MORGANTOWN — Saturday’s win over Cincinnati was an important one for the West Virginia football team. Not only did it push the Mountaineers to seven wins, their most under fifth-year head coach Neal Brown, but it also came on the day when the University honored former head coach Don Nehlen.
Nehlen, whose 149 wins at WVU are the most ever, was honored after the first quarter when his name was added to the Diversified Energy Terrance inside Milan Puskar Stadium alongside the Mountaineers’ six retired numbers.
“I’m glad our crowd gave him a long ovation there,” Brown said. “At the event (Friday) night there were a ton of former players and people who were connected to the program during his time. I’m just glad he was able to enjoy that. What a well-deserved, well-earned honor.”
WVU won the game easily, 42-21, and rushed for a season-high 424 yards in the process.
“Our players did understand the magnitude of him getting honored and we did a good job on Friday educating them about him and what he was able to accomplish here,” Brown said. “They knew that this was a game not only we needed to win to get to seven (wins), but a day that we’re recognizing Coach Nehlen, we need to play our best.”
Following the ceremony, Nehlen joined the broadcast booth on ESPN+ to discuss the moment.
“It’s been humbling to be honest about it,” Nehlen told commentators Jorge Sedano and Orlando Franklin. “I never dreamed my name would be up there with the greats…I was shocked, I had no idea that they would do something like that.”
Nehlen came to WVU in 1980 and his first game was the debut of the newly-constructed Milan Puskar Stadium.
“We had 50,000 people here,” he recalled. “I was so nervous for that game because everyone in the state was so excited. 50,000 people, at that time, that was the biggest city in the state of West Virginia. It was unbelievable.”
Fittingly, Nehlen’s first game was also a win over the Bearcats, 41-27, on Sept. 6, 1980.
“The governor was here and we had a great time that day,” Nehlan said. “John Denver sang ‘Country Roads’ and away we went.”
WVU went 33-15 in Nehlen’s first four seasons with three straight nine-win campaigns from 1981-83. The team was just 17-27 in the four seasons prior to Nehlen’s arrival.
“When I came here, the program was kind of in a funk,” he said. “They had had four straight losing seasons and my first team I never had a kid on the team that had ever played on a winning team. That entire spring I just had to work from the chin up. I had to make them believe that they could become winners.”
Part of Nehlen’s success at WVU came from an, at the time, ambitious recruiting strategy. He went beyond the bounds of West Virginia to bring in loads of out-of-state talent.
“When I came here, I got on an airplane and flew over West Virginia and all I saw was trees,” Nehlen said. “I said ‘I don’t think there are many players in those trees.’ When I fly over Ohio I see rooftops, when I fly over New Jersey I see rooftops and there are kids in those houses. There were very few football players in the state of West Virginia in 1980…I took a circle and I went a 300 to 400-mile radius around Morgantown and that’s where we concentrated, along with the state of Florida.”
Nehlen was one of the first coaches outside of the South to start to recruit players out of Florida and bring them up north.
“I just told them ‘Boy oh boy, you’re going to love those mountains when you go up there,’” he said with a laugh. “And then when they got up here, I just prayed we wouldn’t have a snowstorm.”
It didn’t take long for Nehlen to propel the Mountaineers to new heights as the team went 11-0 in 1988 and played Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the National Championship.
“The big thing we did was we made the state proud of the football program,” Nehlen said. “The whole state just became excited. At that time, they were down a little bit and they just became excited about football. They were always excited about basketball here. Jerry West had a legacy and we gave them a legacy for football. Nobody ever dreamed we could play for the national championship in football and we did it.”
WVU again went 11-0 and played for a share of the national title in 1994 in the Sugar Bowl against Florida.
While Nehlen coached his last game in 2000, he has remained around the program ever since. Brown said Nehlen speaks to the team a few times every year and his son, Danny Nehlen, has been the team’s equipment manager since 1988.
With his name now displayed inside the stadium, Nehlen will remain connected with the program for a long, long time to come.