Steve Dunlap thought he had blown his big opportunity to coach major college football.
This happened back in 1979 when he was one of two graduate assistant coaches remaining from Frank Cignetti’s staff and Don Nehlen was hired following the conclusion of the ’79 season, West Virginia’s fourth straight losing campaign.
Dunlap figured he had one shot to make a good first impression on Nehlen or else he was going to be like the rest of the Mountaineer coaches - unemployed.
“When Don came in he didn’t know any of us and since we were the graduate assistants and we were the pick-up-and-carry-the-stuff guys, he was coming in on an airplane from somewhere and I was supposed to pick him up at the Pittsburgh airport and take him to Shaler High School where (new assistant coach) Carl Battershell was waiting for us,” Dunlap recalled. “Well, back in those days there were no GPS or anything like that, it was in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and it was like a rat race up there.
“I was a nervous wreck. I got directions and everything and still got lost. We were driving all over the place up there and I’m saying to myself, ‘This is it. I’m done. I’m fired. This is the end of my coaching career.’ But coach was really nice about it. I was amazed because I thought I was done right there,” he laughed.
Dunlap will likely recall that story and many others about Mr. Mountaineer Football, Don Nehlen, when WVU players, coaches and administrators get together on Friday night at Waterfront Place Hotel to “roast” the hall of fame coach.
Others scheduled to appear on Friday night include former Pro Bowl quarterbacks Marc Bulger and Jeff Hostetler, College Football Hall of Famer Major Harris, ESPN college football analyst Anthony Becht (here in town to call Saturday’s Kansas game for ESPN2), long-time pro football standouts Rich Braham, Mike Logan, Aaron Beasley, Solomon Page and Amos Zereoue, and Dunlap, who spent 16 seasons working alongside Nehlen.
“I’ve been waiting 36 years to say this - and I’ve never done a roast before - but being that coach Nehlen was an offensive coach who always spent his time in the offensive meeting room, he was roasted many times in our defensive room,” Dunlap joked.
Dunlap remembered Nehlen being a “neat freak” who couldn’t stand to see the Puskar Center in disarray. He had strict rules about eating only in the dining area and would often walk around the office picking up after others.
Dunlap said coach also prided himself on being “thrifty.”
“When we would go recruiting together I always told him that McDonald’s is not fine dining,” Dunlap said.
And when those two hit the road looking for good players, Dunlap continued to get lost just as he did that time he first met Nehlen when he was a GA.
Dunlap recalled an occasion when he took Nehlen to Mike Compton’s house in Richlands, Virginia, just southwest of Bluefield, West Virginia.
“He lived like nine miles out this country road and you turn about three miles onto a gravel road, then you basically turn onto a field with two paths for tires before turning across a creek bed,” Dunlap said. “His grandmother’s house was set in the back of a box-in hollow.”
To make sure he knew where he was going, Dunlap made a dry run before he had to pick Nehlen up at the airport.
“Don flies in and we go out to see him in the car and it was one of those nights when they painted the sky black - you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you,” Dunlap said. “We kept getting closer and I wasn’t sure where to turn. I kept stopping the car and looking and he said. ‘Are you sure you know where you’re going?’ I turned left on the gravel road and then I turned on the path and he said, ‘Nobody lives out here, Steve. Are you crazy or what?’”
Then Dunlap made the turn across the creek bed to Compton’s grandmother’s house, failing to tell Nehlen that the creek was passable.
“He started screaming, ‘What are you doing?’” Dunlap laughed. “Of course, I didn’t tell him the creek was only four-inches deep.”
That visit went well and the Mountaineers ended up landing their third consensus All-American player - one of seven Nehlen helped develop at WVU.
Dunlap said Nehlen was always at his best during home visits, especially when it was a good player living in a good neighborhood.
“If you went to a really good home in a safe neighborhood and it was a good player, he’d spend an hour and a half there,” Dunlap chuckled. “But if it was a bad neighborhood, or a player that wasn’t as good, it was 30 minutes with his foot stuck out the door, ‘Let’s make this quick and get out of here!’”
Bulger, one of Friday’s roasters, happened to be one of those good players living in a good neighborhood.
“The minute my parents met coach Nehlen in my house it was game over,” Bulger recalled. “I visited Virginia Tech and I loved it and I was thinking about going there, but once my parents met coach Nehlen they said ‘that’s where you’re going’ and it was as simple as that.”
In fact, Nehlen made such a great impression on the Bulgers that they ended up sending the rest of their children to WVU to play for the women’s basketball team.
Bulger was immediately indoctrinated in the Mountaineer football way, and learned quickly from Nehlen that his hometown Pitt Panthers were Public Enemy No. 1 in West Virginia.
“When I was there, that was the one thing about coach Nehlen … the first meeting I was ever there it was, ‘Beat Pitt.’ That was the one game on the schedule - I don’t care if we were playing Ohio State or Notre Dame - when I was there Pitt was always the No. 1 game. Being a kid who pretty much grew up on the campus in Pittsburgh, to go to West Virginia and then fall in love with the place, he’s just a special, special guy.”
Bulger said he was never a big Panther fan anyway, but since coming to West Virginia he always gets a bad taste in his mouth whenever he sees Pitt’s logo these days.
That’s surprising considering he made a career out of beating the Panthers during his four years at WVU.
“They did help my career,” Bulger joked, “but they actually told me - and I won’t mention names - that I would never play Division II football, let alone Division I. I have to give coach (Dave) McMichael and coach Nehlen credit for recruiting me.”
Anthony Becht, who lobbied to get Saturday’s Kansas telecast in order to return to Morgantown for Friday’s event, was another overlooked player who benefitted from Don Nehlen’s great football instincts.
Becht didn’t have a single Division I offer coming out of high school and WVU assistant coach Bill Kirelawich, who recruited Eastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey at the time, asked one of his coaching buddies at Delaware to offer Anthony a scholarship to help him get Becht approved by the other coaches.
“See,” Kirelawich told the staff, “people are starting to come after this Anthony Becht kid! We better take him now before we lose him!”
Coach Don Nehlen, pictured here with quarterback Major Harris, during West Virginia's game against Notre Dame in the 1989 Sunkist Fiesta Bowl played in Tempe, Arizona. WVU Athletic Communications photo.
Nehlen knew better, but he also trusted his coaches and when you build an organization based on trust, good things happen. Becht went on to become a first-round draft pick and had a productive 12-year career in the NFL.
“Sometimes you get a feeling about some guys and I’m just glad they had a feeling about me and I got the opportunity,” Becht said.
Now a noted college football analyst, Becht said there isn’t a college campus he goes to where Don Nehlen’s name isn’t recognized by someone - 16 years after his retirement in 2000.
“He’s someone who started from the ground up at a university that wasn’t quite there and built something from the bottom,” Becht said. “He created something that put us on the map moving forward. His success and being able to do it for such a long period of time just doesn’t happen anymore. You get three, four years sometimes these days, plus, guys move on and leave. He stayed the course and didn’t just go and grab the money.”
Bulger, too, has benefitted from Don Nehlen’s good name during his long and successful football career.
“You pretty much take him for granted when you are around him,” Bulger admitted. “That was pretty much my first interaction with a major coach and then playing in the NFL for 11 years, I got to meet a lot of personalities. But being around coach Nehlen, he’s the classiest person I’ve ever been associated with in football. I literally try to emulate how he acts in public and private and I’m going to try and put that into words on Friday night.”
Bulger admitted it will be hard to “roast” a man who is so well-respected and admired as Don Nehlen.
Dunlap will have an easier time, for sure, but he, too, will struggle to find the right words to describe what Nehlen has meant to him, the University and the state of West Virginia.
“What people need to know about coach Nehlen is he never moved away,” Dunlap said. “Same with me. This is home to me. I’ve been here now for 30 years. The bottom line is he believed in West Virginians, which has meant more than anything to me.”
Friday’s three-hour event at the Waterfront Place hotel will begin at 6 p.m. with a cocktail hour before the roast begins at 7 p.m. Veteran play-by-play man Tony Caridi will serve as master of ceremonies for the evening.