Asti: Two Fatal Mistakes Led to Shane Lyons’ Downfall at West Virginia
It happened. Shane Lyons is no longer the athletic director of West Virginia University.
Parting ways with Lyons wasn’t necessarily a surprising move, but it’s certainly a decision that will continue to have a ripple effect, especially with the football program, which is the most important program at a school like WVU and the program that eventually sunk Lyons.
But now that it has happened, it makes sense to discuss how we got to this point. When Lyons arrived at WVU, he came as a West Virginia native and WVU alum (twice over with a bachelor’s and master’s degree) and on the heels of experiencing tremendous success as the deputy of director of athletics at Alabama. Lyons also took the reigns at WVU, a likely dream job for him, in 2015 during a period when the football team was trying to get back to a level of national glory, a place it had not been for a few years and was seeking for the first time as a member of the Big 12.
Just a few years into his tenure as AD, Lyons would have to make a decision that often determines the longevity of an athletic director. Dana Holgorsen would leave to become the head coach at Houston after the 2018 season, a decision that was viewed as a mutual divorce. Lyons hired Neal Brown, a coach with youth on his side who put a “Group of 5” program in Troy on the college football map. And to be fair to both Lyons and Brown, the hiring of Brown was universally loved with fans, media and alums all supporting the next era of Mountaineer football. Go dig out the tweets or harshest Brown critic from back then. No one of note was against the hiring of Brown. But now four years later with the football program in the midst of a season that may not even lead to a bowl game of any kind, Lyons is out.
And while it’s true the entire athletic program, which was once one of the best overall programs in the country across the board, is not what it once was, namely with the men’s basketball program taking a dip in recent years and the women’s soccer and rife team being the only programs to truly still be flourishing under Lyons, this is all about the struggles of football. If football was riding high, nothing else would matter and Lyons would still be in his position. It’s a hit that a once proud athletic program.
For me, there are two main factors at play that led to the end of Lyons as AD at WVU.
Neal Brown’s contract extension
Lyons made a devastating mistake in awarding Brown an extension and hefty buyout after only two mediocre seasons on the job. A Liberty Bowl win at a school like WVU, a school that may never be a national power year in and year out but has to have a standard of expectations, should not have triggered a new contract and buyouts that create extra obstacles in any decision concerning Brown’s future. Brown’s 2022 salary is $3.5 million with a $20.2 million buyout. His 2023 salary moves to over $4 million, where it stays until the end of the deal, and a buyout at $16.7 million. I’m not saying things didn’t seem to be climbing in 2020. A bowl win in only his second season under COVID circumstances was a win of a season. And I know there were rumors about interest from South Carolina. But giving Brown that kind of deal and that kind of buyout security had to be done with a guarantee of taking steps up, not living in neutral or taking steps back. Let’s hypothetically say without that extension Brown does bolt for South Carolina. That would not have been a positive then, but that would not have been the end of the world either. Having to manage hefty buyouts after year four and the program in a no better spot is a much more difficult situation than finding a new coach then. Jarret Doege, the quarterback Brown was tied to up until this season isn’t still around anyway, so losing him earlier wouldn’t have mattered in retrospect.
Unnecessarily tough out of conference scheduling
In addition to the Brown contract extension, Lyons mentality schedule wise at WVU was a problem, and is one that will still impact the program going forward. I understand Oliver Luck might need part of the blame here, although Luck did plenty of good for WVU, but Lyons kept it going. I also understand getting WVU’s old rivals back on the schedule will probably go down as the favorite thing he accomplished for many of the fans. But WVU went overboard in how that was done and put themselves at an unnecessary disadvantage.
How many major programs will be able to say they started a season on the road against a major conference opponent three years in a row? I’ll wait. West Virginia can. Traveling to Penn State to open the 2023 season will mark the third straight season the Mountaineers will be away from Milan Puskar Stadium to start a year. Is that in the best interest of the team or is that in the best interest of the fans to enjoy excitement? And what’s more important in reality? It’s also not even just starting off seasons with tough games, because the atmosphere and hype of the rebirth of the Backyard Brawl is tough to complain about. That was cool and needs injected into the veins of everyone involved in both WVU and Pitt as much as possible. But WVU was also put in a position to face multiple out of conference rivals in the same season on a regular basis, and both times on the road this season. This was even something Brown brought up when promoting the Backyard Brawl in Pittsburgh on ESPN. He knew how tough that would be. Fortunately, WVU did win one of those games, beating a down Virginia Tech program. What about next year though? WVU will have both PSU and Pitt on the out of conference schedule. Could they lose both? It’s possible. Do they need to be playing both in the same season? No.
I’m all for bringing back rivals. WVU does not have any real rivals in the Big 12. However, look at how other similar sized program are putting together schedules. Rarely do you find multiple out of conference quality opponents in the same season. Why? Because most programs realize that, while strength of schedule matters, as it should, when the College Football Playoff Committee decides rankings and seedings, the first step is ensuring being able to win enough games to stabilize a winning program and consistent bowl appearances.
Asti: WVU Football Fans Should Expect More, But Need to be Reasonable
Should WVU be just playing teams like Towson outside of conference play? Of course not. But the trick for a program like WVU is to schedule one quality out of conference opponent and mix in other more winnable games. This would lead to more wins, more bowl games and a better chance at sniffing the playoff. And that one quality non Big 12 opponent shouldn’t be the freaking Crimson Tide either. Lyons used his connections to schedule a future series with Alabama, starting in 2026. All that is going to do is add a loss to those seasons. What did the competitive loss suffered the last time WVU faced off with Alabama do? Nothing.
If you’re a “Group of” team that needs to try to mustard up some ranked opponents because winning its conference schedule won’t impress anyone, then go ahead and take risks and do what you have to do. WVU knows it will have several ranked opponents built into the schedule every season from the Big 12 alone. WVU does not need to be playing with fire and adding more, just to appease the fans.
Moral of the story is the decisions you make as athletic director could come back to haunt you and will impact a program for decades if they go the wrong way. The Shane Lyons era at WVU is officially over, and it’s hard to view it as anything but a failure.