West Virginia University is honoring former head football coach Don Nehlen this weekend. There is a reception for him tonight and tomorrow his name will be placed along with other Mountaineer greats on the Diversified Energy Terrace.
This is an appropriate honor for the individual who, more than anyone, is the patriarch of the modern era of Mountaineer football. It was Nehlen, along with his talented and loyal staff, that resurrected a failing program and elevated it to national significance.
It was a climb that Nehlen’s mentor thought was impossible. Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler told Nehlen, who was an assistant coach for the Wolverines, that he would be crazy to take the job.
According to WVU sports historian John Antonik, Schembechler warned Nehlen of the tough schedule and tried to prepare him for the worst. “Every coach that’s ever coached there if they win, they leave, and if they lose, they get fired. This is just a huge mistake on your part.”
But Nehlen saw something that his boss didn’t. WVU was within driving distance of a lot of football talent, and the coach figured if he could get 15 or 20 of those good players every year, the staff could develop them into a competitive team. Also, WVU was building a new football stadium, and that would be a huge program boost.
Steve Dunlap was a defensive coach on Nehlen’s staff for 19 years, and he said Nehlen could adapt his schemes to the players he had. “When (quarterback) Major Harris was here, we had every option you could imagine. Then next he had (quarterback) Marc Bulger and we’re throwing the ball all over the park.”
Dunlap said one of Nehlen’s best attributes was his attitude. “He was always proud and positive about everything he did. He made the players think they were better than they were!”
Yes, there were ups and downs during Nehlen’s 21 years, and the coach had a couple chances to take other jobs, but the relationship endured until his retirement after the 2000 season. Along the way he accumulated many coaching honors, including the American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 1988 and selection to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Notably, Nehlen stayed in Morgantown even after retirement, and his roots grew deeper as his extended family settled in. As a head coach, Nehlen could be prickly, but his demeanor softened significantly after he left coaching.
He has said the memories of the wins and losses have faded over time, but the individual players are always there. They call and visit him. They share their reflections and thank him for the positive impact he had on their lives.
The rest of Mountaineer Nation will have the opportunity to do the same for Coach Nehlen Saturday.