MORGANTOWN — For the gazillionth time it seems, College Football Hall-of-Fame coach Don Nehlen was asked to reminisce about his 1988 West Virginia team.
“I don’t mind at all. They’re worth it,” he said.
Those Mountaineers — untouchable throughout an 11-0 regular season, overwhelming opponents by a 27-point average margin of victory — became the only football team in program history to play for a national championship.
On Saturday, they return to Morgantown for a 30th anniversary celebration.
“We had some fifth-year seniors and a dynamic young quarterback, so I thought we had a real shot to be good,” Nehlen recalled this week.
“Now, did I think we’d play for the national championship? Well, that’s a dream for everybody.”
The dream materialized against Notre Dame in the winner-take-all Fiesta Bowl, where the magical ride culminated in a slew of injuries and a 34-21 loss. Standout safety Darrell Whitmore had broken his leg in Week 11, and Heisman-finalist quarterback Major Harris was made one-dimensional by a separated shoulder on the opening series against the Irish.
“To be honest, I thought we were better than Notre Dame, but we had a lot of things go wrong and we just didn’t get it done that day,” Nehlen said.
“Still, their legacy is something no other West Virginia football team has ever done. What a great bunch of guys and a fun team.”
So fun, that a teenaged Dana Holgorsen became a fan 700 miles away in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
“I remember wearing a West Virginia sweatshirt my senior year in high school, and it was because of that ’88 team,” he said. “They were undefeated, and obviously Major Harris, Coach Don Nehlen and all of those guys I admired from afar.”
With dazzling scrambles and deep throws by Harris fueling the nation’s second-highest scoring offense, WVU dominated its first three opponents Bowling Green, Cal State Fullerton and Maryland by a combined 162-48.
In Week 4, the Mountaineers climbed into the top 10 by winning easily at No. 16 Pitt, 31-10.
“The last half of the ’87 season we really became a good football team, and those guys were all back,” Nehlen said. “I felt if we could get by Pitt up there, then we had a real chance.”
West Virginia hit its stride during a 59-19 blowout of Boston College and made an emphatic statement by emptying the bench in a 51-30 romp over Penn State.
Most impressive was a 31-9 dominance of No. 14 Syracuse in the regular-season finale at Mountaineer Field. Afterward, sports information director Shelly Poe approached Nehlen in the locker room.
She said, “Coach, nobody has left the stadium. They’re all here. All 60,000 of them. I think it’d be great if you let the team go back out there.”
When Nehlen took her advice, it led to what he called “maybe the most unbelievable scene in the history of West Virginia football” — those players and fans savoring the moment.
Some of emotions will come rushing back this weekend, though Nehlen said he’s proudest about what many of the players accomplished after graduation.
“It’s just great to see them again, to talk to them about their families and to hear what their kids are doing,” he said. “The wins and losses have a tendency to disappear as you get a little older, but your players just have a special place in your heart.
“I remember every one of them. I know where they’re from and I know most of their moms and dads. I remember being in their houses recruiting them. It seems like yesterday.”