Mirror image: Brown vs. Norvell in Atlanta in 2020
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Neal Brown came to West Virginia with a quiet belief in himself. His football teams at Troy in the football cauldron that is the state of Alabama often featured offensive fireworks and wins in bowl games. Before becoming a head coach at Troy, he had been the offensive coordinator at previous stops at so-called Power 5 schools.
Brown was to be a steady as well as heady steel beam in Morgantown. West Virginians became well aware that the 2019 team did not have a wealth of talent, nor was it going to send earthquakes or weekly tremors through the well-stocked Big 12.
People wanted the 2019 Mountaineers to be full of fundamental soundness and a team-wide competitive personality, coached by a man with a firm belief in his abilities and where he could take the team.
Brown is 39 years old. In his first season with the Mountaineers, he showed a 5-7 overall record and won two of his last three games. A 20-13 loss to Oklahoma State, which had eight wins and a delicious bowl bid this season, kept the Mountaineers from finding their own bowl bid.
After playing his high school football at Boyle County in Kentucky, he played at the University of Kentucky and then his final two seasons at Massachusetts.
He has been an assistant coach at Delaware, Troy, Texas Tech and Kentucky, serving as an offensive coordinator along the way.
While at Troy, a one-time junior college long before Brown went there, his teams played in three consecutive bowl games — winning all three.
Just weeks ago, he presided over the signing of his first class of recruits. He says a few more new faces will be added at the next signing period in February.
Brown’s next game will come on Sept. 5 of 2020. That game will be on a neutral field in Atlanta against another team and coach with similar appearances as West Virginia will present in Brown’s second year.
Florida State is the Sept. 5 opponent.
The Seminoles just hired Mike Norvell, a 38-year-old former offensive coordinator who had been at Memphis for four years.
Norvell’s Tigers had a 38-15 overall record in four years, going to bowl games in all of those seasons. The one area where Norvell varied from what Brown accomplished at Troy was that he lost in his bowl appearances. Being hired in early December by Florida State, Norvell did not coach the Cotton Bowl where Memphis faced Penn State.
Norvell has been an assistant coach at Arizona State, Pitt, Tulsa and Central Arkansas and was also an offensive coordinator along the way.
Receiving a six-year contract at $3.75 million a season makes Norvell a little richer and more tenured than Brown.
Florida State’s fans are a clamoring lot. They were so blessed to have Bobby Bowden winning at least 10 games a year for 14 straight seasons, that anything less than optimum success has been met recently by unrest.
Jimbo Fisher replaced Bowden when the legendary coach had asked for one more year. Fisher did win a national championship, but eventually found himself burdened with a 3-6 record toward the close of the 2017 season. He fled to Texas A&M only to see the Seminoles with their last three regular season dates and then also win a a bowl game to finish at 7-6.
Willie Taggart was hired from Oregon to replace Fisher. Taggart went 5-7 in 2018, missing any bowl game. He was at 4-5 this season when fired. The Seminoles beat Boston College and Alabama State to become bowl eligible before being swamped by Florida in their season finale.
Brown and Norvell are nearly the same age and with similar rises through the coaching ranks.
Brown has given West Virginians substantial reasons for optimism. After Fisher and Taggart, Norvell has the blessing of FSU’s fans, who want him to bring back winning stability to the swaying palm trees in Tallahassee.