MORGANTOWN — How do you rate a football coach before he’s coached his first game at your school?
That was what West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons was faced with the other day in the midst of his “State of the Union” media briefing at the end of the school year. Lyons knew he had to address the football team, yet any “analysis” of it at this time is far more speculation than anything else.
There are so many unknowns surrounding new coach Neal Brown, who makes his first journey into Big 12 and Power 5 football after proving he could win the Group of 5 at Troy. Brown had to shape a staff, find a team, create a culture, keep the players he wanted to keep, learn about them and their abilities as best he could, find a quarterback, recruit based on promises and among everything else a new coach has to do at a new school.
Brown can’t promise conference championships or playoff berths, for he has yet to secure a victory. Lyons is aware of that and admits that it is a very large part of the reality within they both exist.
“We joke that he hasn’t won a football game yet, but he’s on the right track,” Lyons said. “I think we all have to be realistic there. He’s taking over a program that lost several key players on the offensive side of the ball to the NFL Draft.”
While Lyons didn’t stop there, it might be appropriate at this time to list them: quarterback Will Grier, receivers Gary Jennings Jr., David Sills V, Marcus Simms, and Trevon Wesco, tackle Yodny Cajuste and center Matt Jones.
In a way, that is a luxury for he really isn’t coaching offense — which is his specialty — with a group of players that Dana Holgorsen got so much out of and thereby will escape such comparisons. However, that means Brown also is building from nearly scratch.
Lyons understands that and wants West Virginia fans to understand it, too.
“He’ll talk about how the running backs are good, but we’re going to be a little weak from a receiver standpoint,” Lyons said. “If we can keep the offensive line healthy, we’ll be OK, but that means keeping everyone healthy when we don’t have a whole lot of depth.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we have a lot of players over there who have received some playing time in the past, but there are probably no big names that potentially — hopefully — have a breakthrough year and go to the NFL. There are some holes to be filled,” Lyons said.
This is a harsh reminder that has been overlooked. There are a lot of good players back, but the two best — Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year David Long Jr. and All-Big 12 safety Kenny Washington — along with Derrek Pitts, who has transferred to Marshall are now gone.
What’s more, the players who remain were recruited into a totally different defensive concept which they will have to relearn.
“He’s filling those holes by working hard and building a great culture,” Lyons said. “I think particularly with the culture in that locker room, they believe in each other. Myself as an athletic director and talking to some of the student-athletes that are returning, they believe in Coach Brown and his staff, and that’s a great thing to hear. Hopefully, that resonates.”
The belief in Brown is going to have to echo across the campus, throughout the state, and from hollow to hollow, for this is something fans haven’t seen since Don Nehlen replaced Frank Cignetti. Then Nehlen left, and Rich Rodriguez came in as an unproven outsider aimed at changing things.
His first season produced but three wins.
Bill Stewart took over a solid team from Rodriguez as part of that program and, while Dana Holgorsen was an outsider coming in, he took over a program that had won nine or more games in six straight seasons. Although the task now facing Brown and his staff is a difficult one, Lyons is convinced things are moving in the right direction.
“Football has done a tremendous job in a short period of time with the type of men they are recruiting. We will have 12 or 13 committed for next year’s class by next week.” Lyons said. “We’re showing them where we’re heading and asking them if they want to be part of this.
“From my lens, it’s been exceptional. I’ve been with Neal a lot through the last couple of months traveling with the (fundraising) caravan, and he and his staff have done a tremendous job. I’m talking about continuing to work and grind and get young men here who have never had an interest in West Virginia before.
“I think he’s selling — which is truly us as a program — the family atmosphere.”
—Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.