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Kansas State Football Coaching Search: Let’s talk about Neal Brown

As the search for Bill Snyder’s successor continues, a new name surged to the top of the hot board Saturday: Troy coach Neal Brown. But who is Neal Brown and what might he bring to Kansas State?

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Ohio vs Troy
This might be the new head coach of Kansas State, maybe as early as tomorrow.
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

The quest to replace Bill Snyder continues to be in flux. Friday, I tweeted this:

On Friday, all signs said Neal Brown had no interest in leaving the southeast. But then, as Kellis Robinett reported yesterday, it appears that athletic director Gene Taylor has met with the Troy head coach and came away “impressed.” According to Robinett, it is believed that Brown has leaped Memphis head coach Mike Norvell, who I wrote about yesterday, on Taylor’s list. It is also rumored that North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman, believed to be the favorite after Seth Littrell withdrew his name, has now fallen out of the top spot, although as of now (meaning the moment I’m writing this) that rumor has not been substantiated by an actual report.

If true though, all this means that somehow, some way, yesterday Neal Brown became the odds-on favorite to become the next head football coach at Kansas State University. And looking at his resume, it’s easy to see why.

Why Neal Brown?

In a lot of ways, Neal Brown is very similar to the other two coaches I’ve written about, Seth Littrell and Mike Norvell. He’s young (38), he’s a successful Group of Five (G5) coach, and he’s an offensive mind with a lot of success on that side of the ball. If Norvell and Brown are the two front-runners at this point, it’s clear that Taylor has a type he’s looking for. But resume-wise, Brown might be the superior option because he wins more.

Over four seasons at Troy, Brown is 34-16 with one Sun Belt championship. Half of his losses came in his first season when Troy went 4-8, his only losing season. Since then he’s won at least nine games every year* with an 11-win season in 2017. In 2016, Troy became the first Sun Belt team to ever be ranked in the Top 25. He’s also 2-0 in bowls, with a chance to go 3-0 if he stays on to coach the Trojans against Buffalo in the Dollar General Bowl Dec. 22.

*A win in the Dollar General Bowl would also mean he’s won 10 games every year since the 4-8 season.

He also knows how to win big non-conference games. In 2016, he led the Trojans to a near-upset of eventual national champion Clemson at Death Valley, losing 30-24. In 2017, the Trojans held off LSU in the other Death Valley, winning 24-21. Then in 2018, Troy traveled to Lincoln and toppled the winless Cornhuskers 24-19.

Littrell and Norvell each have only coached three seasons, but Brown has the highest win percentage of the three and is the only one of the three with a conference title or a bowl win (so far). So if a history of winning FBS conference titles and bowls is something you want in a coach, among those reportedly remaining on Gene Taylor’s list, Neal Brown is your man.

Does he have any K-State ties?

Yes. Brown’s current defensive coordinator is Vic Koenning, who was a linebacker at K-State under Jim Dickey from 1977-81. Koenning has a long coaching career since graduating, including a year on the Wildcat staff as the assistant head coach, co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach in 2009. Koenning has served as Brown’s DC for his whole time at Troy.

But where does Neal Brown come from?

Brown is Kentucky born and raised and played wide receiver in college at Kentucky from under Hal Mumme and Mike Leach during the birth of the Air Raid. In 2001, he transferred to UMass. After graduating in 2002, he joined the UMass staff to coach tight ends and assist with the offensive line. The next year he moved down to work as an offensive position coach at the FCS level, first at Sacred Heart, then at Delaware.

He moved up to FBS in 2006 to spend four years at Troy under the Trojans longtime coach Larry Blakeney, two as the inside wide receivers coach and two as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In 2010, he was hired to the same position at Texas Tech by Tommy Tuberville. He coached the Red Raider offense to a win over No. 3 Oklahoma in 2011. In 2013, he joined Mark Stoops’ new staff at Kentucky, again as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In 2015, he returned to Troy as head coach.

What will he bring to K-State?

When Brown returned to Troy, he replaced a retiring Blakeney after Blakeney had a somewhat Snyder-esque career, leading the Trojans from Division II when he took over in 1991 through an ascension to FCS in 1993 and ultimately to FBS in 2001. During that time, he registered a 178-113-1 record, winning eight conference championships (three Southland, five Sun Belt) and two bowls in five appearances. He retired in 2014 after 23 years and was inducted into the Troy Sports Hall of Fame. So, Brown knows how to fill the shoes of a legend.

He also knows how to build a program up from decline. Blakeney’s last winning season at Troy was 2010, and in his final season, the Trojans went 3-9. The program was in poor shape when Brown took over, but in just his second season he won 10 games, something Blakeney had never done.

His offensive scheme is impressive, taking hints from the air raid but not shying away from the run. Statistical performance has been a mixed bag. In his first season, Troy’s offense finished 93rd in S&P+. A year later they were up to 80 (50th in passing, 98th in rushing). In 2017 they were up to 58 (43rd in rushing, 79th in passing) and this season they moved down to 82 (100th in rushing, 78th in passing). But they’re balanced by S&P+ standards, as Bill Connelly pointed out in his 2018 team preview:

“Troy’s 2017 offense was wonderfully balanced. The Trojans were 32nd in raw success rate, but as importantly, they were 65th or better in nearly every other primary (and unadjusted for opponent) advanced statistic.”

But if you’re looking for a real key to Troy’s success of late, you might find a clue in Koenning’s unit. Troy’s defense went from 120th in 2014 to 78th in 2015 (Brown and Koenning’s first year), to 45th in 2016, to 17th (!) in S&P+ in 2017. This year, they dropped off a bit to 35th, but that’s still better than any defense either Seth Littrell’s North Texas or Mike Norvell’s Memphis have fielded in the last three years.

For a more in-depth look at Troy on both sides of the ball, Ian Boyd broke down the Trojans 2017 win over LSU.

What about recruiting?

When Blakeney retired in 2014, Troy was among the worst in the country in recruiting, with their 2015 class ranking 117th. Brown’s first three classes ranked in the low 90s, while the 2019 class currently (as of this writing) ranks 74th nationally and second in the Sun Belt according to 247. The Brown-era recruiting geography is a pretty tight map, with a large majority of recruits being in-state in Alabama, while a few have come from Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi. As I’ve said with my other two candidate breakdowns, if he’s hired, it will be interesting to see what Brown can do for recruiting at K-State with the current and future facility developments.

So what’s the bad news?

Since the Littrell breakdown, I’ve tried hard to find negatives with Norvell and Brown. The obvious knock against Brown is the fact that he’s only coached for four years and coaches in the Sun Belt, which may be the weakest FBS conference. Also, Troy’s offense, which is supposed to be Brown’s strength, has averaged a finish of 78 in S&P+ through four seasons. But Brown has won, and at times, won big, like over LSU and Nebraska, and the near-upset over Clemson.

As with Littrell and Norvell, it’s hard to know if Brown’s success will translate to FBS, but uncertainty will exist with any hire. Following a legend is hard, but if there’s one coach on the list that at least has experience at it, it’s Neal Brown.

If the latest FootballScoop report is to be believed, either Brown, Norvell, or Chris Klieman will be named head coach of Kansas State, possibly as early as tomorrow.