Recruiting talent to West Virginia has never been easy.
Sure, you can call my bluff by naming any number of all-conference players, All-Americans and draft picks: Tavon Austin, Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey, Bruce Irvin, Karl Joseph, Rasul Douglas, Kevin White – all banner names from just the last few years. The Mountaineers may not bus in four and five star talent the way Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia do on an annual basis, but that should speak only to how much over-achievement has been accomplished in Morgantown.
In the eight years that spanned Dana Holgorsen’s tenure at West Virginia, the Mountaineers never finished with a class ranked higher than 35th nationally according to ESPN. Call it middling, average, milquetoast, write it off completely as one failed attempt after another to secure a legitimate signal-caller from the high school ranks and develop said player. One or all of those descriptions would be appropriate when describing Holgorsen’s track record in recruiting. And while the ranking of a given recruiting class is by no means a direct and concise indicator of on-field success, consider that West Virginia secured only two 10-win seasons under Holgorsen’s watch, with one of those seasons coming largely on the wings of talent recruited by his predecessor, the late Bill Stewart.
So only two or so months into his tenure as West Virginia’s head football coach, no one can reasonably expect Neal Brown to have already established a different brand of recruiting at West Virginia than the man with the Red Bull can …right? Between fleshing out the rest of his coaching staff, familiarizing himself with the area and moving his family into a new home, there are simply not enough hours in the day to rove the east coast and hand out dozens of new offers …right?
Whether Neal Brown has the ability to teleport himself at will to any point on the globe or is powered solely by solar energy and therefore has no need to sleep, a case can be made that Brown has been the most publicly visible power 5 head coach in the nation early on in 2019. Since arriving in Morgantown, Brown has managed to keep the entire 2019 recruiting class intact while also adding three new commitments of his own, secure a much-needed quarterback transfer in Austin Kendall and further extend nearly 200 new scholarship offers to players from Florida all the way up to New Jersey.
While the sheer metrics behind Brown and his staff’s recruiting surge are enough to make anyone do a double-take, there’s also a story to be told with regard to the optics of this newest regime in the Puskar center.
Power 5 football is an unapologetically big business where head coaches also bear the brunt of acting as de facto CEOs. Perception, especially that of the public at large, matters. Nearly everything a head coach says and in does in full view of the public carries consequences, large and small, and the reverberations from those actions can have a direct impact on a program’s health. Stocks (ticket sales, attendance, viewership) can rise or fall, players either buy into a coach’s brand or they recoil and recruiting – especially recruiting – can go boom or bust. Considering all of this, you might say that West Virginia is currently riding an unprecedented wave of gains under Neal Brown.
Whereas Holgorsen’s brand was defined by his famously gruff and sometimes disengaged demeanor and the fact that he was never able to clear the proverbial bar separating good programs from great ones, Brown’s brand is a complete departure. Neal Brown’s trademark is candor, earnestness and a warmth and ease in the public eye that is far more aligned with Bill Stewart than it ever could have been with Holgorsen or even Rich Rodriguez. The staff he’s assembled are talented coaches largely loyal to his cause having followed him from Troy, as well as several familiar names and faces that have strong legacies tied to Mountaineer football.
There’s nothing forced or disingenuous about Neal Brown and what he’s selling: It, all of it, is the real deal.
When Holgorsen first took the reins over eight years ago, he detailed a recruiting plan that would try and harvest talent from the heart of Big 12 country, namely Texas and the surrounding areas. The idea was that there were enough playmakers in the heartland that the bluebloods like Texas and Oklahoma would look past that West Virginia could win over. The results, as most of you know, were average at best, and never yielded a sustainable pipeline in the vein of south Florida. Success was had when the focus shifted back to the east coast and historic pipeline states like Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey. While there were pockets of success and one or two big recruiting grabs year after year, there was never that coveted jump that many had anticipated under a touted quarterback guru and offensive savant like Holgorsen. More polarizing was home state talent that seemed to filter through state lines, talent that never seemed to be a big priority. Additionally, staff turnover was a systemic problem due, at least in part, to the fact that long term deals for assistants were categorically abstained from under Holgorsen’s watch. Even perceived instability amongst the assistant ranks can hurt you in recruiting, where prospects commit to certain coaches as much as they do to the program itself.
In the short time Brown has been in the head office, there has yet to be even the smallest sign of fractures from within the program. Not only has every current/returning member of the roster ignored the transfer portal, not a single member of the 2019 pledge class decided to turn elsewhere. Additionally, Brown has already expended countless hours of manpower to establishing presence on the recruiting trail. In-state five star tackle and eventual Tennessee pledge Darnell Wright received a visit from the entire Mountaineer coaching staff in what was one of the most nationally publicized attempted recruiting coups this year. Former 4-star Austin Kendall bolted from conference giant Oklahoma based largely on his prior knowledge of Brown and what kind of coach he is. It’s been made clear that homegrown talent in West Virginia will be a priority. Similar love will be paid to the historic pipeline states while also combing through fertile territory in Georgia, Kentucky the Carolinas and Alabama. Moreover, Brown has built substantial goodwill amongst some notable former players who felt spurned in recent years by the former staff. Re-recruiting program alums and making them feel wanted pays real dividends, I promise you.
If you could draw anything from the progress Neal Brown and his staff have made so far on the recruiting front, it’s that nothing and no one is being taken for granted. The emphasis on family and culture extends unilaterally across the board from potential Mountaineers of the future to the greats of days past. The curtain seems to have been pulled back and the direction of the program, from recruiting to community outreach, seems to have been put out in full view. Based on everything said and done in the short time Neal Brown has held his post, it seems as though this staff is hell-bent on extracting value from every available resource, people being chief among them.
Perhaps Dana Holgorsen is better geared for life in south Texas. Perhaps Houston’s place in the college football world, its culture and its fan base will provide the air raid disciple a foundation for his method and indeed, his madness, to better shine through. Perhaps Neal Brown was readymade for life at West Virginia. From his roots in Appalachia to his way of exuding warmth and confidence in equal measure, it seems as though whatever energy Brown and his have started pumping into the heart of Mountaineer football has people lining up in droves to follow his lead. In the weeks, months and years to come, we’ll know just how much impact these qualities carry. However, one thing that has become perfectly clear, in such a small window of time, is that Neal Brown’s approach to selling West Virginia football is a far cry from Dana Holgorsen’s hustle over the last eight years.
And perhaps that’s exactly what the old gold and blue needed.