Boyle grad Brown using football to make a difference at West Virginia

Published 9:00 am Saturday, December 30, 2023

Neal Brown gets it, but he also gets it.

Brown knows winning is what matters most at West Virginia, just as it is at any major college football program.

However, he also knows he can use his position as West Virginia’s football coach and all that comes with it to make an impact that goes well beyond winning.

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Make no mistake: Brown is in it to win. That has been the case since his earliest days as an athlete and was the case throughout his four years as a multi-sport star at Boyle County High School.

He just completed his most successful season in five years at West Virginia, as the Mountaineers finished 9-4 after beating North Carolina on Wednesday in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.

At the same time, Brown sees a bigger picture. He sees an opportunity to make a difference, and he sees the importance of making sure he leaves the places where he coached better than he found them.

“I think that’s the true measure of success,” Brown said. “My hope is whether at West Virginia or Troy, that you can look back and feel like you made a difference in the lives of student-athletes, in the lives of their families and in the community you live in.”

Making a difference mattered to Brown when he was a rising star in collegiate coaching, and it was part of his thought process when he took the West Virginia job in 2019.

The chance to be much closer to home and family than he was in his previous job at Troy was an important consideration, but so was the belief that he could make an impact in a state that is largely united behind the football program at its only Power Five school.

“Football is really important, and there’s an opportunity to make a difference through football, building the profile of the university and really helping the entire state,” he said.

“You want to coach and play at a place where it matters and you have an opportunity to influence. To me, there’s no greater place in the entire country where you have an opportunity to influence as much as West Virginia.”

That remains true even as the job has changed around him. The challenges that came first with the COVID-19 pandemic and later with the rise of the transfer portal and athletes’ ability to profit off their own name, image and likeness have forced Brown and other coaches to adapt.

“The role of a head coach at the Power Five level has changed dramatically in the last three years,” he said.

Even so, Brown said the West Virginia job is just as appealing to him as when he brought his family to Morgantown four years ago.

“In many regards, the reasons why (wife) Brooke and I thought West Virginia is a great opportunity still remain a great opportunity (five) years later,” he said.

Brown went 35-16 and won three bowl games in four years at Troy, but he had only one winning season in his first four years at West Virginia.

The Mountaineers went 5-7 in 2022 and were picked to finish last in the 14-team Big 12 Conference this season, and Brown was aware of the noise coming from a discontented fan base.

“You understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “I always try to differentiate the product from the person. People get upset when you lose or when you lose a recruit, but they’re really upset with the product, not with the person.

“At the end of the day, all you can do is do your very best to make the product the best you possibly can. You go about your business and you continue to do the next right thing over and over.”

Nathan Schepman, a local delicatessen operator who has been one of Brown’s closest friends since high school, said that’s the way Brown has always done things.

“He does things the right way, and so many times they’re not done that way nowadays,” Schepman said. “It would be so easy to turn a blind eye or to do something unethical to get some wins, but he just doesn’t do that. And those kids, they do respect him.”

Motivated by the preseason predictions, Brown and the Mountaineers engineered a season that went well beyond expectations. West Virginia won four of its first five games, then followed two disappointing defeats by winning five of its last six to post its best record since 2016.

The 30-10 win over North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl provides even more momentum for a team that will return several key offensive players.

“This is going to be a catapult for us,” Brown said after the game. “I really feel like we should end the season in the top 25. We’ve earned that right. I have a vote and I’ll vote us in. And then I think once we go into the ‘24 season, I think we’re a team that’ll be in the preseason top 25. We return a lot, and I’m excited about that.”

Brown focuses on the development of those players off the field as well as on it, pouring considerable time and resources into initiatives that will help them make a difference after their playing days are over.

“We call it the whole person developmental model,” he said. “We try to really attack it in that developmental model over a 12-month period.”

The Mountaineers’ 5th Quarter program helps prepare players for life after graduation by focusing on character, leadership and career development and social responsibility, and it has been expanded to provide educational and professional growth opportunities to student-athletes through an alumni gift.

Brown and his staff adopted the slogan “Trust the Climb” upon his arrival, and it’s a credo he applies to himself as well as to the Mountaineers.

“The word ‘climb’ means there’s no ending point,” he said. “We use the words ‘climb’ and ‘better’ interchangeably. You just want to continue to get better in every facet. We’ve got to be better as a program, and I need to be better as a head coach, our assistant coaches need to be better, our players need to be better. We put goals in front of them where they need to improve, and when you use ‘climb’ you can visualize that.”

Brown also wants his players to have an appreciation for the Mountain State and its people. In the summer before his first season, he took the players to visit a coal mine and meet the men who worked there.

“This is a hard-working, blue-collar state that has really overachieved in a lot of ways,” he said. “We want our players to have a really good understanding of what it means (to be from West Virginia). We want our program to match the identity of the state.”

That’s the educator in Brown coming through. His parents and several other family members were teachers, his wife Brooke taught for several years and he is a proud product of his environment.

“Even at this level we’re still teachers,” he said.

Schepman said Brown has wanted to be a football coach for at least as long as he has known him, saying Brown first mentioned it on a basketball bus ride to a tournament in Florida.

“Everybody was talking about what they wanted to do, and Neal said he wanted to be a football coach,” Schepman said. “At that time, I thought that was one of the dumber things I’d ever heard. I didn’t fathom what he had in mind as a football coach. He took football coaching to the highest level.”

Brown starred in football, basketball and baseball at Boyle from 1994-98 and played football at Kentucky and Massachusetts, and he said he is thankful for the role athletics played in his development.

“Almost every experience I’ve had I can trace back to basketball, football or baseball,” he said.

Now he and Brooke spend much of their free time, such as it is, watching their children compete. Sophomore Adalyn plays volleyball and softball, seventh-grader Anslee plays basketball and softball and second-grader Dax plays “whatever’s in season.”

“It helps me from a coaching perspective,” Brown said. “It helps me have empathy for the parents of our players and probably see things through their eyes a little better. It also makes me keenly aware about youth sports and where my kids are. I don’t think we allow kids to play enough.”

He’s also more appreciative of the sacrifices his parents made so he could play three sports.

“I did not fully comprehend that until probably the last three or four years,” he said. “I realized how blessed I was to have those opportunities and to have my parents do those things for me.”