MORGANTOWN, W.Va.¬†—¬†Merry Ann Nehlen, the first lady of West Virginia University football for two decades, died Monday night after a long illness. She was 81.

The wife of former Mountaineers coach Don Nehlen died at home after suffering through a years-long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Don Nehlen and Merry Ann Chopson, childhood friends in Canton, Ohio, became high school and college sweethearts before marrying in 1958. They were dubbed the holiday twins, because she was born on Christmas Day 1937 and Coach Nehlen on New Year’s Day 1936.

She was at Don’s side when he came from Michigan to Morgantown after the 1979 football season. Nehlen coached 21 years at West Virginia and won 149 games, more than any other Mountaineers coach. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame a few years after his retirement in 2000.

Former West Virginia assistant Steve Dunlap said Merry Ann had a lot to do with the success Coach Nehlen enjoyed.

“The coaches wives, they raise the kids, they pay the bills, because we aren’t around very much,” Dunlap said. “She just led the way. She showed the young coaches wives the way you should present yourself.”

Unfortunately, the Nehlens weren’t able to enjoy many years in retirement together.

“It may have been four of five years that he was retired and she started to change at that time. I think the last two or three years she’s been bedridden. It’s just a blessing that she’s in a better place now,” Dunlap said.

Mrs. Nehlen was surrounded by family at the time of her death. Dunlap said it was important to Coach Nehlen to care for his wife at their Morgantown home.

“Nobody took better care of their wife than Don did. He made sure she had good care throughout the whole illness. You’ve gotta give him credit for that. No doubt about it. She was at home and with family and friends the whole time,” Dunlap said.

Merry Ann is survived by Don, two children, Danny (Janie) and Vicky (Jeff Hostetler), along with five grandchildren and great grandchildren.

WVU athletics

Merry Ann Nehlen (front, fourth from left) in a family photo circa 2000. The wife of former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen passed away Monday night.

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