Driving down Interstate 79 near Fairmont, motorists will see a prominent billboard showing new Head Coach Neal Brown declaring the arrival of a “New Era” for West Virginia football. Indeed, the West Virginia University athletic department has made it clear that the Mountaineers are moving forward. Nonetheless, over the past few weeks, various West Virginia media outlets have run a number of articles about former Head Coach Dana Holgorsen.
Mountaineers Moving Forward
Those articles felt a little like the inner thoughts of a scorned past lover. Media hung on statements Holgorsen made in a Sports Illustrated article that he wasn’t “going to get high school kids at West Virginia that we were going to win the Big 12 with.” Several authors have also compared Brown to their former head man. And media renounced Holgorsen when they learned that Holgorsen and Houston had much of their deal worked out weeks before the hire was announced. The tone was sour, and many expressed resentment openly. In the wake of this sentiment, fans and media seem to forget that the Mountaineers are moving forward.
Who is Coach Brown?
By all accounts, Coach Brown is affable, intelligent, and a true up-and-comer. Details about Shane Lyons’ recruitment of Brown have continued to emerge. It seems clear that West Virginia began negotiating with Brown days, if not weeks, before the hire was announced. And Brown started filling in recruiting gaps immediately. He saved a recruiting class that was heavily in doubt upon Holgorsen’s departure. And he has done and said everything right so far. No doubt there will be an adjustment period, but Brown and his staff have a plan.
For fans who do not already know, Brown is one of only six FBS coaches to have won ten or more games in each of the last three seasons. That success does not happen by accident. During that span, the Troy football team went 3-0 in bowl games, took Clemson down to the wire and almost escaped with a win, and took down both LSU and Nebraska on the road.
According to the 247Sports Team Talent Composite rankings, Troy was supposed to win nineteen games over that three-year span. Instead, Brown’s Trojans won 31. Brown’s teams only lost a single game they were predicted to win. And they won thirteen games they were expected to lose. Troy outperformed its talent composite ranking by an average of 58 spots when compared to Sports Reference’s “Simple Rating System.”
This will only be Brown’s second stint as head coach. But he has prior power five experience at Texas Tech, where we was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach between 2010 and 2012. Brown also served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach between 2013 and 2014 at Kentucky.
How Other Transition Seasons Look
For the Mountaineers
Transition seasons come in all shapes and sizes. That has been true in Morgantown for sure. Since 1970, West Virginia has introduced six new head coaches. Bobby Bowden took over the program from Jim Carlen in 1970. In that first season, the Mountaineers fell from ten wins to eight. Frank Cignetti took over from Bowden in the 1976 season. The Mountaineers dropped from nine wins to five. Then, in 1980, Don Nehlen took over the program. In his first season, the Mountaineers improved from five wins to six.
Nehlen held the reins of the program until 2001 when Rich Rodriguez took over. In Rodriguez’ first season, the Mountaineers only won three games, dropping from seven in Nehlen’s final year. Bill Stewart took over in 2008, and the Mountaineers won nine games, dropping from eleven the prior season. Finally, in 2011, Holgorsen took over the program, winning ten games, when the team won nine in Stewart’s final season.
Each transition tells a different tale for the Mountaineers. Cignetti was the only coach during this span to take over a team without a returning starter at the quarterback position. Rodriguez installed an entirely new offense and defense. Stewart brought the Mountaineers back to the conservative play style Nehlen favored, and then Holgorsen was brought in to inject excitement back into the offense.
For the Field
Other teams have also had mixed success during transition seasons. Michigan, for example, saw immediate improvement in Brady Hoke’s first season after taking over for Rodriguez. Michigan went from a seven win season to an eleven win season. The Wolverines, however, fell back down to five wins in Hoke’s final season in 2014 before returning to the ten-win plateau in Jim Harbaugh’s first season in 2015.
Texas grew impatient with Mack Brown and replaced him with Charlie Strong. Strong’s teams ripped off three losing seasons before Tom Herman came in from Houston to right the ship. Dabo Swinney took over Clemson and won nine games in his first season, an improvement from Clemson’s seven wins the season before. In his third season, Swinney’s Tigers hit the ten-win plateau and have never looked back. And then there’s Nick Saban, who took over an Alabama program that was ailing under Mike Shula. After failing to climb above .500 in three of Shula’s final four seasons, Alabama won seven games in Saban’s transition season, then won twelve the next.
The Mountaineer Scenario
It is difficult to predict what the coming season will look like. In Brown’s first season with Troy, the Trojans won four games, after winning only three the prior season. Brown shifted the offensive and defensive philosophies of the program significantly. And Brown replaced two of Troy’s three top rushers and two of its top three receivers. He also replaced seven of its top eleven defensive contributors from the prior year. Despite these hurdles, his team showed improvement from day one.
This season, Brown has a tall order. He has to replace third-round draft pick Will Grier as the Mountaineers’ signal caller. And he has to replace the top four receivers from last season. He also replaces several starting offensive linemen. On defense, however, Brown is only replacing four of the top eleven contributors. And the entire running back pool returns. As a result, Brown is walking into a mixed bag, which is why it is difficult to predict how well the Mountaineers can perform.
For what it is worth, Coach Brown probably can’t predict how good the Mountaineers will be either. He knows they will be, but he is not sure when. As he told members of the media during a press conference held on March 26, “I have no idea . . . when we’re gonna be great, but we’re gonna be great. It’s not . . . an if to me, it’s when. We’re gonna be great; I’m just not sure when.”
Mountaineers Moving Forward
What should be clear to fans is this: the Mountaineers are moving forward, without doubt and without reservation. Brown is moving things ahead, and the team is buying in. But, as Brown said, it is simply a matter of when. When the intricacies of Brown’s offensive and defensive philosophies and when his disciplined mentality sinks in, then Brown’s Mountaineers should see success. If this happens within the first few games, then watch out. Either way, it is definitely time to move on from our former staff and focus on what the team will do next.