The hiring of a new football coach comes with a great deal of excitement and anticipation. Fans and administrators alike begin to form their own expectations for their program’s new leader.
There was a definite buzz surrounding the hiring of Jim Carlen as head coach at West Virginia University during the late 1960’s, but no one could have envisioned that the 32-year-old Tennessean would change the program in such a way that his impact would have a ripple effect for years to come.
When Jim Carlen first stepped foot on the WVU campus in 1966 he brought with him four assistants, zero head coaching experience, a strong southern accent, and a blueprint of exactly how a successful college football program should be run.
Carlen’s coaching philosophy mirrored that of legendary Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd, who Carlen played for from 1948-52. As a defensive center at Georgia Tech, Carlen won two Southeastern Conference championships under Dodd, along with a national title in 1952.
“He was hard, but not unreasonable,” remembers Carlen when asked about Dodd. “You always knew where you stood with him because he told you exactly what he meant.”
Carlen learned from Dodd that player treatment was a key component for success. Shorty after his arrival at WVU, Carlen did away with the annual tradition of holding grueling summer practices at Jackson's Mill. Carlen favored shorter, more precise practices over long, physical sessions. He also implemented "Coke" breaks for his players during practice.
“He took great interest in everyone. The poor players, the great players, it didn’t matter. We had tons of All-Americans, but he didn’t treat them any different,” remembers Carlen when speaking about his former coach.
Like Dodd, Carlen treated all of his players equal and with respect.
The football program at WVU did not become integrated until the season prior to Carlen’s arrival, and racial tension still lingered into the late 1960’s. Carlen was the first coach in the program’s history to heavily recruit outside of West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. He was also a pioneer in recruiting black athletes to West Virginia.
“I had a reporter ask me one time if I thought it was okay for blacks and whites to play together. They used to ask me, ‘Coach how do you get along with them (black players)?’
“I would say, ‘What? Of course I get along with them, they are my players. Why wouldn’t I get along with them?’ One reporter said, ‘We have a crazy coach.’ Well it turned out I wasn’t so crazy. We all got along just fine, and we were winning nine and ten ball games a year.”
One of the first prominent black players at West Virginia University was Garrett Ford. Ford, who currently serves as assistant athletic director at WVU, became the first Mountaineer to top both 2,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 yards in a single season. He accomplished this feat during Carlen’s first year at the helm.
“He is truly a salt of the earth kind of guy,” says Carlen when asked about Ford.
Ford is quick to return the same sentiment when asked about his former coach. “He was just a great person,” said Ford. “He taught me how to be a man during a real tender time when America was going through a transition. Here I was a black kid from Washington, D.C, and in comes these coaches from Birmingham and Atlanta. He taught me that people are people. I still can’t bring myself to call him ‘Jim,’ he will always be Coach Carlen to me.”
“We had good players and good kids,” says Carlen. “I loved every one of them.”
Carlen was very much a “player’s coach,” but at the same time he demanded respect from his athletes on and off the field.
“I was interested in students as athletes, not the other way around,” said Carlen. “I came from Georgia Tech, and it was an engineering school, we put an emphasis on academics.”
“I did not have to browbeat them, all I had to do was ask. I’d say, ‘We need to do better in school. You fellas haven’t been studying enough so now we have study hall.’” Or I’d say, “We’re not getting enough out of you in practice, let’s concentrate better.’ I’ve never been one for shouting and hollering.”
It didn’t take long for the young coach from Tennessee to make an impression on the people of West Virginia as well, and vice versa.
“The state of West Virginia has great people and Morgantown is a great, great town. I’ve never forgotten West Virginia,” said Carlen.
“The people and fans played a big part in our success. They’re the ones that jumped into the briar patch, came to the games and helped us recruit. Instead of going to motels to stay when I was on the road recruiting, I would go stay at an alumni’s house. I always said the food is better and the price is right.”
During his time at West Virginia, Carlen went out of his way to return the hospitality to the people whom he credits for a large part of his success.
“I got to know the people, the faculty, and ultimately the president of the school. I told him, ‘I’m not Superman, but if there is anything I can do to help solve a problem here, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with athletics, I’m available,’” said Carlen.
“I reached out to the students on campus as well. I spoke to a lot of campus organizations, fraternities, sororities, or anyone that would listen. I had a good time and everywhere I went they treated me fairly and they put up with me I guess you could say.”
Carlen even went as far as to petition for better roads in West Virginia.
“When I was there, the roads didn’t say much for the state,” recalls Carlen while talking about the ten hours it used to take him to get to the southern part of the state to recruit.
“Some of the politicians would ask, ‘Coach, what can we do to help you?’ I’d tell them to build some decent roads. Not just for me, but for the fans and the people of this state, help them out. For laughs, you should drive from Morgantown to Charleston on the old road. I guarantee you will be talking to yourself by the time you get there.”
On December 21, 1967 the first piece of Interstate-79 opened connecting northern and southern West Virginia, almost two-years to the day after Carlen’s arrival.
Carlen also took pride in the fact that he was able to surround himself with quality coaches. By doing so allowed him more time to manage the team, while leaving most of the X’s and O’s up to his assistants.
“One thing I could do better than any other coach in the country was that I could find good assistants, and when they got here I would let them coach,” says Carlen.
“My coaches did most of the coaching, and they’ll tell you that right off the bat. They should get 95% of the credit. If you think you’re the only coach, you’re in trouble. I put together a good staff, all the way down to the trainers. That’s the key to success anywhere you go. “
Through his hiring of one particular assistant, Carlen is responsible for launching the career of one of the greatest coaches the college game has ever seen.
“I brought Bobby (Bowden) with me to West Virginia. Before I left, I pushed for him to get the head coaching job there. He told me later, ‘You know coach, I wasn’t quite ready. You handled the discipline and all of the off-the-field stuff, and I was just enjoying the coaching aspect, but you got me started and I can’t thank you enough.’”
During his four-year stint at WVU, Carlen improved his win total each season. In 1969, Carlen’s team sent him away a winner after upsetting nineteenth-ranked South Carolina, 14-3, in the Peach Bowl. The win gave the Mountaineers their first 10-win season since 1922.
Before their invitation to the Peach Bowl in 1969, the major bowl committees routinely passed on the Mountaineers. This fact did not sit well with Coach Carlen.
“I made a call to Coach Dodd and asked him to contact some people he knew at the Peach Bowl. Twenty-four hours later they (Peach Bowl Committee) called and we got invited. When our president got off the phone he said, ‘I can’t believe they offered us after all of these years. I wonder why they finally selected us?’ I just told him, “I have no idea,” Carlen says with a chuckle.
After leaving West Virginia at the conclusion of the 1969 season, Carlen went on to coach at Texas Tech and South Carolina before retiring in 1981. Today, Carlen resides in South Carolina with his wife and remains involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
“I was one of the original six members of the FCA, the originals. FCA started very small, and then it snowballed. When I hired a coach I always took a close look at his spiritual life,” Carlen said. “When you have God on your side you don’t have to worry.”
Most recently Jim Carlen has been nominated for the College Football Hall of Fame, but don’t expect him to take any credit for this great accomplishment.
“What it means is my coaches and players did a good enough job for us all to deserve it,” says Carlen. “I have never taken credit for doing the whole thing. I did lead, but that was only about 5% of the job, 95% of the job went to my assistants and players. That’s why we are still like family. To this day, guys I coached with will call me and say, ‘Coach I need some help, I need your advice.’ I just say, ‘Are you sure, it’s been awhile?” and they say, ‘I don’t care, help me.’ That’s a real compliment.”
Carlen is one of nine coaches on the 2011 ballot for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.