Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Nehlen’s legacy is more than his record

by Forest “Jack” Bowman

Since Coach Don Nehlen was honored at Saturday’s game, it’s time to tell what I believe is a significant story from Don Nehlen’s time as our football coach.

I served as WVU’s faculty representative to the NCAA for 21 years. My job consisted mainly of certifying the academic eligibility of our student athletes.

Every January, at the beginning of the second semester, I attended the NCAA’s 3- to 4-day business and rule-making meeting with the athletic director. The first night of those meetings involved a huge reception attended by 1,500 delegates and their guests.

In 1982, the meeting was held in San Diego, Calif., and at that first night reception, Barbara Schaus and I were standing there marveling at the mass of people. (Fred was out somewhere in the mix at the moment, probably trying to bring the Final Four to WVU while also avoiding the Pitt delegation.)  

A delegate wearing a Michigan badge approached us. (Remember, we had brought Don Nehlen from Michigan as our football coach a couple years earlier.) The man looked at my badge and said, “West Virginia! You’re lucky to have Don Nehlen as your football coach.”

I said, “Yes, 9 and 3 and took us to the Gator Bowl.”

He said, “Oh, I don’t care about that. Don Nehlen won’t cheat.” And he walked away.

Seventeen years later, in the fall of 1999, I was serving on an NCAA Cabinet on Academic Integrity that was meeting in a high-rise building in downtown Atlanta. We had lost our opener that year to East Carolina and, during a lapse in conversation, I lamented that loss.

During a coffee break a few minutes later, Andy Geiger, the athletic director at Ohio State, came up to me and said, “You have a lot to be proud about at West Virginia. You have one of the half dozen or so self-supporting athletic programs in the country. You go to bowls every year — maybe not the big ones, but you keep your fans happy. You have an academic program to be proud of.” And then he jabbed me in the chest and said, “And you have a football coach who won’t cheat!”

Twice, two people involved in college football at the highest levels volunteered to me that our football coach, Don Nehlen, would not cheat. They were not responding to a question from me about whether he would cheat. They were going out of their way to announce to me, unprompted, that they knew Don Nehlen would not cheat. Period.

The lesson was clear to me: Don Nehlen was widely regarded within the higher echelons of college athletics as a coach who simply would not cheat.

When you add to this story Coach Nehlen’s absolute refusal to permit foul language in his program (there were, you will remember, no “F-bombs” from Don Nehlen on the sidelines!) and the way he treated his players and assistant coaches with kindness and respect, it’s clear he is a class act and we were blessed to have him coach our boys.

During his years as the head football coach of the Mountaineers, Don Nehlen never brought us a national championship (although he came close once). But in my opinion, he brought us something more valuable — a sterling reputation as an athletic leader we can truly be proud of.

After 21 years of watching athletic leaders across the country up close, I can say with pride that I don’t think it gets any better than that.

Forest “Jack” Bowman served as the WVU Faculty Representative to the NCAA from 1981 to 2002.