When Neal Brown says he’s from Kentucky, he means it.
The 32-year-old was born in Louisville, spent his childhood in Bardstown, his teen-age years in Danville and his college days in Lexington. Now, after coaching stints in Connecticut, Alabama and Texas, Brown is back where belongs as the new offensive coordinator of the Kentucky Wildcats football team.
“This state and this university are special to me,” Brown said Tuesday. “This isn’t just another job for me. This is personal.”
Aside from head coach Mark Stoops, the hiring of Brown has generated the most excitement amongst the UK fan base. Once a walk-on receiver under Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense, Brown now coaches a version of the same offense and is one of the most highly regarded young assistants in the nation.
“This is an opportunity I wanted to do without question,” Brown said. “I always dreamed about coming back in the right situation, and I believe 100 percent this is the right situation.
“Anytime you get presented with situations in this profession, it’s got to be the right situation for your family and I think that was probably as big a deal as anything. (Stoops) didn’t have to sell me. I’ve been sold on Kentucky football my whole life.”
Family played a huge role in Brown’s decision, but for reasons one might not have considered.
“My whole family is UK fans,” Brown said. “They grew up Kentucky fans. They've had a lot of season tickets. Whether I'm here or not, they're UK fans. But there's always a little hesitation from a coaching perspective because I've been gone other places. At Texas Tech, I was 16 hours away.
“You guys know how the profession is, there's a lot of pressure, and that's the way it should be really. This is a big-dollar business,” he continued. “But they were isolated from that when I was away. Now it's going to be at the front door. Those are discussions that I had with my family, my wife's family, just to make sure they understand. They do. They're fired up about it.”
That doesn’t mean, however, Brown bolted from Texas Tech to Kentucky without weighing his options. In fact, his new boss, head coach Mark Stoops, insisted Brown follow through with interviews for head coaching jobs at smaller schools before accepting the offensive coordinator position with UK.
“That really told me what kind of guy he was,” Brown said. “He said go through the process. When he said, 'Hey, I've been in your shoes…' A lot of times coordinators step into that head coaching position and everything changes, they forget what it was like to be a coordinator. When he said that I remember getting off the phone and I told my wife, I said, 'This is a good guy. This is a good person. This is a guy that understand what we're doing on a day-to-day basis.' I said, 'I can work for him. I want to work for him.’”
Brown was speaking a few days before winter, he wishes it was a few days before fall.
“I wish we had a game this Saturday because the excitement in the Big Blue Nation about football is at an all-time high. I really believe that,” Brown said. “I grew up a fan of this football program; played here, have a personal investment in that aspect and I’ve been a supporter. Shoot, I’ve been a season ticket holder the last five or six years.
Brown is optimistic in the face of a string of bad seasons because success in fresh in his memory.
“It’s been done before,” Brown said. “This program’s had a couple down years, but also, it went through, in recent history, some of its strongest winning. Was it five or six bowl games in a row?”
The coach was keeping a close eye on his beloved UK, including the day in 2007 when the Cats shocked No. 1-ranked and eventual national champion LSU in triple overtime at Commonwealth Stadium.
“Oh, I was proud. I was really proud of what they were able to do,” Brown said. “My grandfather, I can remember we were celebrating his 90th birthday. We had a bye week at Troy and I was down in Mayfield celebrating. We were having a surprise birthday party that we actually delayed because Kentucky and LSU went in overtime, right? So we actually delayed the start of the party. We had to drive him around a little bit so the people at the house could finish watching the game.
“Tremendous amount of excitement and energy,” Brown said of those recent glory days. “I always kept up with it. I wasn’t here on a daily basis, but I always kept up with it, and that was an exciting time for sure.”
Brown believes he can help reverse Kentucky’s losing streak because of the success he enjoyed in the Big 12. After all, he guided Texas Tech to the No. 2 passing attack in the nation this past season.
“Here’s the deal, the SEC is a tough conference. There’s no question. It’s the toughest conference in America,” Brown said. “But I’m coming from a conference that’s not chopped liver. Week in and week out, it’s tough. If you look at the rankings, it will back that up. But an opportunity to come home with these people, with the fan support that Kentucky’s going to have and turn this thing around. It will be done.
“There is a tremendous amount of fans support for our football program, and just football in general in this state,” Brown said. “That gives you a chance to build a successful program. Coach Brooks did that. He built on that. That’s something Coach Stoops is going to do also.”