Mine visit an effort by WVU's Brown to connect with fans

Dale Sparks

In this photo taken April 13, 2019, and provided by WVU Athletics Communications, West Virginia offensive lineman Colton McKivitz (53) and teammates walk past a chunk of coal prior to their NCAA college spring football game in Morgantown, W.Va. Head coach Neal Brown took players and coaches to visit a coal mine after the start of fall practice to learn more about the industry and the fans who support the team. Brown said he wanted his players “to know who they represent.”

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – One of Neal Brown’s priorities during his first fall camp at West Virginia was to learn more about the Mountaineers’ fanbase, so the new coach took his team to a working coal mine.

Brown took three busloads of players and coaches earlier this month to Arch Coal’s Leer Mining Complex in the northern West Virginia community of Grafton. For many, it was their first experience at a mine.

Brown addressed a group of miners at a safety meeting and was accompanied along with his staff to the bottom of a mine shaft. The miners’ shifts were staggered so the employees were able to eat and mingle with the players, who also got to see a continuous mining machine, a roof bolter and other equipment set up outside.

“I want them to know who they represent,” Brown said. “I think coal mining is part of the fabric of West Virginia. I want our players to understand that.”

In a state of 1.8 million people without a professional sports team and no other Power 5 schools, Morgantown is transformed into the state’s largest city whenever West Virginia has a home football game.

“That trip there and spending the afternoon with those men reinforced how important in what it means to the people in our state,” Brown said. “For me, very humbling to see how much pride that those men have in West Virginia football.

“I already knew this but it made me realize that part of the reason that we took this job was because it was important here.”

Offensive lineman Colton McKivitz said the trip was also humbling for him. He said his father was a coal miner and a brother-in-law also works in the mines.

“It’s a pretty close thing to me and my family,” McKivitz said Tuesday. “To be able to see what really goes on and how hard those guys work is a pretty big statement for what West Virginia is really about.”

Before Saturday’s season opener, Brown will continue a tradition that taps into the state’s coal industry and heritage with a pregame “Mountaineer Mantrip” walk, including touching a 350-pound chunk of coal outside West Virginia’s stadium.

West Virginia is the No. 2 U.S. coal producer behind Wyoming and had by far the highest number of employed miners among the states with 13,200 in 2017. Nationally, the industry has seen a downturn in production and employment in the past decade as companies filed for bankruptcy amid diminished demand for coal-fired electricity.

Brown grew up in Bardstown and Danville, Kentucky, not far from that state’s rich eastern coal mining region. Brown and his wife, Brooke, have three young children and the coach’s down-to-earth demeanor has been embraced by both West Virginia players and fans, who have sold out Saturday’s game against FCS James Madison.

“He’s very family oriented, which is the biggest key,” McKivitz said. “I think that the team really likes about him most is just that family atmosphere. He loves his players and I think that’s one of the biggest things we like about coach Brown.”

Fans typically cut a new coach some slack because they haven’t seen the product play out over a full season. In West Virginia’s case, a young team isn’t expected to compete for a Big 12 title this year. But Leer Mine manager Larry Gore loves what he sees out of Brown as a person.

“This guy has certainly attached himself to the fan base,” Gore said. “He seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing.

“One thing that I like about coach Brown more than anything, he’s about his players and what life looks like after football. It seems like he’s more about the person than the football player. He’s trying to prepare these young men for life itself. Pretty genuine guy.”

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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