Coach Nehlen - Mountaineer Legend: The History of the Flying WV

Published: Nov. 15, 2023 at 5:04 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va (WDTV) - On Saturday, legendary West Virginia University Football Coach Don Nehlen will be immortalized at Milan Puskar Stadium as one of the best to ever do it at WVU.

5′s Tanner Gilmartin spoke with Coach Nehlen to talk about his career and legacy for the first of this three-part series “Coach Nehlen - Mountaineer Legend.”

Nehlen is credited with many accomplishments at WVU, including 13 bowl games, a Big East title and being the winningest coach in WVU history.

But few may be aware that Nehlen’s impact goes far beyond the Gridiron. It stretches all the way to the Flying WV.

When Nehlen accepted the head coaching position for WVU football in 1979, he knew getting started in Morgantown wouldn’t be easy.

The Mountaineers were coming off their fourth straight losing season. Players and fans alike were giving up on the program.

Coach Nehlen knew there needed to be a change, and that started with the team’s identity.

“Not only are you proud of what you accomplished on the field, but you look at how big of a role you played in the development—the image of the team, that’s pretty great. You go to the grocery store; someone is wearing that logo,” Gilmartin said.

“Yeah, that logo and that blue helmet; that’s what I wanted to do,” Nehlen said. “You know, when I left Michigan, one of the things about Michigan is that everybody recognizes their helmet. They all know what that Michigan helmet is, and that’s what I wanted here. For 21 years, the only helmet you ever saw was that dark blue with the ‘WV’. I think the great football teams have a suit. A home suit and an away suit, but that’s because I’m old.”

Although he may now consider himself old, back then Nehlen’s new idea would soon change the image of the entire university.

Nehlen gave us a peak into his meeting with the athletic department some 40 years ago.

“We came up with the ‘W’ with the ‘V’, and it was kind of goofy,” Nehlen said. “Then (the athletic director) said, ‘My brother is an artist.’ Then I said, we need this to scale—this ‘WV’. So, we sent the helmet and the ‘WV’ out there, and he made it to scale. He brought it back, and we made about a thousand of them and put one on both sides of that blue helmet. People used to write me a letter and say, ‘Hey Don, where can I get that WV?’ I had a form letter, and my secretary would send my form letter back and we would put that ‘WV’ in there and send it to them.”

What Nehlen didn’t realize is sending that first letter opened up a can of worms. Two seasons later, a situation came up that he wouldn’t be able to handle on his own.

“When we beat Oklahoma, I got so many requests for that ‘WV’ that I made the biggest mistake of my life. I turned it over to the athletic department. I said, ‘Hey, I’m not in the logo business, get me out.’ If I would’ve had an agent, I would have bought Channel 5,” Nehlen said.

Ryan Minnigh, the owner and operator of 304 Collector Corner, says to him, the Flying WV is one of the most important and recognizable logo he looks for.

“Being a collector, obviously there are a lot of things I collect. WVU is certainly a prominent part of my collection,” Minnigh said. “When it comes to WVU, I want the Flying WV logo. A lot of these guys go pro, and you can have them in whatever pro uniform they have and that makes for a cool car, makes for a cool piece, but being a West Virginian, being somebody who’s graduated from here, the ‘Flying WV’ just means more. In fact, I look for cards that have it prominently, whether it’s a patch, whether it’s just on the card itself as a background, those cards obviously mean more. Anything that’s WVU related, that’s an immediate interest for the collection, whatever it may be.”

Although the Flying WV may seem to be nothing more than two letters stacked together, it holds a meaning engraved in generations of Mountaineers fans.

“A lot of times, the best logos are easy to recognize because you want something that has that identity that we talked about, something that’s just easy to see and say ‘Hey, that’s West Virginia’, that’s what whatever symbol you’re looking for specifically,” said Minnigh. “So, being able to see it wherever it’s projected, whether it’s a field, whether it’s a shirt, whether it’s a hat, whether it’s a card, it doesn’t matter. It just pops. I think for those who have a connection to it, whatever it is, it’s immediately recognizable and you feel drawn to it. Being able to walk out into the community, we all share that same pride. I would say, in a lot of college towns, they don’t have that same pride and again, it’s not a negative towards them, I think what it means is we’re willing to stick together, through thick and thin. As soon as we put that logo on, we’re part of that deeper family.”

“You know, football been my whole life. Everything that has ever happened to me is because of football. When I look back and I think about that, it’s just amazing,” Nehlen said.

Parts 2 and 3 of “Coach Nehlen - Mountaineer Legend” will air on Thursday and Friday, respectively.