Coach Nehlen - Mountaineer Legend: Nehlen’s Lasting Impact at WVU

Published: Nov. 17, 2023 at 5:47 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
PART 2: Coach Nehlen - Mountaineer Legend: Nehlen’s History at WVU

When you think of Mountaineer football, you think of a team who embodies the entire state. A group of hard working players who put it all on the line when they step out of the tunnel week after week. And you can trace that work ethic back to one man - Coach Don Nehlen.

“He was very old school. You know, he lived by the rules. He wanted to make sure we always a program that had immense integrity. And we certainly always had that under his leadership -- 21 years,” said WVU President E. Gordon Gee.

“I hope other coaches will try to emulate his qualities. I mean, I never had to worry about his integrity. I never had to doubt whether he was dedicated to the university and would do the right thing whether anyone was looking or not. That’s a great asset to a university to have a coach like that,” said David Hardesty, WVU president from 1995 to 2007.

“I’ll tell you something that was really special to me. I land in Morgantown, first day on the job, I just accepted it the day before, and Coach Nehlen is here at the facility. That’s something I thought was really special. It’s something that meant a lot to me. And he’s been there the whole time, been very supportive,” said WVU Football Head Coach Neal Brown.

You know people, players especially, want to see if you’re genuine. You know, this is who you are every day. That’s what Coach Nehlen is. You know, he’d get after you if he had to get after you but he’s also a laugh and enjoy himself and the staff, and that’s who he was. He didn’t try to be someone he wasn’t. That personality is on that program,” said Rich Rodriguez, WVU Football’s head coach from 2001 to 2007.

It’s something we heard from everyone we spoke to. Coach Nehlen’s true legacy at WVU is the integrity he showed everyday.

But it’s almost contagious, the words and actions Nehlen preaches seem to light a fire and ignite his players to follow in his footsteps, giving back to the community.

“And he made a point to me. The older he gets, the further he gets away from his coaching profession, he understands it’s not about the wins and losses -- it’s about the relationships. He was talking about being around that ‘93 group and what some of those guys have accomplished, as a father, as people in the community, in their profession. He was saying those are the things that really mean to him the further he gets away.”

“Like I say, I love these kids. I love these kids when I came here. And we set the bar high. And I told em, you gotta understand. I’m glad you’re here, but some of you are probably going to leave. Because we’re going to make a commitment to excellence in everything you do. And those of you who are masquerading as football players are going to leave. Because when I get through with you in the winter program, in spring practice, if you don’t love football, you’re gonna leave because I’m gonna hurt you.”

That tough love helped produce some of the top talent in the nation.

Throughout his time at WVU, Nehlen coached over 50 players who would go onto the NFL.

But when people think of him, that’s not the first thing that comes to mind.

“You know, he’s our most successful coach. He’s also someone who has made such a difference in terms of the quality of life in the state. You can see the man in his retirement years. He’s out there raising money for charities. His children and in-laws are involved. He speaks out on behalf of various causes. You know, the coach is more than a football coach. He also speaks out on issues. He is engaged on civic responsibilities. He’s constantly attending and doing. He’s doing his best to make this a better state, better university, better town. And that’s the way he’s always been. You know, I just want to wish him well. I think the world of him of course. He had a great career -- not just there, he had a great career in caching. He’s impacted a lot of people.”

And it’s undeniable; Coach Nehlen has a history of success. 200 total collegiate victories, Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year and even an induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.

“Without a doubt, we would not be in the Big 12 today, one of the premier leagues in the country. We would not be competitive nationally without the coach really having done a great job.”

But at the end of the day, Don Nehlen is more than just a coach. He’s a shining example of how one man can make a difference in thousands of lives, all through the love of the game. He’s a hard worker, a family man, maybe a bit of a dreamer.

You can call Coach Nehlen many things, but at the top of that list - legend.