MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Wren Baker is the new athletic director of West Virginia University and the reason he is coming to Morgantown to begin with will also be in place for at least another year, as WVU announced on Wednesday that embattled head football coach Neal Brown will return for the 2023 season.

Baker, who has spent the last six-plus years as athletic director of North Texas State of Conference USA, has built a strong reputation for raising money for his athletic departments, which should fit nicely into the plans of WVU President Gordon Gee, who told former AD Shane Lyons he was going to walk the plank after eight years so the university can be more aggressive in Name, Image, Likeness (NIL).

Lyons’ response to that was the athletic department had been as aggressive as it could be without crossing the line that would get it involved with Title IX this year. The Trust maintained the department had to be more involved.

“The Trust wants us to be involved in a number of different areas where we just can’t be,” Lyons told MetroNews’ Hoppy Kercheval on Monday morning. “I wasn’t going to cross the line to jeopardize the integrity of the department in federal funding. I was willing to go up to the line as much as I could, to promote it and be involved.

“I support NIL 100%. That’s just a different pot of money. In speeches I give I tell people they have three choices … they give it to scholarships, to operations and capital projects or to the Trust.”

Now, of course, the real reason Lyons was fired as the WVU AD was the two-year contract extension through 2026 that was given to Brown. Yet, as Lyons pointed out, there aren’t many athletic directors in the country who make that kind of a decision without receiving the green light from the university president for starters.

“I’m the scapegoat,” Lyons said, pointing out the two-year contract extension he gave Brown was approved not only by Gee and his No. 1 aide Rob Alsop, who was named interim athletic director, but by David Alvarez, the chairman of the Board of Governors, as well.

“That’s not just a Shane Lyons decision,” he said. “There are other people involved in that including the president,” Lyons said.

Lyons said that essentially every reason he was given for his dismissal involved decisions that were made with the blessings of Gee, Alsop and Alvarez. So there’s that.

As for Baker, he is expected to evaluate the performance of Brown over the next year rather than in a matter of days, thus keeping Brown in place for at least part of the 2023 season before arriving at any decision either way.

This feels like the right thing to do for a number of reasons. For beginners, Brown is owed the money on the contract and then the buyout should it become necessary. Secondly, it’s pretty late in the cycle to be looking for a head football coach at WVU’s level, as the selection at this time of the year is not likely to be choice.

As one enterprising WVU voice said on Twitter, “Last time that happened, West Virginia ended up with … well … Neal Brown.” So there is no reason to rush such a big decision at this point with the recruiting and transfer portal windows imminent.

Should things continue to go not quite up to par for Brown, whose teams are 22-25 in four years, then make a change in mid-season and that way WVU will be at the head of the coaching cycle for 2024. Besides, when a football coaching change is made, particularly this late in the year, the team is in for at least three years of starting over under a new coach, a coach the university might discover even before then that it really doesn’t want after all.

Witness the trajectory, or lack thereof, of Brown’s own time at West Virginia …

Besides, who knows? Maybe things will finally fit into place next season for Brown. Perhaps the way the Mountaineers finished the season with two very good wins over Oklahoma and at Oklahoma State in the season’s final three weeks can build momentum for next season.

Baker has yet to hire a head football coach in his career as an athletic director. It feels as though his first time for that could be on the not too distant horizon, but again, who knows? Maybe Neal Brown will surprise everybody and one day make us all wonder why we were ever having this conversation to begin with.

Even if that doesn’t happen, it is never a good idea to make wholesale changes –THAT change — for the sake of making change.

Particularly at this late stage of the year, change – pocket change – is about all WVU would be spending millions of dollars for in return.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT