The Clemson game caught people’s attention. It was the second week of the season when Neal Brown’s Troy Trojans rolled into Death Valley to play the nation’s second-ranked team, the national runners-up a year ago, and pushed the Tigers to the limit before falling 30-24.
What got the Troy head coach’s attention was what happened next.
“That was a really physical game and our guys were able to rebound on the road and win at Southern Miss,” said Brown via phone after his team’s Tuesday practice. “Another tell-tale sign to me was we go on the road (two weeks ago) to Idaho and about as much as could go wrong went wrong in the first three series of the game and our guys don’t blink. And we came back and really dominated the game the rest of the way.”
That 34-13 win over the Vandals improved Troy to 4-1 on the season. After going 4-8 last season, the Trojans are one of college football’s more pleasant surprises of 2016.
It’s all been part of the building process for the 36-year-old Brown, the former Boyle County star and ex-UK wide receiver who was Kentucky’s offensive coordinator under Mark Stoops for two years before leaving after the 2014 season to become head coach at Troy, where he was offensive coordinator in 2008-09.
Brown hasn’t forgotten his alma mater or his friends on the current UK staff and players he helped recruit.
“I’m excited for the coaches and players at UK,” he said. “They have shown a great deal of improvement over the last couple of weeks. As a fan, former player and former coach I’ve enjoyed watching the young guys we recruited mature and grow the last couple of weeks and finish strong.”
In fact, something Brown learned under Stoops has led directly to his success at Troy. To be successful, you must have good leadership.
“At Kentucky, Mark really emphasized that and Jason Cummins really played a role in that,” Brown said of UK’s head of impact leadership. “We’ve hired Horizon Performance, Jason Cummins’ company, here. He’s really helped us implement some leadership training.”
To be sure, Troy has some veteran guys at key positions. Brandon Silvers is a three-year starter at quarterback. Jordan Chunn, a redshirt junior running back, is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. Left tackle Antonio Garcia is considered an NFL prospect. Brown has four senior linebackers and a senior rush end on defense.
It takes more than talent, however. Last year, Brown took over a program that was 3-9 the season before and faced a deadly schedule the first half of 2015. Troy lost at North Carolina State, Wisconsin and Mississippi State. By the Mississippi State game (a 45-17 loss), the Trojans were so beat up some key players missed some Sun Belt Conference games.
“But over the last five, six games we really started playing quality football,” Brown said. “Our guys started buying in and it showed. We went on the road and soundly beat Louisiana-Lafayette in the last game of the season. And that momentum kind of grew over the offseason.”
So did the team’s leadership. Brown has emphasized unit leadership, identifying leaders at each position. He wants his position coaches to lead and then train leaders under them.
“The leader of the organization, the head coach in football, they set the culture, but the culture is developed from the ground floor up,” Brown said. “So it’s the players that really develop the culture and build the culture. You’ve got to have a catalyst and the catalyst is those leaders.”
As for the first-time head coach, he’s grown, as well. “I’m probably as improved as anybody in our organization,” Brown said.
He is also quick to point out the Trojans haven’t reached their goals. They play two games in five days — Saturday versus Georgia State, which nearly beat Wisconsin a couple of weeks back; then at archrival South Alabama on a Thursday night ESPNU game.
Said Brown, “We’re going to find out how good we really are over the next couple of weeks.”
Troy 2016 football results and schedule
at Southern Miss
New Mexico St
at South Alabama
at Texas St
at Georgia Southern