TROY, Ala. -- Troy pulled off arguably the biggest upset of the season by going on the road to LSU and beating the Tigers on Saturday in Death Valley -- at night, no less.
Afterward, Neal Brown appeared to keep his composure. The 37-year-old coach stood before his team inside the visiting locker room, with cameras trained on his every word.
“Hold on a second,” he said. “It takes a champion to come on the road. This is as tough a venue as there is. All right? This is as tough a venue, man. And we did so many good things. I’m serious, man.”
Then he couldn’t hold it in anymore.
Brown stuffed his play sheet in his back pocket, raised his voice and pumped his fist.
“We just beat LSU!” he shouted.
Brown was briefly surrounded by his players. Then he took a step back to soak it all in. It was the picture of euphoria: an ear-to-ear grin on a man who had been waiting so long to slay Goliath.
All week, Brown had told his team about Troy’s previous near misses against big-time programs: LSU and South Carolina in 2004; Florida State and Georgia Tech in 2006; Georgia in 2007; Ohio State in 2008; Tennessee in 2012; Clemson a year ago. He could remember them so vividly. There were blown double-digit leads, fourth-quarter fumbles and inadvertent whistles. The lost yardage given up on special teams still ate at him.
He wanted everyone to understand the past.
“Are we different?” he asked. “Is this team, that had a lot of preseason expectations but hasn’t necessarily played our best football, are we prepared to be different? Can we be different from these other teams that didn’t finish the game?”
Don’t blink, he told them.
They didn’t. Not even for a second.
It didn’t matter that they were three-touchdown underdogs. Nor did it matter that they were on the road, that LSU was ranked or that they were facing a roster chock-full of NFL talent. Inside the tiny town of Troy, Alabama, the home of the second-smallest FBS school in the country, there was no fear.
Troy has had a few NFL-caliber players of its own. With three national championships (one NAIA, two Division II) and five Sun Belt titles, it has a rich history of winning football games and the confidence that comes with that.
So when Troy held a 17-0 lead midway through the third quarter, no one on the visiting sideline was surprised. The defense pestered LSU quarterback Danny Etling, and the offensive line moved the pile at will. A last-minute rally made the final score appear close -- 24-21 -- but it was clear who the better team was on Saturday night.
Brown, less than three years after taking the job, had gotten Troy over the hump.
During the five-hour bus ride home -- no fancy jets here -- Brown settled into his seat. After about 30 minutes of celebration, players started falling asleep, and Brown glanced at his phone. By the end of the night, he responded to hundreds of congratulatory text messages and emails.
It was especially important, he said, to let all those who came before him at Troy know that what his team did against LSU was because of the foundation they laid.
In 2008, when Troy lost in heartbreaking fashion at LSU, it was due in large part to the way the offense surprised the Tigers, spreading the field with multiple receivers, emptying the backfield and throwing the ball all over the yard. Brown was the offensive coordinator back then, and he could feel it when LSU caught on to the game plan. When the running game failed late, he knew the upset bid was over.
When Brown returned as head coach and beat LSU straight-up, it was satisfying.
His wife and children were at a gymnastics meet in Hoover, Alabama, over the weekend -- “Good or bad, [Death Valley] is not necessarily the best venue to take small children,” he said -- and he returned home early Sunday morning to an empty house. He watched a few minutes of the TV replay and then, after a few hours of sleep, studied the coaches tape.
It confirmed what he suspected.
“The national narrative is going to be, 'What’s wrong with LSU?' And I get that, I do,” he said. “But this wasn’t a fluke. We didn’t run one trick play. We ran zero gimmicks on offense, defense and special teams. We played big-boy ball. We ran the football, played great defense and were solid in special teams. We’ve got good players. We’ve got a few NFL players, and we earned that victory. That needs to be noted: We earned that victory.”
And it’s that fact -- that Troy had a better and better-coached football team than LSU -- that will make Neal Brown one of the hottest names on the coaching market.
He played for the inventor of the Air Raid offense, Hal Mumme, at Kentucky and worked his way up the coaching ladder at UMass, Sacred Heart and Troy before becoming offensive coordinator at Texas Tech. After a couple years at Kentucky, he was picked to replace legendary coach Larry Blakeney, who retired in 2014 after posting a record of 178-113-1 in 24 seasons at Troy.
After a 4-8 rookie season, Brown turned Troy into a 10-win program in 2016 and helped the school to its first ranking in the AP poll. He was on industry experts’ radars before this season, but the win at LSU has launched him into the spotlight. With seemingly half of SEC fan bases contemplating the buyouts of their current head coaches, it won’t be long before the wolves are circling Troy athletic director Jeremy McClain’s door.
“It means you’re doing something right,” McClain said, waving off any concern. “We’ll deal with that when it comes.”
Next Wednesday, the eyes of college football will be trained on Troy again, with its game against South Alabama the only one on national TV that night. What they’ll see is what Brown has known was there all along: a program with a rich history of winning and a team that won’t blink.
Are they different than before? Absolutely. After knocking at the door for years, the Trojans finally broke through against LSU.
Brown got the signature win Troy needed to become a premier Group of 5 program. Now the question is how long the Trojans can keep him.