By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
In many ways, Don Nehlen spent the last football season feeling like a child from the ’50s who had been dropped into our modern society.
Try finding a pay phone today, or a nickel candy bar. Beer drinkers don’t carry “church keys” to get into their cans and they can’t figure out what’s so light about a light beer when it comes in the same 12-ounce can and is the same color.
It’s no different for a football coach from another, a coach who grew up watching and learning a game called football, but not the one he has been watching these days.
“I never saw football like the Big 12 plays,” said this man who won more football games as West Virginia’s coach than any other man, enough to get him into the College Football Hall of Fame. “I sit up in the stands and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Does he like what he sees?
“I do ... and I don’t,” he said. “I do and I don’t. The longer I watch it ... man, I don’t know.”
It isn’t just that his reputation was as a “smash-mouth” football coach from a “smash-mouth” era.
“We threw the ball,” he said, but not sounding like an old-time baseball player from before Babe Ruth’s era saying, “We hit home runs, too.”
“A lot people think all I ever did was run the ball. That wasn’t true at all, but we were going to be able to run it. Running it is what we wanted to do because if we could run it, we could throw it.
“We took a guy like Kevin White, a pretty average quarterback, and he turned out to be a pretty good quarterback.”
This is one of those “you could look it up” kind of things, but before Dana Holgorsen came to town with his high-flying aerial circus, Nehlen’s teams had set some pretty impressive passing records at WVU.
With Marc Bulger at quarterback throwing to WVU’s two most prolific receivers until Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey came on with Geno Smith, WVU rewrote its record book. Bulger passed for 3,607 yards during the 1998 season with 31 touchdowns. Shawn Foreman caught 77 for 928 yards in 1997 and 63 for 948 yards in 1998, while David Saunders caught 76 for 1,043 yards in 1996, missed all of 1997 with a severe knee injury, then tied Foreman’s school record of 77 in receptions in 1998 while gaining 883 yards.
True, all those numbers have been dwarfed since, but they weren’t bad for a football coach from the dark ages.
“Down deep in my heart I was schooled differently (than today’s coaches). I was schooled you take your best player and make him your quarterback, take your next best and make him your running back and all the next best players go to defense,” Nehlen explained.
“I was taught you play defense, you kick, you don’t screw up on offense and you’ll win a lot of games 17-14, 24-10 ... that type of thing. It was from the Woody Hayes’, the Bo Schembechlers, the Doyt Perrys, so when we got Marc (Bulger) all of a sudden I’m saying this guy can hit you in either eye.”
Bulger was a tall, skinny kid with a bad back and unerring arm, good enough to wind up playing more than a decade in the NFL.
Nehlen was smart enough to recognize what he had and came up with an offense for him.
“You might have noticed that my third down offense was quite similar to these guys’ first, second and third down offense, but we didn’t have the kind of guys to play in the slot that these guys have,” he said. “We didn’t have the 5-7 guy. We didn’t recruit those types of guys if we could help it. We wanted bigger, stronger guys.
“When we got Marc we scratched the surface just a little bit.”
What he — and everyone else — didn’t have was a Tavon Austin.
“Tavon was the most gifted kid I’ve seen in the 30-some years I’ve been around this football program,” Nehlen said. “Foreman was much stronger, bigger. Foreman was an outside receiver. Tavon could be dynamite inside, outside ... it doesn’t matter. Just get the ball in his hands.”
With Nehlen, Austin probably would have been a running back as he was at Dunbar High in Baltimore ... and for one game against Oklahoma to cap off his collegiate career last year with a school record 344 rushing yards and 527 all-purpose yards.
“I never saw anything like that in my life,” Nehlen said.
And that may have made Nehlen the 1 millionth person to say that.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.