The Mountaineers find themselves more than a week into fall camp. The players have had their ups and downs. Head Coach Neal Brown called one early effort an “immature” practice. But, while we have learned plenty about the attitude and improvement of the players, the staff and players have made one thing abundantly clear: the Mountaineers are building a blue collar team.
Mountaineers Building Blue Collar Team
West Virginia’s Blue Collar Fan Base
Outsiders often malign the people of West Virginia as simple and unsophisticated. But ask those fans about their football team, and many will wax poetic about the program’s legacy. According to most, Don Nehlen deserves a statue for his contributions to the modern era of Mountaineer football. Bobby Bowden was run off too quickly. And Rich Rodriguez was a traitor. And don’t even begin to utter the numbers thirteen and nine in the same sentence. Regardless of the outside perception, these supposedly simple, unsophisticated folks support their arguments as well as any, and with as much passion, too. Fans belt out stat lines, scores, and complex narratives as easily as the lyrics to “Country Roads.”
No doubt, West Virginians have always shown a salt-of-the-Earth, blue-collar attitude. In one of his last episodes before his untimely death, famed chef Anthony Bourdain demonstrated a deep-rooted and profound respect and understanding for that culture with an episode of his culinary TV show taking place there. Over the years, fans have come to expect that their beloved Mountaineers take that some approach on the football field. Many around the country wrote glowingly about the Mountaineers’ decision to hire Brown in January of this year. But none have yet captured just how perfect this hire was for an impatient fanbase.
Disappointment in 2018
See, the Mountaineers found themselves at a major crossroads at the end of the 2018 season. Fan expectations ranged from eight wins to an outside chance at a playoff berth. At minimum, fans expected a spot in the Big XII Championship game. Will Grier returned with his favorite target, David Sills. The defense added some championship-caliber pieces and former Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson sold fans a grittier unit that many, including us, expected to improve substantially. 2018 was the year West Virginia was finally to challenge for the top spot in the conference. But after successive late-season losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, both in heart-breaking fashion, fans’ dreams evaporated. As a result, calls to move forward from Dana Holgorsen grew louder.
Holgorsen, of course, made the decision easier by leaving his post for Houston just weeks after his Offensive Coordinator Jake Spavital moved on. And, while outsiders cracked jokes about the Mountaineers for losing their coach to a voluntary downgrade, most Mountaineers fans celebrated the move as the end of a painful era. Complaints over the teams’ performances during the Holgorsen era often centered on a lack of discipline. To some, there was a tendency to favor clever, but ineffective, tactics instead of hard-nosed, blue-collar football.
Welcome Neal Brown
Athletic director Shane Lyons had a plan, and, within a week of Holgorsen’s decision, he triumphantly announced the hire of Brown from Troy. Brown’s name circulated various short lists in the months leading up to the announcement. After all, Brown took a Troy team that won three games the prior to his arrival and turned it into a perennial winner. Indeed, Brown’s name appeared on the list of just a handful of Division I coaches who had won at least ten games in the past three seasons. And, as we wrote here, Brown simply did much more with much less. His teams outperformed their anticipated performance by an average of four wins per season during that span.
But, for Brown, it has always been about far more than football. In fact, in his first news conference after the hire, Brown told the media that he builds his teams on the foundation of faith, family, future, and football. For a football coach, many found it interesting that he focuses on football last among those four. But it is hard to argue with his prior results.
In this way, Brown’s approach lends itself to the gritty, blue-collar approach that Mountaineer fans craved during the Holgorsen era. And Brown announced during Big XII Media Days that he was looking for the gritty, hard-working players to help build a power running approach to football. Nehlen, who was among the very first Mountaineers with whom Brown met upon his arrival in Morgantown, must be proud.
Building A Blue-Collar Team
Fans will appreciate, then, that their head coach practices what he preaches. Brown’s twitter feed is full of proud dad moments and humility. In a State of proud folks often maligned by the outside world, most fans view a trip to Milan Puskar Stadium as a family reunion of sorts. So family, faith, future, and football–those ideas resonate powerfully. And Brown’s willingness to roll his shoulders back and enjoy family life definitely endears him to those fans.
Over the last week, Brown and his staff have only reiterated this message. When asked his views on the improvements on defense since the Spring Game, Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning said plainly, “we’re a better team.” He added, “this is going to be a really fun group to coach.” Brown explained that, after the Spring, they let “the players ID who they thought the leaders were in their position groups.” The staff then taught each chosen leader the best ways to lead their groups through summer workouts. Through that approach, Brown’s message has spread, and the players have bonded.
As such, the Mountaineers are building a blue-collar team. It comes with an appreciation not only for each other, but also for the fans who call West Virginia home. Brown even took a break from football this week to lead his team on a tour of a coal mine. The goal was to allow players to appreciate even more fundamentally the hard work their fans put in on a daily basis.
— West Virginia Football (@WVUfootball) August 7, 2019
Whether the Mountaineers win more than they lose this season or not, fans can definitely expect a team-centered blue-collar approach to football that will pay dividends in the very near future. That feeling is undoubtedly palpable.