MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Baseball is known as America’s Pastime. Football, especially college football, has become America’s Obsession. The sport is arguably as popular as it has ever been, with games drawing big television numbers every weekend, and it is consistently at the forefront of national, regional, and local debate.
Neal Brown, West Virginia’s fifth-year head coach, loves football. He is passionate about it for many reasons. Maybe the biggest reason, or reasons, are the lessons the game has taught those who play and coach it.
“I don’t mean this against anything in the classroom, but I’ve probably learned as many life lessons and things that I carry with me on a hardcourt, a baseball diamond, or a football field,” said Brown.
A three-sport athlete in Danville, Kentucky, Brown played baseball, basketball, and football throughout high school. He then played college football at Kentucky and UMass, and immediately jumped into what has become a 21-year coaching career, which led him to West Virginia.
Brown, now 43 years old, has been part of a team in one way or another since the age of five.
“I love all sports, but I think this game teaches more than any other game,” he added.
Football’s life lessons largely remain the same, but the sport and its makeup are everchanging, especially at the collegiate level.
One number Brown believes isn’t currently on college football’s side is the sport’s attendance figures. College football endured seven straight years of declining attendance before a boon in in-person spectators last season.
While he believes some of the recent changes in college athletics (i.e. conference realignment over the last 10-plus years) are among the factors that have led to that decline, Brown was reminded of what makes the sport great on Saturday.
“Some of the things that make college athletics great, is there’s this connection,” he said. “Sitting there today, talking to people coming through Fan Day, you know a lot of the people that are coming are second-, third-, fourth-generation Mountaineer fans that went to school here or grew up in the area. And they really identify with the WVU logo.”
Former Alabama and Kentucky football head coach Bill Curry is famous for his speech on the game of football. Named “The Huddle,” it was written in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
In it, Curry describes the football huddle as a metaphor for American culture. The huddle, he suggested, becomes a melting pot of players from various walks of life, all with one goal in mind.
“The men who earn a place in the huddle have experienced the miracle of team,” Curry narrates. He goes on to say, “It is the only sport in which every player needs every teammate on every play just to survive.”
Brown shared Curry’s “The Huddle” narration with West Virginia players in a team meeting on Friday. He put his own spin on Curry’s speech Saturday when speaking of his love of the game.
“The game of football is the only game where, really, your well-being is dependent on other people,” Brown said. “You’ve got to wear gear. You’ve got to be able to go through and endure things in the heat in the summer. You got to play in conditions in the winter … or late fall, when it’s really cold. You got to learn life skills, how to be a good teammate.”