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West Virginia is lucky Neal Brown was available to hire

Brown has been a slam-dunk Power 5 coaching candidate for months if not years.

Troy v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

West Virginia is hiring Troy head coach Neal Brown to the same job, according to several reports Friday. Yahoo Sports was first to report that a deal was coming.

Brown, 38, replaces Dana Holgorsen, who left shortly after New Year’s to take the head coaching job at Houston. Holgorsen won a good bit during his eight years in Morgantown, but both he and the school had reasons to want to split up.

Other names in the mix had been Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, and WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson.

No hire is guaranteed to work out, but Brown checks all the boxes for a rising candidate who should’ve had a power job already.

Troy started playing FBS ball in 2001. In the program’s first 15 years, the Trojans never won more than nine games and usually won far fewer than that.

Brown took over a 3-9 team after 2014. He went 4-8 his first year. Then he went 31-8 the last three, reaching double-digit wins each time and a bowl game at the end of each. He’s beaten LSU in Baton Rouge and Nebraska in Lincoln. He’s made the Trojans into one of the best programs in the Group of 5. Someone, clearly, should have snapped him up by now. Bill Connelly noted in December Brown has basically no holes on his resume:

*Successful power conference coordinator? Check! He had three top-40 offenses at Texas Tech despite Tommy Tuberville being his boss, and as Kentucky’s play-caller, he took a unit that had averaged a No. 102 Off. S&P+ ranking in the two years before his arrival and averaged a No. 75 ranking over two years.

*Successful FBS head coach? Emphatic check! Brown has gone 31-8 since the start of 2016. He lost a number of key contributors from his 11-win, LSU-beating 2017 squad, then lost his Nebraska-beating quarterback midway through 2018. The Trojans fell all the way to ... 10 wins. Without star receiver Damion Willis at the end of the regular season, they still came within a single bad quarter of winning at Appalachian State, taking the Sun Belt East, and probably winning the conference.

Brown’s name had come up for a handful of jobs, notably including Louisville (which went to Applachian State’s Scott Satterfield) and Kansas State (which went to North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman). It was really weird that a Power 5 program hadn’t already come for him. WVU is fortunate that after Holgorsen left on New Year’s Day, a guy like Brown was still there for the taking.

West Virginia is a tricky place to win, but the job has upside. A few coaches have come close to title-game appearances there.

A major part of Holgorsen’s desire to leave for Houston, sources told SB Nation, was that he wanted to be in the Cougars’ city. That made sense both because Houston is one of the country’s biggest talent hubs and the state of West Virginia is not.

There’s good high school football in West Virginia, but the state might have one or no blue-chip recruits in any given year. The first five-star in state history is in the 2019 class, but he’s unlikely to play for WVU. The Mountaineers have to compete against almost an entire conference that’s closer to Texas’ dozens of blue-chips and elite recruiting depth than they are. It’s actually impressive, given that geography, that WVU averages the No. 6 recruiting class in the 10-team Big 12, typically around No. 40 in the country.

So having good years at West Virginia requires strong player development and smart scheming. The Eers have found the right combinations before. In both 1988 and 2007, they were in the thick of the title race until January and December, respectively. The ‘88 run ended in the Fiesta Bowl, and the ‘07 run ended with the most brutal of upset losses.

Even the 2018 team, which finished a disappointing 8-4, hung around the Big 12 and Playoff races until a come-from-ahead loss to Oklahoma State the week before Thanksgiving.

As an added bonus, Brown has Appalachian experience and is already versed in the air raid offense WVU’s roster was built to run.

Brown once played at Kentucky under air raid czars Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. He’s a member of the same broad coaching tree as Holgorsen. Neither is a pure air raid guy, but they both have spread passing DNA in their systems. Brown’s Troy didn’t play that differently than Holgorsen’s West Virginia, and that could make for an easier adjustment for all.

He’s also from Appalachia, a native of Danville, Kentucky. His coaching stops have been UMass, Sacret Heart, Delaware, Troy, UK, and Texas Tech. For the most part, he’s used to being in places where he has to recruit against a challenging map. That’s key at WVU, and Brown’s Appalachian roots might even make him less likely to leave for a job in Texas.

WVU isn’t a blue-blood, but it’s hung out in the same neighborhood as the blue-bloods a handful of times before. With the right talent identification, development, and strategy, that can keep happening. It’s a big lift, but Brown might have the background and talent to do it.