MORGANTOWN — It’s an old story, one that’s been told over and over again, but when you think about West Virginia University sports today it fits perfectly with the honor given to Don Nehlen on Saturday when his name will be immortalized among the all-time greats at the venue. Honors at Mountaineer Field.
Considering that the road that runs next to the stadium is called Don Nehlen Drive and that his first game as a Mountaineer coach was the first game in 80% of freshman games in 1980 and that the opponent was the same team as the University of Cincinnati. that WVU will face the game at 2:30 pm shown on ESPN +, the event could not be better in time.
Just as current coach Neal Brown came to Morgantown to inherit the ruins of a struggling program from Dana Holgorsen, so, too, did Nehlen step into a situation that produced four losing seasons in five years under the ailing Frank Cignetti.
Why would someone who was the quarterback coach at Michigan, who was also the head coach at one point in a tough state where he won at Bowling Green, get into such trouble?
He worked for Bo Schembechler, the Hall of Fame coach at Michigan, and as a mentor Schembechler strongly doubted that he had the insanity to return to head coaching at the position.
“Don, are you crazy?” he said. “I look at West Virginia’s schedule and I see Pitt is there. I see Penn State. I see Oklahoma coming. There’s Maryland, Virginia Tech and Boston College. You’ve got four, five or six losses here at the same time.
“Every coach that ever coached there, when they win, they leave, and when they lose, they get fired,” Schembechler said. “This is a big mistake on your part. You’re making good money here, we go to the Rose Bowl every year, and in two or three years I’ll get you a good job.”
A strong recruiter, Schembechler couldn’t convince Nehlen that his future wasn’t at Michigan and was at WVU.
In addition, as WVU historian John Antonik noted recently, the coal industry was collapsing, people were leaving the state, the university was facing financial problems and… When things change drastically, they stay the same.
But for Nehlen, this was close to heaven. He was ready to reinvent himself and now, 43 years later, with Neal Brown fighting the same battles he fought then, Nehlen ends his Hall of Fame career with this honor.
Nehlen provided an answer to Schembechler’s vision and his own vision.
“Bo, there are a lot of football players within 300 miles of Morgantown, and I feel like I can get 15 or 20 of them a year,” Nehlen said.
He got more than anyone thought… Major Harris, Marc Bulger, Amos Zereoue, Brian Jozwiak, Canute Curtis, Gary Stills, Avon Cobourne, John Thornton, Jeff Hosteller. Mike Logan, Aaron Beasley.
You get a picture. There are many more names that could be added to the list.
He was fighting year after year for the players and respect and he did it the right way. They didn’t buy players. They didn’t steal the signs. He didn’t even start the game, even playing Major Harris at quarterback when everyone else saw him changed the way the game was played.
Twice (which should probably be spelled TWICE) they went through undefeated seasons. While he played for a national championship at a school that had never won one and Harris is injury free to this day he still believes he could have won the 1988 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
None of the players in the team are against it.
He first gained national fame in a win over Oklahoma, a team that four years earlier had beaten WVU so badly — you could say that this year — he says as he and the WVU players stared down the field in the second half of the opener. they were sitting there with their blankets off their shoulders and laughing.
And, in the shadows of today’s sports, he did what Penn State recruit Jeff Hosteller did to start the revolution in WVU football.
In less than five years Nehlen built a team that could beat Penn State, 17-14, perhaps the biggest win in school history as this win was the Mountaineers’ first against the Nittany Lions since 1955.
This was 28 years and the best result was one tie.
It was big enough that when the rivalry was renewed this season without playing since 1992 the Altoona Mirror saw fit to talk about Nehlen to talk about the rivalry.
“Joe was a great friend,” Nehlen said of Hall of Fame Penn State coach Joe Paterno. “He was a good man and a good coach. He was way ahead of everybody and they were light years ahead of everybody in the East. Everything we had, he had five.”
Paterno was 25-2 against WVU, but Nehlen won both.
“The first one was huge,” Nehlen said. “I had only been at West Virginia for four years at the time. Anytime you could bet Penn State it was a big win.”
Nehlen was a tough, old-fashioned coach who believed in defense and running the ball, but he was a child of a new game where he could win and throw quarterbacks like Hosteller, Oliver Luck and Marc Bulger.
There is a story that tells a lot about Nehlen in his willingness to take on Bulger.
“We were recruiting Marc, but my coaches weren’t really excited because he only weighed 150 pounds and wasn’t very athletic,” Nehlen said.
“But I watched him on film and I said to myself, ‘I’ve never seen a guy throw the ball better than Marc did in high school.’ But when other people don’t recruit him, you just get a little cold and start saying to yourself, ‘What’s wrong with me?’
Nehlen called a coach he respected, Gary Tranquill, who coached with him at Bowling Green and WVU, and was at Virginia Tech.
He asked Tranquill’s opinion and said that he liked Bulger a lot, but like Nehlen, he couldn’t find anyone to agree with him.
“So, to make a long story short, we offered Marc Bulger a scholarship, he accepted, and the rest is history,” Nehlen said.
Bulger is being included on this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot.
Nehlen remains tied to the WVU program and finances as Neal Brown tries to rebuild the program he inherited.
“He’s been good to me,” Brown said Monday. “He’s helped me a lot and that’s all I can ask for. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and as a man. He’s done it for a long time here. He’s done it the right way.
“I feel like the longer he’s gone the more our fans appreciate him, and they should.”