It’s hard to gauge how much the world has changed in the last few weeks. If everything doesn’t stop at all, they have slowed down quickly. All restaurants went dark, the streets were empty and many, many people were financially injured. This is not the first time the nation and the world in general have experienced uncertainty. During that time, people, fortunately, were supported by sacred outlets such as art, music, film, and sports. While Netflix and Amazon Prime are humming with record levels of traffic, fields, arenas and courts we are strangely quiet.
Even for Nick Saban and Dabo Sweeney in the world, who have championship hardware and unlimited resources, this is a tough challenge. For someone like Neal Brown, who has a single 5-7 season as head coach of Power Five on his behalf, that can be very apocalyptic.
West Virginia is building, maybe forever. As a winning program in the history of Division I without a national championship, its name, Mountain Climers has been on the peak of greatness several times. After the very promising 2018 team led by Heisman-Will Willer’s hopes failed and the list, along with the staff of Holgorsen Fund, was mostly disbanded, it fell on Brown to make short work building a coal-raised machine capable of winning the Big 12 crown.
Since Brown arrived on campus in the spring of 2019, he has worked with yeoman speed to strengthen the new West Virginia brand called #TrustTheClimb. Beyond the fact that it suits a team that makes its home in the hills in north-central West Virginia, it has, more importantly, rooted in social media. You won’t see Instagram tweets or stories or video uploads from coaches or players without explicitly tattooed program slogans. This is also not just an empty song. While clever slogans are a dime a dozen in the digital world, there seems to be something strong driving this West Virginia re-brand forward.
Look at Brown’s latest recruitment results, for example.
Since the inception of college athletics, Mountain Climbers have received verbal commitment from top Alabama quarterback Will “Goose Crowder”, the endpoint of Ohio’s 3-star Hammond Russell and consensus 4-star running back Jaylen Anderson. Crowder, in particular, can be seen as a massive pull in the coming months as recruitment begins to heat up with their home state of Auburn, assessing it for offers alongside Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt that have attracted triggers on Gardendale, AL products. Russell, like Crowder, saw his star rise on the recruitment circuit when he promised West Virginia a series of Power Five offers including the State of Michigan, Pitt, Georgia Tech, Minnesota and Purdue. They are the latest – and certainly not the last – additions to the developing class that already has features and All-American players and top ranking in West Virginia (Wyatt Millum, who rejects Georgia and Alabama) and elite recipients (Andrew Wilson- Lamp, who refused Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa State, among others.)
Per 247 composite ranks, West Virginia currently boasts the nation’s 1721 class ranked 20th and overall 2nd best in the 12th. Great. Although there are many pitched battles not yet fought, this is already a quantum leap forward for a program that posted a record loss last season and, like other countries, not sure when to step on the field even for a second of direct football.
So what’s the secret sauce?
Avoiding complicated or completely ridiculous theories, I think that’s just Neal Brown’s vision at work. It was known from day one that Brown was a devil for detail and that nature, for the most part, was what helped him register 30+ wins over three years at Troy, including banner wins on the road at LSU and Nebraska. That type of success was never accidental and with the comparative resources given to Brown and his staff in Morgantown, it was not surprising to see that his devotion to the little things began to reap results.
And, yes – West Virginia is still struggling hard in a national arms race that revolves around facilities, equipment, facilities, and marketing. Compared to programs like Oregon, where the Nike-infusion team’s facilities look like a cross between a 23rd-century star ship and the Tesla Gigafactory, West Virginia is trying to do more with a shallower pocket. But given the current circumstances and the sudden level of playing field at every level of the sport, all the age changing room rooms in the world cannot help you. The multi-million dollar equipment room and training facilities sit as still and empty as the latest mausoleum. Without the benefit of bright and sparkling objects to impress candidates, their head coaches and scattered staff members must rely on their most basic tools: culture and messaging.
Looking at Brown and social staff in West Virginia, even an ordinary observer can feel an integrated approach at work. Not only is there a constant flow of content to chew, it’s all consistent. The chief man himself is a diligent contributor to the team’s online footprint, reaffirming his reputation as a present and involved leader. Assistant coaches, whether it’s Gerad Parker, Dontae Wright, Travis Trickett or Jahmile Addae, follow by filming family-focused exercises that touch on broader aspects of play and home life. It goes without saying that having an active player on social media also helps. Not just veterans, either. A few days ago, sophomore Winston Wright, Jr., posted a photo of him practicing which encourages a number of positive responses to his physical condition. The response only to give praise to “the best strength staff in the country”.
In a recent video interview, Brown has outlined the importance of staying responsible and maintaining order. The Accountability Team that he started last year is still collected and you better believe the score is saved. Recruitment and players alike have constant contact with assigned staff members and Brown himself has conducted a number of virtual walk-throughs and interviews with prospects, some of whom may never have camped or set foot inside the Puskar Center before they made verbal promises for a college program.
Power wizard Mike Joseph is monitoring the condition of each player and strength regiment, improvising as much as humanly possible without the vast fitness complex of mountain climbers. No dumbbells? Water jug and the broom stick. This is an all-hands effort throughout the program to utilize some of the very powerful, digital tools available to broadcast it, pandemic or not pandemic, West Virginia is up to something.
Of course, you might still be asking what, if anything, this all means. Football will continue, finally. The light will blink again and the clank of free weights together with the clank of cleats will sound once again. Then return to business as usual, when the normal sequence of things will recover by itself and a world tour experience like Disney World will return. In the gap between now and then, all recruits, whether prospects 1 star or 5 star must pass, are on good terms. Trust. Feeling guts.
There will be lots and lots of promises made during this crisis and many opportunities to be noticed. The coach can tell a recruiter to keep him connected and the current player, lost in this fog, may lose sight of the final goal and take a step back. This will be true for programs without core values and unity. The pretenders will be revealed almost instantly when the college football machine comes alive.
Fortunately, the era of Mountaineer football Neal Brown has been building as a united front from day one. If every Power Five program in the whole country is only as good as the people who lead it, then the gold and dark blue are sitting pretty. Whatever the obstacles experienced by players under Brown’s supervision during the longest offseason in the history of this sport, they will come out on the other side as strong as anything in this country. When you put culture and vision first, everything will follow. When #TrustTheClimb is the pulse of your program, who will climb you?
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