MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A hot, up and coming assistant coach from a big-time program coming in to rejuvenate the Mountaineer football program. Sounds like Dana Holgorsen, right? Well, that was actually the impression people had of Don Nehlen when he took over West Virginia’s football program in 1980.
Nehlen was an assistant coach on Bo Schembechler’s staff at Michigan in 1979 when he was hired just before the Wolverines were to face North Carolina in the Gator Bowl.
“I told them, ‘If you want me there before the bowl game you go hire somebody else because I’m responsible for a certain part of Bo’s offense and he’s been damned good to me and I’m not going to walk out on him. That’s not the way I operate,’” Nehlen recalled recently. “Bo Schembechler is a very loyal guy and he expects loyalty from his coaches, but I’ll have my coaching staff hired and some of them will be in Morgantown before I will. They were great and they told me that was fine.”
Nehlen repaid West Virginia with 21 seasons of his own loyalty, taking the Mountaineers to 13 bowl games, including an appearance in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl to face Notre Dame for the national championship. Nehlen and former Mountaineer coaches Jim Carlen, Bobby Bowden and Frank Cignetti will be at the Waterfront Place Hotel at 4 p.m. on Friday, April 29, to share their personal stories as part of a Coaches’ “Chalk Talk” Round Table event, presented by Charleston law firm Bucci, Bailey & Javins, LC. It is really a once in a lifetime event for Mountaineer football enthusiasts.
The four coaches have combined to win 885 games and two national championships while taking 54 different teams to bowl appearances.
“That’s pretty darn good,” said Nehlen.
Bowden and Nehlen are in the College Football Hall of Fame with Carlen currently on the ballot. And although Cignetti’s four-year tenure at WVU was not very successful, he later became one of the top coaches in Division II, leading IUP to 13 Division II playoff appearances, two trips to the Division II national championship game and 16 years in the final national rankings, including the top spot in the polls in 1991.
“Frank is a heck of a coach, he was just here at the wrong time,” said Nehlen. “There were no facilities to recruit. I don’t care who the coach was here at West Virginia during that time, plus the schedule was just so hard.”
Nehlen has ties to all four coaches. At WVU he followed Cignetti, who stayed on the staff in an administrative role for a few years before taking the IUP job; Nehlen almost followed Carlen at South Carolina in 1981, and he coached against Bowden in the 1982 Gator Bowl.
“The only one I don’t know very well is Carlen,” Nehlen said. “When I first got the job up at Bowling Green (in 1968) I drove down to Morgantown and Carlen was the head coach and I think Bobby was an assistant coach. I don’t remember why I came down, probably just to watch them practice and talk football with them, and then Jim came back for a Fellowship of Christian Athletes function and I had a chance to meet him a little bit.”
Nehlen also had an opportunity to get to know Bowden a little bit through the years as their paths crossed.
“I talked with Bobby when he was the coach here because I was at Bowling Green,” Nehlen said. “He recruited Youngstown and some of those places that I recruited and I saw Bobby on the road a little bit and we’d chat.”
Nehlen came to West Virginia in 1980 at a time when the program was undergoing major changes, from a new football stadium to a schedule that featured a number of top-ranked football programs. Pitt was the best it ever was, Penn State was a consistent top 10 program, Maryland was making frequent appearances in the top 25 and the intersectional schedule featured games against Oklahoma, Arizona State, NC State, Kentucky and California.
“And you had Virginia Tech and Boston College,” Nehlen pointed out. “I later had Ohio State a couple of times. I had Notre Dame two or three times, and the Big East with Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College was much, much more difficult than it is today.”
Nehlen learned early from former Bowling Green coach Doyt Perry that the secret to success for any football coach was the type of schedule he faced.
“Doyt taught the football class at Bowling Green and the No. 1 thing he always talked about was a great schedule,” Nehlen pointed out. “He explained to you what a great schedule was – if you were an athletic director this is what you shoot for. Remember, this is back in the 50s when it was a nine-game schedule.
“He said, ‘You play five games on there that your chances of winning are very, very strong. Then two of the next four, you’ve got about a 50-50 chance to win, and the other two you’ve got to reach for the moon to win.’ He said, ‘That is going to guarantee you winning all of the time and keep people interested in the program.’”
For the majority of Nehlen’s career, he was able to follow that sound piece of advice. However, in 1994 after West Virginia was coming off a Sugar Bowl appearance against Florida, the school was presented with an opportunity to pick up $750,000 playing Nebraska in the Kickoff Classic. It was cash the department simply could not turn down at that point in time.
“I remember telling (athletic director Ed Pastilong), ‘Do you realize we don’t have a quarterback that’s ever taken a snap, we have no offensive line and you want me to open with Nebraska?’” Nehlen said.
The coach fully realized what he was up against later that spring when good friend Tom Osborne invited him out to Nebraska to speak at the school’s football banquet.
“I called Tom up and said, ‘Hey Tom, since we scheduled this game maybe you don’t want me to come.’ He said, ‘Don I’ve used the same playbook for 22 years and I’m not going to change it for you guys,’” Nehlen recalled. “So I go out there and he walks me around their spring practice and I met every one of his players. You talk about being sick. That was as good a looking football team that I ever saw.”
Nehlen admits the reason he was able to turn around the Mountaineer program so quickly was because he had two terrific quarterbacks in a row in Oliver Luck and Jeff Hostetler.
“Had Jeff not transferred in we would have never turned that program because there were no other quarterbacks of that caliber and we couldn’t recruit any,” Nehlen said. “But Kevin White (1984 starter) turned out to be a lot better than we thought. He was a kid in Arizona who happened to play for a high school coach that we knew. This guy comes in at 5-11 and 155 pounds and I’m saying, ‘Holy mackerel, who are we going to beat with this guy?’ But we did it.”
Nehlen may have been raised on Midwestern football, but he was able to adapt and change during his 21-year career at West Virginia. Go look in the record book and you will see most of the school’s passing records are held by Don Nehlen’s quarterbacks.
“We did what we could do with what we had,” Nehlen explained. “I get a kick out of people when they introduce me and they say, ‘Don Nehlen: three yards and a cloud of dust.’ We threw more passes than anyone ever here.”
Nehlen will likely throw a few more on April 29 at the Waterfront Place Hotel sitting next to Carlen, Bowden and Cignetti.
Individual tickets are available for $100 per person and a table of 10 can be reserved for $1,000 by calling the Mountaineer Athletic Club toll-free at 1-800-433-2072. Proceeds from the event will benefit the student-athlete experience at West Virginia University.
“It should be fun,” Nehlen said.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik