There’s always excitement at the start of the college football season. Possibilities are endless as favorite teams get fresh starts.
For followers of West Virginia University, this year’s squad is starting fresher than fresh. With next Saturday’s kickoff, the 2019 Mountaineers will be the first crop from a new coach.
Moreover, that he isn’t being dogged by naysayers for the first time in a long time seems to testify to that freshness.
You’d have to go back almost 20 years to find a WVU coach not only mutually agreed on as a good hire but also one whose selection was so seamless.
When long-time coach Don Nehlen announced his retirement after the 2000 season, the obvious choice was then-Clemson University offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, a rising star who played under Nehlen.
Three weeks later, the Grant Town native was joking about fans tailgating for his news conference. Seven years later, the Mountaineers were on the verge of playing for a national title.
But things fell apart. After being upset by arch-rival and four-touchdown underdog Pittsburgh in a season-ending shocker, Rodriguez bolted for the University of Michigan, a one-two punch that sent the Old Gold and Blue reeling.
A carnival ride of a coaching search ensued in an interminable series of interviews, false starts and embarrassing rebuffs. Finally, riding a tidal wave of emotion after an electrifying Fiesta Bowl win over the Oklahoma Sooners, interim head coach Bill Stewart, of New Martinsville, won himself a job, too.
While the selection was hailed by all parties involved, outside the program there was grumbling. As WVU booster and Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick put it, “They had a wonderful architect, and they hired the painter to build the next house.”
What followed wasn’t bad, as the folksy Stewart’s Mountaineers notched three nine-win seasons. But given the talent he inherited, there was a sense that the team was underachieving.
Change came with the 2010 arrival of new athletic director Oliver Luck to his alma mater. After successful stints with NFL Europe and Major League Soccer, he said he didn’t foresee “a national championship in the direction we were going.”
To right this ship, Luck landed a hot coaching name, Oklahoma State assistant Dana Holgorsen. But its circumstances were ... complicated.
An agreement with Stewart had him leading the team for the 2011 season with Holgorsen as “coach-in-waiting,” running the offense before taking over in 2012. In a bizarre twist, this awkward arrangement never came to pass.
Reports that summer surfaced that Stewart sought to “dig up dirt” on the hired gun. The ensuing brouhaha led to Stewart’s resignation. There’d be no wait for Holgorsen.
He did OK for a rookie. With a talented roster and an innovative scheme, the Mountaineers won a share of the Big East championship and set records in a 70-33 beatdown of the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl.
Like Stewart, however, his hot start never warmed the hearts of a segment of the Old Gold and Blue faithful. To his detractors, he just “wasn’t one of us.” After WVU’s rough landing in its jump to the Big 12 Conference, it took time to gain its footing. The grousing didn’t stop.
Even last year, high hopes for a conference championship and a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback didn’t silence detractors as the then-No. 7 Mountaineers stumbled after an 8-1 start to finish with a three-game skid.
Already on a short leash with Athletic Director Shane Lyons, who replaced Luck in 2015, Holgorsen left Morgantown for the talent-rich environs of Houston at season’s end.
A WVU grad from Parkersburg who honed his chops with the NCAA, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the University of Alabama, Lyons had his short list ready. Just days following Holgorsen’s departure, he had his man.
Hired from Troy State after three straight 10-win seasons, Neal Brown has been acknowledged as a home-run hire by pundits and embraced by the fan base. He has responded in kind, using all means at his disposal to reach out not only to fans and boosters, but to former players and across school programs.
After more than a decade of division, there’s peace in Mountaineer Nation.
A Kentucky native, Brown’s proved to be a cultural fit, taking pains to impress upon his team its importance to the state. But primarily, with a coaching lineage rooted in the high-scoring Air Raid playbook and upsets of storied programs like LSU and Nebraska under his belt, Brown seems well-suited to battle with the bully boys of the Big 12.
Still, with a knowing wink, Brown says he understands the source of these good vibes before coaching his first WVU game: “I think it’s because we’re undefeated.” For Mountaineer fans, a new season free from drama and buoyed with warm feelings has to be most refreshing indeed.