COLUMBIA, Mo. — Four years ago when Lafayette High offensive lineman Chase Behrndt was shopping for colleges, his father James offered sage advice: Choose a school, not a coach.
“He told me, ‘You don’t always need to get super close to the coaches that recruit you because they could always leave,’” Behrndt said.
The summer before his senior year, the three-star prospect planned a week of visits. First up, West Virginia. It was also his last visit.
“I came out here and they sold me straight up,” said Behrndt, now a redshirt junior and the Mountaineers starting right guard. “We were supposed to go to Pitt the next day and then three more schools that week. I looked at my dad and was like, ‘I think we can go ahead and cancel those trips. I feel strong about this place and it’s the last place I need to visit.’
“I love the lifestyle out here and the mentality of how people work here. It was what the whole team revolved around. It wasn’t really about the coaching staff.”
Sure enough, Behrndt has already experienced a head-coaching change. After guiding WVU to seven winning records in eight seasons, Dana Holgorsen left the Big 12 program for the University of Houston in January. West Virginia replaced him with one of the youngest coaches in major college football but a proven winner in Troy’s Neal Brown, 39. Brown might not have been the most headline-grabbing hire of the offseason — Les Miles to Kansas and Mack Brown to North Carolina were the biggest names to land new jobs — but he might prove to be the most substantive fit at a program already accustomed to winning.
“He’s definitely a different kind of guy (than Holgorsen),” Behrndt said in a phone interview this week. “He’s very family-oriented. They’ve really made a push that we’re one big family. The (coaches’) families are here all the time and we all know the wives and kids and pretty much know everything about them outside of football. That’s a lot different. I really like that aspect. It brings everyone closer together.”
After an underwhelming 20-13 debut victory over James Madison last week, Brown takes the Mountaineers (1-0) on the road Saturday for a homecoming game of sorts for Behrndt at Missouri. The Tigers (0-1), coming off Saturday’s stunning loss at Wyoming, host a Power 5 conference team in their home opener for the first time since Illinois came to Columbia to start the 1993 season.
Behrndt, a three-star prospect in 2016, didn’t receive a scholarship offer from Missouri. That’s OK. He found his home along those country roads John Denver wrote about years ago. He’ll have about 50 family and friends at Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff.
“I love where I’m from, but I’ve always been a guy who wanted to spread his wings and get out of Missouri,” he said. “It was never really an option to stay in-state for me.”
In Brown, the Mountaineers landed a coach with an established track record, especially when it comes to toppling high-profile programs on the road. His last three Troy teams were 31-8 and 13-5 in road games, including victories at Louisiana State in 2017 and Nebraska in 2018. Troy was 3-0 in bowl games on Brown’s watch. A former wide receiver at Kentucky and Massachusetts, Brown quickly scaled the coaching ladder, becoming an FBS offensive coordinator at Troy before his 29th birthday. This offseason, his name was connected to other coaching searches at Kansas State and Louisville, but WVU athletics director Shane Lyons quickly moved in shortly after Holgorsen’s long-expected departure became official.
To accelerate the transition at West Virginia, Brown entered the graduate transfer sweepstakes this offseason, adding immediately eligible players at quarterback (Oklahoma’s Austin Kendall), defensive end (Michigan’s Reuben Jones), receiver (Florida State’s George Campbell) and punter (Louisiana State’s Josh Growden.)
It wasn’t just a free-for-all grab for the best available players with instant eligibility. Brown wanted to install his program with high-character, veteran players, not just any mercenary rentals on the market.
“We were in culture-building mode this summer without a doubt,” he told reporters this week in Morgantown, W.Va. “When I got here I took everything in for a few months and then we started to really build late in the spring. We were really choosy about who we brought in because they had to be guys who built the culture. … Down the road when I feel better about the makeup of our locker room it’ll be based more on talent than it was what they’ll bring to the position room.”
Now comes the new regime’s first major test — against a Missouri team looking to set its season on a new course.
“A great scheme,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said of Brown. “Always finding ways creatively to get playmakers the ball. A lot of different things they can do offensively, a number of motions, window dressing so to speak. He’s attacking in the way they go about their game-planning to make you defend every inch of the whole field. I’ve studied him a long time and I’ve always been impressed with the game plan he puts together.”