Coach Nehlen - Mountaineer Legend: Nehlen’s History at WVU

Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 5:12 PM EST
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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 fascinating history at the school for the second of this three-part series “Coach Nehlen - Mountaineer Legend.”

PART 1: Coach Nehlen - Mountaineer Legend: The History of the Flying WV

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was on the presidential ticket, a gallon of gas was $1.20 and Don Nehlen stepped into Morgantown to forever change the Mountaineers.

Going into the 1980s, the Mountaineers hadn’t had a winning season in four years, and it was time to look for a new head coach to turn the program around.

That’s where Don Nehlen comes in, an Ohio native with nine years of coaching experience under his belt at Bowling Green State University before spending three seasons on the Michigan Wolverines coaching staff.

Even with his experience, Coach Nehlen wasn’t sure if Morgantown would be the right fit for him. He was in an unfamiliar state signing on as the coach for a team that didn’t even have a field to play on.

The over $20 million Milan Puskar Stadium was under construction, and so was the team.

Nehlen was going to have to move some mountains to bring winning football back to Morgantown.

“When I came here, I had a lot of confidence. When I met my team here, I said, ‘uh oh’ I’m inheriting a team that thinks they’re losers,” said Nehlen, who was head coach of the Mountaineers from 1980 to 2000.

“Coach Nehlen and I started about the same time,” said WVU President Gordon Gee. “I was president the first time around and he was the new football coach. So, we got to know each other almost immediately and we had appointed a new athletic director. I was 36, I didn’t understand football and he explained it to me.”

“When coach got there, obviously they had struggled beforehand, that’s why they needed a new head coach. He had to install a new sense of belief that we could play with anybody and that was there, that was evident from the start,” said Rich Rodriguez, WVU Football’s head coach from 2001 to 2007.

“My job was to coach from here to here. So we spent the first six months coaching from here to here, and I convinced them we could win and that’s what I did,’ Nehlen said. “We turned it pretty quick. We won six games the first year. The second year we beat Florida in the Peach Bowl. Third year, we went to Norman, Oklahoma and beat Oklahoma. We won nine games three or four years in a row without ever cheating, without ever doing anything wrong. Not many teams have been able to take a program that was one of the 10 worst in America and turn it completely around in one year.”

“When you think West Virginia football, the first person that pops in my mind is Coach Nehlen,” said Neal Brown, WVU Football’s head coach since 2019. “He did it for such a long time. He did it the right way. His guys graduated; they did work in the community. I think his link to the children’s hospital is something that’s lasted the test of time. He won football games, regardless of what league they were in, he won football games.”

And win they did.

By 1988, Coach Nehlen had managed to do something no one thought they’d ever see.

“First undefeated season in the history of the program, and we did that twice. It’s hard to go undefeated, hard to do that,” Nehlen said.

“You know, right after we started to win, we had a very difficult time keeping him because everyone wanted to hire him. I remember we had a real tussle with the University of South Carolina that wanted to hire him. Credit to then Governor Rockefeller, he and I actually met in his residence and we worked out a package for him. When I was the president of Ohio State, I talked to Coach Nehlen about potentially coming and working for me there. So, I had my eye on this coach for a long time,” Gee said.

After 20 years of success, Coach Nehlen knew it was time to pass the torch.

“I was coming across Cheat Lake Bridge when I said, ‘You know what? I’m tired.’ I didn’t tell anybody, none of my staff,” Nehlen said. “I said ‘You know what? I think I’m going to retire.’ I think somebody younger than me is...”

“Coach Nehlen announced he retired and I’m like ‘This will be the perfect fit because I’m home.’ If you’re going to follow a legend, follow one you know and follow one you’ve played for. That’s kind of the approach I took. Because I went there, I said, ‘Well, I don’t know everything because I haven’t been there in ten years.’ I didn’t know everything and anything that was going on until I got the job and found out some stuff, but you know enough, so you’re comfortable you know, being the next person after Don Nehlen. I had so much respect for him and I told him, ‘I want you to be around the program.’ I wanted him to be welcomed because he’s the one that helped build that stadium and that program,” said Rodriguez.

“You cannot think about West Virginia and West Virginia University without thinking about the impact coach Nehlen has had across the state as well as the university,” Gee said.