Bo Schembechler may have taught Don Nehlen the value of loyalty, but no one Nehlen knows has demonstrated it better than Donnie Young.
West Virginia University will recognize Young's outstanding 46 years of service to the athletic department during this evening's Gold-Blue spring game. First as a player in the early 1960s for Gene Corum, and then for four decades working for Bobby Bowden, Frank Cignetti, Don Nehlen, Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart, Young's name has been synonymous with Mountaineer football.
"Bobby Bowden hired him. Frank Cignetti kept him. Don Nehlen kept him. Rich Rodriguez kept him and Bill Stewart kept him," said Nehlen. "The fact remains that Donnie is such a special person and was so instrumental in the success that we've had here for many years."
Nehlen recalled how difficult it was recruiting blue-chip players to West Virginia when he first arrived in 1980 and how Young, then serving as the team's recruiting coordinator, was able to keep the program moving along in the right direction until the new staff was able to get their feet on the ground.
"He found a lot of diamonds in the rough, so to speak," Nehlen said. "Donnie was a good evaluator. My first two or three years here we couldn't recruit anybody but Mid-American Conference football players. We played for the national championship in 1988 and we only had one guy (Brian Smider) that was offered by hardly anybody.
"And Donnie found them."
Young, from Clendenin, W.Va., used to wonder if he was good enough to play for the Mountaineers as a 190-pound guard. Then he saw them struggle to beat Richmond during the school's lean years and he realized that playing football for West Virginia University was not out of the question.
"When I first came here and I looked over at the defense and I see this guy about 5-10, about 165 or 170, and he's got his number tucked inside his pants and at first I figured he was a safety or something," said teammate Garrett Ford. "And then they told me he was our starting tackle in the 6-2 defense. I could not believe that he was only that big and could play where he did on defense, but Donnie was a tough guy and he made the tackles."
"That is one of the reasons why the players respected him so much because he played the game too," said West Virginia assistant coach Steve Dunlap, who played linebacker for Young in the mid-1970s. "He was an undersized guy like me who played the game at a high level.
"But he used to tell everybody that he was a linebacker," Dunlap joked.
After earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees at WVU, Young spent three years coaching Salem College before joining Bowden's Mountaineer staff in 1970. Once Young got back here, he never left.
"I know he could have gone to Florida State (with Bowden)," said Nehlen. "I'm sure he probably had other opportunities to leave, but he wanted to stay at West Virginia."
"You talk about the most loyal Mountaineer," said Ford. "I mean Donnie was loyal to Coach Bowden, to Frank Cignetti and to every single coach that has been here. They knew Donnie was that type of person. Donnie was the academic counselor when I first came here and I learned a lot from him and I realized how hard it was to coach a position, plus handle the academic responsibilities too."
Those who know Young today see an easy-going, grandfatherly figure, but Dunlap said he was a very tough football coach when he was on the field.
"Everybody thinks he's a pushover, guess what, you ask anybody who ever played for him and he could be very challenging," Dunlap said.
"He about killed me one day," Dunlap explained. "All of the linebackers got hurt but me and another guy and we went first team, second team and third team for the whole practice. I lost like 10 pounds that I really didn't need to lose. I went home and drank a gallon of water and slept for 12 hours."
"Donnie demanded a lot, but the way he demanded it was a little different than some people," said Nehlen. "He just knew how to handle people."
No West Virginia player benefitted more from Young's people skills than consensus All-American linebacker Canute Curtis.
Curtis, now an assistant coach at Towson, admitted that he was a handful for all of the coaches when he first left Long Island and arrived in Morgantown.
"He was my guy, for sure," said Curtis of Young. "Everything I've done I owe it to him. He always kind of had my back, even when I was dead wrong. When I was wrong he would support me and then when we got by ourselves he would say 'hey Canute, you know you were wrong there.' I think that's why I respected him so much.
"He handled me perfectly," Curtis added. "I was a very immature kid and I was a kid that had to trust people before I was willing to perform, and he built that trust with me."
For example, Curtis recalled being dead set on playing linebacker in college and the defensive coaches believing that he was more suited to play on the line of scrimmage at defensive end in the 4-3 scheme they were using at the time. Eventually a comprise was reached and what came out of that compromise likely had Donnie Young's fingerprints all over it.
"They called me a rush linebacker because I didn't want to be a defensive end," Curtis chuckled. "Really what it was was a glorified defensive end that dropped every now and then. He just had a way of handling difficult kids with different personalities."
Nehlen said he can't recall Young ever making an emotional decision in all of the years he has known him.
"If we would run into a problem or two and all of the guys were 'oh man we've got to do this' Donnie would say 'hey coach, let's just sleep on it. Let's see what we think about it in the morning. The world is not going to come to an end in the next 24 hours, so let's just check it out then,'" Nehlen said. "He was just a cool customer."
"There are no bad stories about Donnie," added Ford. "Donnie is probably the nicest guy I have ever been around in all my years of involvement with athletics. I know Frank (Cignetti) used to consult him because Donnie knew people; he knew how to interact with people and how to get to know people."
Young also had a soft spot in his heart for West Virginians, perhaps because he saw a little of himself in all of those hard-working and sometimes under-appreciated kids who were given the opportunity to play college football and earn their degrees.
"He recruited me, coached me and he was the one who got me into coaching," said Dunlap. "He's just a wonderful man."
"I think he had an eye for guys and giving guys a chance who weren't necessarily the great-looking kid physically," said Curtis. "I think he saw things in people that other people didn't see. He always sees the good in people and he was always able to get great things out of us because he always showed us respect and treated us with dignity."
"Half the game is your brawn and the other half is your brain and that's what he taught me," said Dunlap. "I knew nothing when I came here playing linebacker and he taught me everything I ever knew."
Curtis is disappointed he can't be in Morgantown today to help honor the man that has meant so much to him because Towson's spring game is also taking place this afternoon. But he said his thoughts will be with his old coach.
"There is no place I'd rather be than there and it's a shame that I can't be there," said Curtis. "That's the one thing about our profession because of things like this. You miss weddings, birthdays, your kid's basketball games and other things that I should be at.
"I think he was a great coach, but I think he's an even better man and a better person," Curtis concluded.
Today’s action will get underway with the old-timer’s game at 5:30 p.m. followed by the Gold-Blue spring game at 6 p.m.
Fans can enjoy a free concert performed by Taylor Made in the K-4 parking area on the West side of the stadium. The concert, presented by Coca-Cola, will begin at 3:30 pm.
Also, Mountaineer football players will be available to sign autographs in the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility from 1 to 2:45 p.m.