In a way, the words out of Don Nehlen’s mouth were surprising.
He was yesterday’s coach, the man who brought West Virginia University back into national prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, coached the Mountaineers through a pair of undefeated regular seasons while coaching himself into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Normally, coaches who fit that profile have a hard time accepting the changes that are thrust upon the game they once loved and taught and, if anything, Nehlen was known as an old-school coach whose trademark was rock-ribbed, hard-hitting defense and running draw plays on third-and-long situations.
So what does he think of today’s football, which is almost as different from his game as American and British football?
“It’s become more of a finesse game than it used to be. Now there are a few teams that don’t play finesse, but most of them are more finesse. There’s nothing wrong with that, because they do it pretty darn well,” he said.
“It’s exciting. The ball’s being thrown all over, and fans like it. The finesse part of the game appeals to the fan base.”
Indeed, football scores that used to be 24-14 are now 56-42. The offense is ahead of the defense, and whereas Nehlen’s teams featured great running games, today’s game has evolved into more of a controlled passing game.
Which means perhaps the most important part of the game to Nehlen seems to be diminishing.
“The game itself?” he said when the question was put to him. “The kids are bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster … but I don’t think they are as tough mentally.”
This, he says, is a result not of anything the players are or aren’t doing or the coaches.
“The rules have changed so much. When we went to spring practice, we hit for 20 straight days. We had two-a-day practices. We had 12 padded practices in a row, had a day off and had 12 more. Then school started.
“We may have taken one afternoon and went to the swimming pool because nobody could walk,” he continued. “Now, they aren’t even allowed to practice two days in a row with two-a-days.”
It has become safety first.
Nehlen doesn’t dispute the need for it. Bigger, faster and stronger made for more powerful collisions, more danger in playing the game and it had to evolve into a safety first game.
But that is only one area where football – and college sports in general – have changed in the 20 years since Nehlen was in the prime of a coaching career that stretched all the way back to the 1950s.
“I think it’s a little bit out of control,” he said. “I mean, everybody has to have this; everybody has to have that. Nothing’s big enough. It just blows me away that everything has to be bigger and bigger. Everybody has to build new stadiums, new weight rooms, has to have this, has to have that. And you wonder when it’s going to stop,” he said.
“The salaries they pay these coaches now, they make more money in a month than I made in a year.”
He doesn’t say that spitefully, simply as an example of the inflationary spiral the game finds itself in, all of it going back to television.
“ESPN has really changed the face of college football,” Nehlen said. “I coached for 43 years, and probably for 30 of those 43 years I had the same schedule for Saturday because we played at the same time. We did the same thing every Friday night and on Saturday morning went and played our game.
“My last eight or nine years at West Virginia, I never knew when we were going to play.”
That was because Saturday-only day games didn’t satisfy the fans’ appetite for college football. It moved to Saturday night, to Thursday night, to Wednesday night.
“I’d find out maybe Monday or Tuesday, ‘Hey, we got the 1 o’clock slot or the 4 o’clock slot or the 7 o’clock slot and, oh, by the way, in two weeks we are going to play on Thursday night,’” he said.
He’s not complaining. Not now that he’s a fan and not a coach.
“Now you can stay home and see eight to 10 to 15 college games on a weekend. You don’t have to go to the game … and you see the game better, anyhow,” he said.
The revolution in the game among the players, looking to unionize and be paid, that troubles Nehlen.
“I can’t imagine. If they unionize … good luck,” he said.
But helping out their plight is welcomed by Nehlen.
“Letting these kids eat on the training table and having food available later on, that’s a great thing,” he said.
And here’s why.
“What happens, we work the crap out of those kids and get them off the field at 6 o’clock and training table would open at 6:30. Some of them would have a class at 7, but they were so tired all they wanted to do after practice was drink two or three big cups of water and run off to class,” he explained.
“By 10 o’clock, they were starved and didn’t have money to buy food, so that is a great thing they are letting more food be available, especially for the walk-on. I used to feel terrible for the walk-ons. I had a ton of walk-ons. Some start. You need them for practice. To tell those kids they couldn’t eat broke my heart.”
And so there were times when he fudged on that rule a little.
“I know one thing. I ran a clean program, but I’ll be honest; there were a few walk-ons that snuck in and had a meal, and when I saw it, I just left for the weight room. That was such a ridiculous rule.”
So where does Nehlen see all this going?
“You watch. There’s going to be those five power conferences — or there will be four power conferences with one of the ones now existing breaking up and its members joining those other four. There will be 64 teams and they are going to have their own rules and the people in the pond are in trouble,” he predicted.
“That bothers me a little bit. You know I’m a product of the Mid-America Conference. A bunch of my good friends coached there, and that’s a darn good conference. If that happens, they are in a lot of big trouble, with a lot of other schools. Somebody has to get hold of it.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.
In a way, the words out of Don Nehlen’s mouth were surprising.
- Bob Herzel
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