West Virginia Football and the Legacy of Don Nehlen
Since a settlement has been reached between West Virginia University and former football coach Rich Rodriguez, I would like nothing better than to put this ugly incident behind me. However, the recent fortunes of coach Bill Stewart have led some to suggest that the only real football success West Virginia ever knew came during the Rodriguez era.
This opinion is not only shortsighted, it is simply not accurate!
To ignore the successes of former coach Don Nehlen is the equivalent of saying the only football success the Oklahoma Sooners have ever experienced came under the guiding hand of coach Bob Stoops. To do so would simply ignore the successes of a couple of his predecessors, Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer.
Although Rich Rodriguez enjoyed some remarkable success at West Virginia, he certainly wasn’t the coach who put Mountaineer football on the national stage. That distinction belongs solely to Don Nehlen! Just because you are too young to remember it doesn’t mean it never happened!
(On a side note, the “flying WV” symbol you see at the top of this column was the product of Don Nehlen’s desire to create an easily identified symbol of the football program and the state it represents. He initiated the design of this remarkably successful logo, an unusual legacy that nobody else in Mountaineer football can fully match.)
Had Rich Rodriguez chosen to remain at his alma mater, it is inevitable that he would have been West Virginia’s leading coach in terms of victories. Rodriguez could have been to Morgantown what Bo Schembechler was to Ann Arbor.
However, that position belongs to coach Don Nehlen, with a record of 149-93-4 while coaching the Mountaineers.
For those of you not familiar with the predecessor to Rich Rodriguez, let’s look at the facts.
While coaching at West Virginia, Rich Rodriguez never produced an undefeated regular season, let alone two of them. Don Nehlen did!
Despite his initial promise to deliver one, Rodriguez never took the Mountaineers to a National Championship game. Don Nehlen did!
The 1993 Mountaineer team that won 11 regular season games was at best an 8-3 team that was extremely lucky at times. In short, under Nehlen’s influence they overachieved. Last year’s Mountaineer team was merely one victory away from playing in the BCS Championship game. However, under Rodriguez’s guidance they underachieved.
In Rodriguez’s last two seasons in Morgantown, he fielded a couple of teams that clearly had the talent to play for a BCS Championship. Yet he failed to get them over the hump. Perhaps that is because Rodriguez, a true offensive innovator, failed to place an equal emphasis on his defense, an aspect of the game that Nehlen routinely emphasized.
I have even gone so far as to suggest that Rich Rodriguez would have two national championships right now had his offenses been combined with nearly any of Don Nehlen’s defenses.
Now before you go off on me, I am not saying that Don Nehlen was a better coach than Rich Rodriguez. I am, however, saying that Nehlen’s successes are no less significant than those enjoyed by his successor.
Coach Nehlen had to compete with the Miami Hurricanes, a National Championship-caliber team that was much more talented than the squad they currently field. He also had to compete on a yearly basis with solid, quality programs at Penn State, Syracuse (yes, Syracuse!), and Pitt.
In addition, Nehlen never lost to Boston College during the years that the diminutive yet dynamic Doug Flutie lined up behind center.
None of this is to suggest that the Big East is not competitive. Rodriguez’s Mountaineer squads saw the resurgence of Rutgers football. Louisville and Cincinnati joined the conference and enjoyed some remarkable success on the gridiron. Rodriguez also competed with some exceptional Maryland and Virginia Tech teams.
Anybody with even the most elementary knowledge of West Virginia football should be outraged at the suggestion that Rich Rodriguez created this team from nothing! Some of you might not realize that there may have never been a Coach Rodriguez if coach Nehlen hadn't given the young walk-on defensive back a chance!
I will be the first to admit that it was definitely time for Don Nehlen to step down at the end of his Hall of Fame career, but his legacy at West Virginia is comfortably secure. Don Nehlen is second to no one in terms of his Mountaineer success!
Moreover, a couple of the best things I can say about the man are also the reasons why I despise Rich Rodriguez.
Nehlen never lied to West Virginia—and most importantly, Don Nehlen stayed!
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