MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Even before their lunch together this spring, Neal Brown knew of Don Nehlen’s accomplishments. He’d read about how Nehlen revived a sluggish football program in 1980, won more games than any other coach in West Virginia history and inspired the passion Mountaineers fans are now known for. What Brown, 39, did not know is that Nehlen’s memory at 83 is just as sharp as it was in his coaching days: He can still name the hometown and home state of each of his 22 starters on the 1988 team that fell one win shy of a national championship. Running backs A.B. Brown and Craig Taylor were from New Jersey. Quarterback Major Harris, tackle Brian Smider and safety Bo Orlando came from Pennsylvania, and receivers Reggie Rembert and Calvin Phillips grew up in Florida. Nehlen ran through the entire starting group as an astonished Brown listened.
“It was unbelievable,” Brown says weeks later, recounting the story from the office Nehlen once presided over. Hailed as a boy wonder in the coaching industry, Brown turned Troy into a giant-killer in short order (as LSU and Nebraska recently found out the hard way) after sprouting from the Air Raid tree as a walk-on receiver for Hal Mumme at Kentucky and a note-taking assistant under Tony Franklin at Troy. He’s one of the fastest risers in college coaching: an offensive coordinator at 28, a head coach at 35 and a millionaire—thanks to his $3.1 million salary as part of a six-year contract to coach the Mountaineers—before turning 40. He’s a bookworm, the son of an elementary school librarian and a high school principal, raised in Bardstown, Ky., the trademarked Bourbon Capital of the World.
But Brown’s past, while interesting, is somewhat irrelevant to the difficult task that lies before him: finding a way to draw good enough players to a small mountain town in order to compete in a conference whose footprint begins halfway across the country. West Virginia is a one-of-a-kind job in college football, and some might call it one of the most challenging. The lunch with Nehlen is only a small part of what has shaped Brown’s recruiting philosophy, using the past to mold the future by learning how—and from where—Nehlen assembled teams that won 149 games over 21 seasons.
“Draw a 300-mile radius circle around Morgantown, and there’s lots of players,” Nehlen says, “and then you go down to Florida for some receivers and DBs who can run.”
In addition to their remote location in relation to the rest of the Big 12, the Mountaineers are in a unique situation as the flagship university of a state with 1.8 million people, the smallest state that contains a Power 5 program. Despite that, they’ve managed to do more with less. West Virginia has twice in 17 years signed a class ranked among the top 25 nationally, but over that span it has finished in the Top 25 nine times and has endured just a single losing season. This is not a place with patience for losing.
“We all feel the need to have some success early because they’ve always had success here—how sometimes, I wonder,” says 59-year-old Vic Koenning, West Virginia’s defensive coordinator who moved from Troy with Brown. “They’ve done a really good job at something, because they’ve won.”
It makes you wonder what the program might accomplish with a fully stocked and highly touted roster. Recruiting, though, is only one piece to this puzzle, a single component to Brown’s multi-faceted rebuilding plan, the same one he used to take Troy from the Sun Belt cellar to the top tier of the Group of Five. The Trojans, working on three straight years of 10-plus wins, are one of the more feared opponents among the little guys. Now, their architect is leading one of the big guys.
West Virginia is to college football what Rickie Fowler is to golf: The Mountaineers have the most wins of any Football Bowl Subdivision program without a national championship. Brown points to WVU’s 750 wins (14th-most all-time) and close calls as examples of the potential. WVU has been on the cusp of a title three times in 40 years (1988, 1993, 2007), each time arguably a single victory away from either playing for a national championship or claiming one.
For now, expectations here are tempered, as implied by the program’s social media hashtag, #TrustTheClimb. The Mountaineers lost a host of stars from the 2018 team that was 8–1, ranked No. 7 and in position to play for a Big 12 championship before a late-season slide. Gone are quarterback Will Grier, playmaking receivers David Sills V and Gary Jennings, three starting offensive linemen and arguably the team’s best returning defensive player, all-Big 12 safety Kenny Robinson, who is in the transfer portal. And then there’s a schedule that includes nine conference games, five of them on the road, and a salty trio of nonconference games: The Mountaineers play at Missouri, host NC State and open the season with the No. 2-ranked team in the FCS, James Madison.
“My goal is to be bowl-eligible. I’d consider that a successful year,” says West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, who hired Brown after Dana Holgorsen’s eight-season run ended with his sudden departure for Houston. “We’re in a marathon, not in a sprint.”
The marathon has so far included an increase in resources. Lyons approved the addition of two more analysts and four more full-time recruiting staff members to join the initial two, and there are $55 million renovations coming to the football program’s operations center. As with all program changes, these are being made with recruiting in mind. “In two years, we’ll have a brand new facility, which really is going to help you get better dudes,” says Matt Moore, the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach who Brown brought from Troy. “The place we just left, the roster is awesome. Here, the roster... we’ve got a lot of holes.”
The strategy for how to fill those holes is evolving, Brown says. The staff plans to take Nehlen’s approach in recruiting a 300-mile radius or a six-hour drive from Morgantown, while sprinkling in some Floridians. They’ll go northeast to New York and New Jersey, down the East Coast to the Baltimore-Washington D.C. corridor, west to Kentucky, south to Charlotte and northwest to Detroit. They’re also recruiting Canada and Europe. “When you’re in a state with 1.8 million people, you’ve got to get creative,” says Brian Bennett, the programs 30-year-old director of player personnel.
Bennett calls international recruiting a “new frontier,” buoyed by Premier Players International, a Germany-based outfit where the top players in Europe are identified and trained to play American football. PPI founder Brandon Collier annually leads multiple bus tours of European teenagers across America to visit colleges. The latest group came through Morgantown two weeks ago, 15 players from seven different countries, including cornerback Jairo Faverus, from Bristol Academy in the U.K. Days after Faverus earned an offer after working out in front of Brown and his staff, he committed to the Mountaineers’ 2020 class.
The staff is serious enough about international recruiting that Brown plans to send an assistant coach on a recruiting trip to Amsterdam and Germany this winter. The only issue is selecting which of the 10 assistants gets a free trip overseas. “They’re all clamoring for it,” Bennett laughs. West Virginia isn’t the only program dabbling in the overseas market for players. Michigan, Temple, Penn State, Ohio State, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Boise State, Colorado and Arizona have all shown interest in or signed international players.
Notably absent from that list are any other Big 12 teams. Even in the States, the Mountaineers rarely see fellow conference members on the recruiting trail aside from Iowa State, the closest leaguemate at a mere 860 miles away from Morgantown. While other conference foes are fighting among themselves in and around the talent-rich state of Texas, Brown’s assistants are trying to convince Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern kids to play in one of the more high-powered offensive leagues around. “Is there a more fun league to play in than the Big 12?” Brown asks rhetorically. “Geographically, I like our fit. Some people look at it as a negative. It makes us unique and different. Anytime you can differentiate yourself from your competitors, I think it’s great—I don’t care if it’s recruiting or selling cars.”
Brown is unique in his own right. He’s the rare major college coach who works from home in the early-morning and late-evening hours so he can drive his three children to school and eat dinner with the family. He’s also a ’ball coach with a book club. West Virginia’s on-field and off-field staff members meet every couple of weeks in the WVU team room to openly discuss an inspirational book that Brown has assigned them to read. The current book is John Maxwell’s Developing the Leader Within You, and the chapter discussed last week was about the difficulty of change, a pertinent subject for everyone here, both holdover West Virginia employees now under a new regime and those from Troy now working at a new school. When Brown took over, he met individually with each player and staff member, posing to them four questions: What do we need to sustain? What do we need to improve? What’s the No. 1 issue? If you were named head coach tomorrow, what would you do?
“You get a feel for where we’re at,” Brown says. “To me, people make mistakes going in making changes. Really this summer, we’re going through and putting the foundation in.” The foundation includes five environmental factors: (1) fun, (2) positive energy, (3) family atmosphere, (4) competition and (5) continuous improvement. Those factors were on display during an offense vs. defense cookoff at Milan Puskar Stadium last Thursday, a barbecue battle that the defense won by a 4–2 vote, as staff members’ children interacted with players seated next to one another on long tables. Brown’s fifth environmental factor showed on the faces of the losing side: Offensive players now know what to improve upon next year (less barbecue sauce, guys).
Brown is detail-oriented to the extreme. He’s a note-taker, filling a legal pad each week with thoughts from meetings, film sessions and events, or sometimes just hastily jotted ideas or schedules for events two months out. Bennett and Patrick Johnston, WVU’s director of operations, are in charge of archiving the notepads. Once Brown has completely filled a pad, the sheets are torn out, three holes are punched through each sheet and they are stacked into a three-ring binder, dozens of which fill filing cabinets around the facility. Over the course of the year, Brown and staff members refer to the binders for information. Maybe it’s something Brown said in a meeting from 2017, or a play he jotted down against a common opponent from a year ago. His notes do have an expiration date, though. “I keep five years,” he says. “Anything over five years, I get rid of.”
Brown is a long-term planner, too, so much so that Moore says during a recent recruiting meeting Brown asked his staff, “Who’s going to be our starters in 2021?” It’s no surprise he has advanced so far at a young age, certainly not to his mentor, Franklin, who is now the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee. Brown owes Franklin plenty. As Kentucky’s running backs coach from 1997 to ’99 under Mumme, Franklin helped get Brown a walk-on spot, and then, as offensive coordinator at Troy in 2006, he hired a 25-year-old Brown as his receivers coach. Two years later, upon leaving Troy for Auburn, Franklin recommended that Brown be promoted to offensive coordinator. That opened the door to bigger coordinator jobs at Texas Tech and Kentucky. “I always thought he was a really good offensive coordinator,” Franklin says, “but I thought he’d be a better head coach.”
Brown was ballsy as an assistant, a brazen kid who routinely interjected and even created weekly game plans that Franklin now admits he’d toss in the garbage—not because they were poorly done, but because “I function in a different way,” Franklin says. Sometimes, Brown stepped over the line. “He could take a butt-chewing, and he got several,” Franklin says with a laugh. “Didn’t bother him one bit.”
Brown has changed offensively through the years, moving from the hotshot coordinator hell-bent on scoring 70 points a game to a head coach who’s only after a win. He has his own version of Mumme’s Air Raid offense, incorporating a ground game built off the option. His offense is always changing, too, often swiping plays from the most prolific offense in pro football, the Rams. “When I was with him as an offensive coordinator at Tech, it was go go go,” Moore says. “It was more about scoring points, 90 plays a game. When he became the head coach, it was more about, ‘How can we win?’”
That starts, of course, on the recruiting trail. Brown and staff are shaking off the perception that the challenge of recruiting high school players to Morgantown makes it too tough to win the Big 12. Brown’s predecessor, Holgorsen, admitted as much in an interview this spring with SI. In his final five years at West Virginia, Holgorsen says he used half of his initial scholarship spots on transfers.
“In the past, people are looking to say, ‘Oh, it’s tough to recruit because to get there…’ I don’t buy into that,” Lyons says.
The recruiting might be toughest on Koenning and his defensive staff, who are charged with signing players to defend a fast-paced, pass-heavy conference. More than anything, he says, it means signing more corners than safeties. Koenning, 59, is a 34-year coaching veteran whose career has spanned eight schools and seven conferences. He’s prepared for what lies ahead on the recruiting trail, and he knows it will be even more difficult than recruiting at Troy, where coaches recruited inside a three-hour driving radius and only rarely needed to travel by air.
Around this time each year, Koenning says, the Trojans’ staff began targeting nearby players that SEC and ACC programs had passed on. It will be different at West Virginia. “Here, you’re recruiting the ones, but realistically you’re at the next tier. That’s where you’re spending a good amount of your time,” he says. “What you’ve got to be careful of is spending too much time with the [highest-ranked recruits], the five-stars or four-stars or whatever, and you don’t get the next guys.” Here, getting players to camp might be more difficult because of travel distances, and seeing each kid in person within a recruiting territory that spans 17 states could be a problem, too.
On the bright side, expectations for a highly touted signing class do not exist here. That’s a good thing, coaches say. “Truthfully, sometimes it’s easier to recruit when you’re at a place when you don’t have to worry about the stars because you can take the guys you like,” Moore says. “Recruiting is a crapshoot. Sometimes you take stars and sometimes you’re like, ‘Is that kid really that good?’ As a coach, sometimes you’re sitting there going, ‘Man, I’ve got to get this four-star kid, but look at this kid. Nobody knows about him, but he’s a two-star. They’re going to have a fit if I try to sign this kid, but I know he’s better.’ At this place, they’re not hung up on recruiting battles. These people here just want to win.”
They are used to winning, dating back to even before Nehlen. Bobby Bowden won 42 games in six years here before he was hired by Florida State after the 1975 season, and before that in the 1950s, Art Lewis claimed five conference championships. Nehlen still lives in Morgantown and attends all the home games. His son Dan is the longtime WVU equipment manager, and his grandson Ryan is an offensive analyst. Brown hopes to acquire Nehlen’s knack for reciting each one of his starter’s hometowns in an effort to duplicate Nehlen’s results. “That,” Brown says, “is kind of the plan.”