Think of the sleepiest college town you’ve been to. Troy is sleepier, a quiet teacher’s college in South Alabama that developed a football habit in the shadow of SEC powers. But as programs tend to do in Alabama, they got really good.
Just ask LSU. Saturday night, the Trojans became the first non-SEC team to beat the Tigers in Baton Rouge in 17 seasons, 24-21. Troy dominated LSU on offense and defense, building a program-defining upset of a Power 5 brand name where so many attempts at upsets fell short for the Trojans.
Last year, Troy was a touchdown away from upsetting the eventual national champions. Clemson almost didn’t make it to the Playoff, because this team you might not have heard of pushed those Tigers to the brink, 30-24, in Week 2.
Some coaches would bristle at using a loss as a positive motivator.
“I don’t have any problems talking about it,” Brown told SB Nation in August. “Here’s what I say about the Clemson game: they were a better football team than us last season. They won the national championship. But I’m not sure they were the better football team that day.
“We were a program that had been struggling, hadn’t had a winning season since 2010. I knew we were going to succeed when we turned around, beat a good Southern Miss team that had just beaten Kentucky. And I think the Clemson game set us up for that.”
“One of the reasons I wanted to come to Troy was that, growing up just down the road, I always heard that Troy was that one small program that big schools were afraid to play because they knew Troy was coming in to give them all they got,” Calloway said. “I was like, ‘That’s the school for me.’ And then watching them play LSU when I was younger and almost beating them, almost beating Tennessee.”
Coaches knew Neal Brown would be one of them soon, because none of the other Kentucky WRs would stand next to their position coach, this weird guy named Mike Leach, and keep up in conversation.
They saw it in how he’d take notes all the time. They knew he came from a coaching family in Danville, Kentucky.
“I knew early on,” said MTSU offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who recruited Brown to UK in 1998. “I still remember a touchdown pass he caught. We were on the 5-yard line. And it was a typical zone-beater route that a smart guy fits into the hole and scores, and a guy who is less intelligent doesn’t. He scored.”
But after UK, when Brown was a 23-year-old receiver for the indoor league’s Lexington Horsemen, he needed an epiphany in order to realize his calling. It came as a helmet to the chest.
“We were playing against Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Brown said. “I caught a ball on the sideline up against the wall they have in arena games. I go to make the catch, and the defender’s coming at an angle. So I think, OK, I’ll stick and cut back. I do that, but the guy hits me square in the chest head first, and I go right into the wall. Now I’m trying as hard as I can to crawl back to the bench, and I can’t breathe. I remember right then thinking, ‘OK, after the season, I’m done with this.’”
Brown’s scouting report on Brown, wide receiver: “Average speed, good hands. Good routes. ‘Workmanlike' is a good word.”
“For the first time in his life, he probably looked fast, in the arena league. Neal was probably a 4.75 guy at best on a good day, but in that league, you could line up 20 yards behind the ball and start at full speed sprint,” Franklin said.
Brown had scholarship offers coming out of Kentucky’s Boyle County High School, where his father was the principal, but chose to walk on.
“I didn’t grow up a die-hard Kentucky fan, but I wanted to go there because I wanted to be around that offense,” Brown said of Hal Mumme’s then-revolutionary air raid. "I didn’t even know that I wanted to be a coach, but I wanted to be a part of what was going on.”
Brown lasted through his redshirt sophomore year, up until Mumme was fired and Guy Morris changed the offense, limiting snaps for rotation receivers like Brown. But Brown had fallen in with the fathers of the air raid: Mumme, offensive coordinator Mike Leach, running backs coach Franklin, and offensive GA Sonny Dykes.
He finished his college career at UMass with head coach Mark Whipple. A few weeks after crashing into the wall, Brown was warming up for a playoff game in Wheeling, West Va., when Whipple called his cell.
“When you’re ready to grow up, I’ve got a GA job for you,” he says Whipple told him.
You’ve probably never been to Troy, Ala., even if you’re from the South.
You might even not know of Troy even if you’re a college football fan. You probably remember them from some weeknight game on ESPN during a run of five Sun Belt titles in the 2000s.
It’s the second-smallest FBS college town in the country, behind only West Point. When the new Publix grocery store opened in January, most of the town showed up despite a severe weather alert. Now some eight months later, there’s a Panda Express in the Publix parking lot. Troy’s going big time.
“You have to grow up around here to know what to do,” senior defensive end Seth Calloway said. “I take the guys from out of town out in the woods on ATVs or shooting sometimes. There’s plenty to do here. You just have to know how to have fun.”
Added Brown: “There’s more than a few advantages to a place like this, when you’re a head football coach. Everyone wants to talk about what you don’t have or what’s different somewhere else, but I can drive past the two bars in town on my way home every night and tell, without getting out, if one of our players is in there. You can’t do that most places.”
Troy finished 2016 at 10-3, a fast turnaround from Brown’s 4-8 debut in ‘15. The offense returned three-year starting quarterback Brandon Silvers and every rusher and receiver who gained a yard last season — seriously, all of them.
Yet before pulling off the upset in Baton Rouge, Troy hadn’t blown away opponents in scoring so far this season. After losing close on the road at Boise, the Trojans ground out wins vs. New Mexico State and Akron, something not normally associated with air raid programs.
“The way [Brown] was able to win as an ‘offensive’ coach last year being average on offense, and then to be able to win this year being at times below average on offense right now, to find a way to change your game plan and make adjustments and still win, that’s good coaching,” Franklin said.
In 23 seasons, Larry Blakeney built Troy from a Division II independent to FBS, only the second coach in history to oversee that transition.
The Trojans peaked with a five-year streak of Sun Belt championships. Then the bottom fell out. Blakeney retired in 2014, and Brown was courted to oversee a rebuild.
The problem was that Troy hadn’t invested its success back into the program. Even in the sweet spot of fertile recruiting and passionate fan support, the program fell behind.
“You didn’t want to be in the building. You didn’t want to walk through it. You sure didn’t want to spend any time in it,” Brown said.
Brown gladly gives tours of what’s been fixed, what was, and what will be. Position group meeting rooms were dingy and outdated. The buildings players spent the most time in were drab. New graphics went up.
“He and I walked through it together that first week he got here,” former Troy and current Utah State athletic director John Hartwell said. “I told him there was a plan going forward, but hey, you’re on your honeymoon, we can spend a couple hundred thousand right now to spruce this place up. He was able to have people buy in at a time when the facilities were not optimal.”
There are no waterfalls or holograms on the docket, but Brown constantly reshapes routines with input from his players.
“We became a players-first program,” Brown said. “That was the goal. We changed the uniforms. We gave them more gear to wear. We installed a training table. In the NCAA you have very few incentives to offer, but if you feed guys well and dress them, they appreciate it.”
“We noticed it, probably more than anything else we changed when he got here. And you start to say ‘Well, why wouldn’t I go out and really give it my all for a coach that’s doing the same thing for me?’” senior wide receiver Emanuel Thompson said.
During summer practices, when the team eats most of its meals in the cafeteria, he starts player meetings not barking about practice schedules but asking for a verdict on each entree and side from the day before. When there’s a consensus that a particular food item wasn’t great, he’ll have it removed. It’s a costless adjustment in the books, yet serves the player-focus perspective.
Brown describes Troy as a Power 5 program on a Group of 5 budget.
“This was from UAB,” he says, pointing at a new wall that created position group meeting rooms that double as assistant coaches’ offices. When the Blazers temporarily folded their football program, they sent Troy a buyout for a contracted future game that Brown flipped into construction and renovation.
“We’re running this like a Power 5 program on a Group of 5 budget. You just have to be creative. We just find a way.”
Brown isn’t implying there’s creative financing, but rather the non-financial, cost-free player focused ethos of Power 5 programs is carried out, even with tiny facilities and a tinier budget.
“I don’t have a job without players. The academic advisor doesn’t have a job without players. Every staffer here who touches the players in any way had to be in alignment and understand it’s all about them, not us,” Brown said.
Brown is 37 years old, looks every bit of 29, but speaks like he’s 55.
“I got the job when I was 34. That was never an issue with the players. As long as you’re older than them it doesn’t matter how much. The age deal is when you’re dealing with support staff, administrators, game officials, you name it,” Brown said.
“I think it’s good for players, because we have a head coach that can relate to most everything we go through,” Thompson said.
“On paper, the age thing would concern you normally, but you sit there and talk to him and realize he’s mature way beyond his years,” Hartwell said.
Brown climbed the ranks with speed, eventually working under Franklin as an offensive assistant under Blakeney. Franklin saw Brown was always taking notes, was always over-prepared, and could withstand Franklin’s “butt chewings.”
“But I knew he was truly special when he was in the box and we were playing MTSU, actually,” Franklin said. “This is 2006. We’re down two touchdowns with two minutes left in the game. We had a drive and scored, then we recovered the onside kick.
“We got the ball back and we drove down, and we got to somewhere inside the 5-yard line. And out of nowhere this young kid sitting up in the box gives me a play we haven’t run, calls it out, tells me how to call it. And so I call it, call it how he tells me to, and we win the game.
“That takes a lot of guts for someone who is brand new in coaching. It wasn’t something he’d done throughout the year. This was the most crucial call of the game; we win, we’re Sun Belt champions and we go to the New Orleans Bowl. We lose, and we lost the conference championship and probably don’t even go to bowl. I called exactly what he told me to call.”
When Franklin took the OC job at Auburn in 2007, Brown became play-caller. And by the time he left to call plays for Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech, the Trojans had the third-best total-yardage offense in the nation. Now Brown was taking the offensive reigns from Leach himself.
“I had a relationship with [Leach]. He’d been my coach my freshman year of college. But I worked for Texas Tech. It was an odd arrangement, but we really enjoyed our time there,” Brown said.
Tuberville was polarizing at Tech, but Brown’s offenses performed. Now just over 30, he was being considered for head jobs at places like Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss.
He got the OC job for Mark Stoops at Kentucky, a move that delayed his rapid ascent but taught him how to survive criticism.
“The Kentucky deal was hard because it was going home. It’s probably the only non-selfish decision I made in my career. We had two kids at this point, and my wife grew up in Danville. It made sense, but it was not a good situation, football-wise. Offensively we’d had five years in a row where we’d been good, and we went in and weren’t very good. That was really a growing experience,” Brown said.
Stoops had come to UK straight from Jimbo Fisher at Florida State, who built a title winner using the bulk philosophies of Fisher’s old boss, Nick Saban.
“I’d never been around those ideas or those systems. From the way things are organized to the sports science to the nutrition,” Brown said.
Brown borrowed ideas for his first head coaching job at Troy. Hartwell had heard nothing but positive things about the young Brown, who had already been close to other head coaching jobs, namely Southern Miss. The AD was looking over resumes when his wife noticed Brown’s CV included an MBA from UMass.
“She told me, ‘Wow, this guy must have the ability to give attention to details,”’ Hartwell said.
For over four hours, Hartwell and Brown discussed every intricacy of running a program. Hartwell was blown away by the thorough strategy and stopped worrying about Brown’s age.
“He’s got what we consider the total package because he’s tremendous with donors and knows how to navigate that world, but he’s that same level of tremendous with players and his staff. They know he has an interest in them that’s vested in more than being successful in football,” Hartwell said.
When SB Nation visited Troy during summer practices, the theme of August wasn’t anything that you’d find on a motivational poster.
Brown has a structure of core values and goals and practices like any modern head coach, but there’s a dirty little secret on how Troy has regained its swagger as a G5 to be reckoned with: It’s OK to have fun. One period of each practice during the summer was dedicated to Trojan Games, in which the team would go from a scrimmage or series of drills to movie trivia or a home run derby.
“Every meeting, we’re up right away, clapping, moving around. I always let players pick the music and let them play it loud. So I never have any idea what’s playing,” Brown said.
Also, you’ve never really experienced Migos until you’ve seen this video.
When players have standout performances in practice, their picture will be featured at the next day’s team meeting — except that the photo could be an embarrassing selfie or an old prom photo. Like most coaches, Brown has his staff combing social media, but he’s got a sense of humor about what he finds.
“He cares about the players,” Franklin said. “And every coach says that they care about their players, but it’s not true. Probably for what I would say is a large majority, there’s the idea you care about people and the players, but then their actions don’t speak that way. Players know when you’re full of crap because it always shows eventually.”
“If you can get guys to look forward to coming in, it changes your program. Energy is critical. Now in Year 3, we’ve tried to transfer from a coach-led enthusiasm to a player-led effort. You’ve got to fake it ‘till you make it, with energy and team culture, but I think we’re getting there,” Brown said.