Whop Bezzy and Boosie Badazz. Its title? “You Know I Ain’t Scared”.


Saturday, 11:45 a.m.

Martinez was announced on the scoreboard as the starter before the game, but it turns out that Bunch is starting. Still, the Trojans have to deal with a packed house of 89,360 rooting against them—plus calls that aren’t going their way. First came a replay review in the first quarter; what had looked like a simultaneous catch (which stays with the offense) is ruled a Nebraska interception at the Huskers’ seven-yard line. A few minutes later, another replay review concluded that running back Maurice Washington had been down by contact before fumbling away the ball.

Brown blows up at the men in the striped shirts, and out comes the flag. For the first time in his career he has been penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Trojans would have boxed the Huskers into third-and-22 from their own 24, but instead the penalty gives Nebraska a first down.

Sophomore safety Tyler Murray renders the penalty moot by intercepting Bunch. At the start of the second quarter Sumpter—who booted one 79 yards with the wind in the first—reminds Troy punt returner Cedarius Rookard that Lightbourn now has the wind. Rookard pedals back just before Lightbourn’s foot hits the ball, then fields the kick with a tackler bearing down. He slips that one’s grasp and breaks free down the right sideline. Troy coaches had asked their special-teamers to change the game, and Rookard’s 58-yard return to the house has. They lead 10–0.

Saturday, 12:34 p.m.

Up 17–7 at the half, the Trojans spew clichés. It’s 0–0. ... Game’s not over. ... Yet these seem especially useful and comforting in the moment. Webb Hamilton, Troy’s one-man analytics department, makes sure Brown knows that the Trojans need to kick off toward their tunnel to ensure they get the wind at their back in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Sanders has ignored the pain in his knee and played most of the snaps on D. Nothing was going to keep him from playing a major role. Sanders isn’t afraid to take on a huge challenge. In preseason camp, the offense squared off against the defense in a cookoff. Four offensive players brought their best recipes. Sanders represented the defense by himself, cooking 200 pieces of chicken and destroying the offense in a taste test.

As he heads back to the field, he notices the Alabama state troopers who escort the team on road trips. “I’m about to make your drive back so smooth,” he says.


Saturday, 1 p.m.

The second half doesn’t start smoothly for the Trojans. Rookard muffs a punt early, and Cam Taylor—a freshman DB from Montgomery, Ala., who considered Troy before the Huskers swooped in late in the recruiting process—recovers on the eight-yard line, gifting Nebraska a field goal.

Troy’s offense sputters again, and the Huskers march into the red zone before settling for another field goal to cut the lead to 17–13. The Trojans, so loose in the first half, have grown tense. At 92˚, it’s as hot in Lincoln as it was in Troy. The Trojans need a drive to give their defense a breather.

Saturday, 1:45p.m.

Early in the fourth quarter Barker converts a third-and-nine, hitting Sidney Davis for a 13-yard gain. Troy converts again when Nebraska’s Aaron Williams gets flagged for pass interference. Now the Trojans must overcome a third third-and-nine or settle for a long field goal try. Reagan had said that they would avoid having Barker run up the middle, but that plan has been scrapped. He catches the snap and sprints into the A gap. He does not get drilled in his earhole. He gains 17 yards. Two plays later the offensive line blows open a hole for running back B.J. Smith, who runs 26 yards untouched into the end zone.

Tackle J.L. Gaston fired out and blocked a linebacker. When Gaston looked up, he saw Smith’s back as he sprinted for the score to make it 24–13 and felt something odd. “It was like butterflies,” Gaston says.

At least it wasn’t lovebugs.

Saturday, 2:05 p.m.

For a walk-on making his first start, Bunch is unflappable. On fourth-and-eight from the Troy 42, he finds Kurt Rafdal for 26 yards. Three plays later, a seven-yard TD pass to JD Spielman slashes the lead. The two-point conversion fails, but Nebraska’s D forces a punt. Bunch will get one more chance.

After an incompletion on first down he drops back on second. Bunch fires to his left, and the ball lands in the hands of safety Will Sunderland. A silence falls over Memorial Stadium—just what Brown had wanted. But the relative quiet on Troy’s sideline is even more shocking. Koenning yells at his players to get on the bench in case they have to play one more series. Offensive players race to take the field to make sure they don’t. Moments later Barker takes a knee to seal the win.


Saturday, 2:22 p.m.

The Trojans may have left the field quietly, but the party rages a few minutes later in the locker room. Offensive linemen hug defensive linemen. Quarterbacks hug coaches. Eventually, all the players form a mosh pit and chant along with “Graffiti” by YoungBoy Never Broke Again. After a few minutes Brown stands on a chair and asks for quiet.

“This is different from last year at LSU,” he says. “Last year we came in and surprised the world. [The Cornhuskers] knew what was coming. We didn’t show up this morning and surprise them. They knew that you guys could play. But here’s the deal: You still took care of business.”

Later, Brown apologizes for the penalty. “You have to push sleds!” players yell from the back as their teammates cheer. If Brown wants to maintain the consistency that allowed his team to slay another giant, that’s exactly what he’ll do.