West Virginia University’s football team will suffer through the sounds of near-silence in its 2020 season opener. Rather than enjoying a raucous packed crowd at Milan Puskar Stadium, WVU will kick off Sept. 12 against Eastern Kentucky with just essential staff and families of players and coaches in attendance.
Yet Mountaineer coach Neal Brown holds out hope that what his team will experience that day won’t become the norm as some corners of college football navigate playing this fall through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m hopeful by our second [home] game we can get fans,” Brown said in a recent video call.
That will be a Big 12 conference game against Baylor scheduled for Oct. 3. The Big 12 is one of six Football Bowl Subdivision conferences planning to play this fall, joining the SEC, ACC, Conference USA, American and Sun Belt.
“I don’t know what the percentage looks like, but I hope we can,” Brown said. “I don’t have any inside knowledge saying we will, but I’m hopeful.”
Brown said he’s more disappointed for WVU’s fans than its football players when it comes to an empty Puskar Stadium for the first game. The players, he said, will persevere. They’ll be ready to play regardless. The fans, though, look forward to football season so much and Brown loves the noise and energy they bring to WVU’s home field.
West Virginia might hit the road and find those environments even more hostile if those teams can allow fans and WVU can’t. But Brown said that’s something his players will just have to get over. If LeBron James and the rest of the players in the NBA bubble can compete without fans, so can the Mountaineers.
“I understand the decision,” he said. “It’s all how the virus is going in that particular area. Whether we’re playing on the road or at home or on the road, whether they have fans or not, we have to get ready to play. It’s one of those things we knew was going to happen. We practiced today with no music in the stadium. It’ll be the same for both of us.”
Linebacker VanDarius Cowan’s 2019 season started late and ended abruptly. After sitting the first four games on a suspension, Cowan played in just two games before a knee injury put him on the shelf for the rest of the season.
Yet the Alabama transfer has been healthy this preseason, and Brown thinks he’s showing the talent that made him desirable to the Mountaineers in the first place.
“He has that ability,” Brown told the university’s official athletic website. “He’s got to be more consistent, but he’s shown some flashes here in the last couple of days where I think he’s definitely understanding what his role is, plus he’s been out here. He’s practiced several consecutive days now, and he’s starting to show some signs.”
Darius Stills and younger brother Dante aren’t the only sons of former Mountaineer standouts who have been performing well this preseason. Jalen Thornton, son of former WVU defensive lineman John Thornton, recently saw practice time with the first team.
“He’s a young player. He continues to grow,” Brown said. “His good plays are really positive right now, he’s just got to eliminate those really negative plays so that’s what we’re trying to get out of him is some more consistency.”
The fathers of Thornton and the Stills brothers actually played on the same WVU team. Former linebacker Gary Stills and John Thornton both were All-Big East selections who were 1999 NFL draft picks. Thornton was taken in the second round by the Tennessee Titans and Stills was taken in the third round by the Kansas City Chiefs.