MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — Three years ago, Neal Brown took the big jump from Troy, where he served his head coaching apprenticeship with rave reviews.
He was marked as an up-and-coming coach who was destined for success and our state of West Virginia was as thrilled to land him as he was thrilled to come to this Power 5 program that was in the midst of a transformation not only the football field, but in its facilities.
He came as not your traditional coach, but one preaching family values and having outings with his team and fun competitions. He was so eager, so engaging after Dana Holgorsen had let the program deteriorate, so personable that he was welcomed with open arms.
What he didn't know was that he was walking in steaming cauldron ready to bubble over.
The first year was a honeymoon, for even the most casual fan could realize he was left with not nearly enough talent to compete with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or even many teams a rung down the ladder in the Big 12.
So he said "Trust the Climb." It was a catch phrase, the kind of thing that Madison Avenue uses to hook you on products like Frosted Flakes ("G-r-r-r-r-eat!"), roars Tony the Tiger or Nike's "Just Do It" or Wendy's "Where's the Beef."
That was probably what Brown was thinking when he saw the team he had inherited, especially in the offensive line. If he had asked "Where's the beef?" no one would have questioned why.
The second year one would expect to see a move forward, but that was the year of COVID-19, which all would agree gave him a mulligan.
"Trust the climb."
The natives, however, became restless in the third year. The offensive line did make strides forward, but was no match when up against defenses like Oklahoma State or Minnesota.
This was a proud program that lived off being the underdog, but which had some fine coaching and big-time talent. Of all the teams that had not won a national championship, WVU had won more games than any of them.
Oddly, and I still disagree with the move that was made, WVU became so full of itself that three nine-win seasons under Bill Stewart weren't good enough.
The fact was that in the 39 years between Don Nehlen's hiring and Neal Brown's hiring, WVU had only 6 sub-.500 seasons.
So, with two sub-.500 seasons in three years, one understands how the fan base could become disenchanted and started watching their step as they climbing.
West Virginia was used to good coaches, winning coaches. It was in their DNA, so much so that when it wasn't really surprising when friend Mike Brumage pointed out via a Tuesday morning tweet that the state had produced within 10 miles coaches who won 16 national championships.
Count them up ... Fielding "Hurry Up" Yost, four at Michigan around the turn of the 20th century; John McKay, four at USC; Nick Saban, four at Alabama and LSU, and Jimbo Fisher, one at Florida State.
Sadly, none did it at their own state university, but you get the picture.
Football was important to the people of a state that at times felt it had little to be proud over.
And now things weren't going well and that upset them.
Well, if you think it upset them, rest assured it upset Neal Brown, too.
He felt he had to make changes in his staff, and as he did, he also did what may be hardest of all for anyone to do in such circumstances.
He stood up and took responsibility.
That comes with the job. It comes with the paycheck.
Statistics — and anyone's eyes who could bare to watch — saw that the offense was dismal and he had been insistent from the beginning that the offense was his responsibility.
Even as he hired Graham Harrell, who seems to be a budding star in the coaching business, having put together one of the nation's top passing games at USC over the last three years, he would not point fingers at anyone.
True, Gerad Parker, who had the title of offensive coordinator, was getting a lot of blame on social media, but Brown exonerated him as he demoted him.
"He's been No. 2 in room," he noted on MetroNews Sportsline Monday night. "I think he's the best receiver coach in the country. Our lack of production really doesn't have anything to do with him. He wasn't meant to lead. I was."
He wasn't quite as generous to Sean Reagan, the quarterbacks coach, under whom neither Jarret Doege nor Garrett Greene made noticeable strides, replacing him with Harrell and not yet landing a spot for him, although to date he has kept him on the staff.
"Sean is a fine coach. We just haven't played well enough in that room. That's not on him. That's on me and the quarterbacks," Brown said.
What wasn't addressed was the mass exodus off the team via the transfer portal, especially out of Parker's receiver room. That may have had less to do with Parker's coaching than with the general inability of the offense and the quarterbacks to make plays.
So now Harrell enters and he does so with play calling responsibilities and with young, unproven quarterbacks, unless he can convince redshirt sophomore QB Jaxon Dart, who went into the transfer portal almost simultaneously as Harrell's move to WVU was being announced, to come join him at WVU.
That he is new to the QBs will be important for they start out competing on a level field and will be able to be molded by Harrell into what he wants.