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DON NEHLEN
Former West Virginia University Football Coach
Travels From
Morgantown, WV or Ft. Myers, FL
Topics
Motivation, Perseverance, Overcoming Adversity, Life Balance, Leadership, Sports, Coaches

 


 



 

Two hundred and two wins. Two undefeated seasons (in 1988 and 1993). The 1988 Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year. Thirteen bowl teams. Twenty-eight All-Americans. Six Academic All-Americans. Fifty-one NFL players.

Those are just some of the many accomplishments for Don Nehlen during his 21 seasons at the helm of the West Virginia football program.

Still, when Nehlen first set foot on the WVU campus on a December afternoon in 1979, to meet the press as the Mountaineers' new head coach, it wasn't a step he took without some trepidation.

"I wondered if I was making the right decision, and my wife wondered too. This was a job I hadn't even applied for in a state we knew little about.

 "I knew about the new stadium, but I wondered if the University and the people of the state were really serious about making a long-term commitment toward building a first-rate football program. I had confidence in myself as a coach, but that first day, I wasn't sure I had too many answers."

That was the start of his first season at West Virginia.

The 2000 season concluded his 21st, and the answer is obvious -- Don Nehlen was the answer for Mountaineer football.

His record -- including 15 winning seasons (21 overall as a head coach), the aforementioned bowl trips, two Lambert Trophies, the 1993 BIG EAST title, one of just 17 coaches in NCAA history to win 200 career games at the Divisions I level and the most successful coach in West Virginia's first century of football -- was built on more than Top 20 wins and bright new buildings. The foundation of his football program was always a sense of "family."

A good football man and a people person, he measures his success by the amount of people he reached and the lives he touched through Mountaineer football.

That includes his players and their families, his coaches and support staff, fans throughout the state and alumni around the world -- even opposing coaches, who respect Nehlen not because he beat nearly two-thirds of those he faced, but because of what he stands for. He's a down-to-earth guy who thinks the best things in life are his wife, his grandkids and hot fudge sundaes. He believes in honesty and preparation, and he believes that the discipline and lessons learned through football make you a better player in the game of life.

Nehlen is a teacher, who tries to instill his values in the people around him. Players liked to play for him, not just because nearly 32% ended up in professional football, or because 36% of them earned all-East honors, or because better than 91% made a trip to a bowl. They liked to play for him because, despite the odds, they felt they had a chance to win every game. They learned to handle adversity and achievement with character and class. And players knew that playing for Don Nehlen gave them an excellent opportunity of walking into his office with their Mom or Dad to show him their diplomas.

"You can talk about bowl games and polls and awards, but that's the most satisfying thing there is," says the coach. "Guys who make that commitment for four or five years -- they're special. They know what you mean by hard work, by teamwork, by perseverance, by dedication. Those aren't just words to them.”

In four-plus decades in the sport, Don Nehlen did a lot for the game of football. Especially West Virginia football.

When he took over the school's sagging program, WVU was coming off its fourth consecutive losing season. In nine decades, no West Virginia football team made two consecutive bowl appearances. Nehlen, who finished 149-93-4 in 21 seasons to become WVU's winningest football coach ever, made that era a distant memory.

 Nehlen played quarterback at Bowling Green from 1955-57, where he led Doyt Perry's team to a 21-2-4 record and one Mid-American Conference championship. He earned a bachelor's degree from Bowling Green in 1958 and a master's degree from Kent State.

After graduation, Nehlen paid his dues on the high school level, coaching at Canton South and also Canton McKinley. He gained collegiate experience at Cincinnati as backfield coach and served as defensive coordinator at his alma mater from 1965-68.

In 1968, Nehlen accepted the head coaching position at Bowling Green, where he turned in a 53-35-4 record during nine seasons. His 1974 team finished 8-3, Bowling Green's best record in a decade. Nehlen also earned the title of "Master of the Upset," coaching the Falcons to victories over Syracuse, Purdue and Brigham Young.

In 1977, Nehlen resigned to join Bo Schembechler's staff at Michigan as recruiting coordinator and quarterback coach. He remained in Ann Arbor until coming to Morgantown.

He and his wife Merry Ann have two children -- Danny, the Mountaineers' equipment manager who is married to the former Janie Gorda; and Vicky, who is married to former NFL quarterback Jeff Hostetler. Coach Nehlen is most proud of his five grandchildren -- Jason, Justin and Tyler Hostetler and Ryan and Danielle Nehlen.

 
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