The Times West Virginian

Mickey Furfari

June 11, 2014

FURFARI COLUMN: Was Don Nehlen the greatest of all WVU football coaches?

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University has had 33 head coaches during its 121 years of intercollegiate football competition.

There have been some great ones who enjoyed much success along the way. But it’s my firm feeling that Hall of Famer Don Nehlen might have been the greatest.

None of the other 32, in my opinion, came close to Nehlen’s contributions during his 21 years guiding the Mountaineers from 1980 through 2000.

Only Art “Pappy” Lewis also coached into double figures. He led WVU into its first Golden Era of football from 1950 through 1959.

Nehlen, an Ohio native who became a true West Virginian by choice, remains the winningest gridmaster in the university’s history.

His record is 149-93-4. Lewis posted a 10-year mark of 58-38-2. Rich Rodriguez (2001 through 2007) stands between Nehlen and Lewis with 60 victories for seven seasons.

Rodriguez, who played for and succeeded Nehlen, now is faring quite well with a great staff at Arizona.

Nehlen, who is a member of the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, was not only a remarkable judge of talent and character in recruiting his players but also excelled in developing and getting the most from his players.

He and his excellent assistants turned out 15 first-team All-Americans, 16 second-team All-Americans, and 13 third-team All-Americans.

Nehlen tutored six of the 11 consensus All-Americans and recruited a seventh whom he coached one year. Isn’t that really special, considering the small all-time number?

Let’s name the clear-cut six alphabetically:

Aaron Beasley, cornerback, 1995; Mike Compton, center, 1992; Canute Curtis, linebacker, 1996; Brian Jozwiak, offensive tackle, 1985; Todd Sauerbrun, punter, 1994; and Darryl Talley, linebacker, 1982.

Grant Wiley, linebacker, 2003, was recruited and played under Nehlen his first season.

Talley, an Ohio native, played as a freshman for Coach Frank Cignetti, then performed like a tiger in Nehlen’s first three years at the WVU helm.

In addition to being Nehlen’s first consensus All-American, he is now in the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, joining his coach there.

Both obviously are all-time greats nationally.

Quarterback Oliver Luck (1981), quarterback Jeff Hostetler (1983) and center Eric deGroh (1998) were Nehlen’s prized pupils and the school’s first ever National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete award recipients.

Three others have been added to the list since then.

Eric deGroh also is one of only two Mountaineers to be chosen for the Anson Mount Scholar-Athlete Award given by Playboy Magazine.

Nehlen had six players on the Capital One All-American Academic first team presented by COSIDA. Four are on that second team.

All four honorees on the GEA Scholar-Athlete team are from the Nehlen era, along with three of four on the CEA Good-work team (community service).

 Of all the attributes this special coach has accumulated, however, I think perhaps the most telling – most impressive – fact is this:

   A total of WVU all-time football standouts who were good enough to play as professionals, an amazing 92 – yes, 92 – were coached by Don Nehlen!

What’s more, the vast majority were team captains as seniors. Doesn’t that underscore judgment of true talent and individual ability?

It was also Nehlen who took the football program to its highest levels. The 1988 and 1993 teams posted the only perfect 11-0 regular-season records.

In 1988, the team finished as national championship runner-up to Notre Dame in a 34-21 loss in the Fiesta Bowl. QB Major Harris injured a shoulder on the game’s third offensive play.

I’ve always thought Don Nehlen not only was a great coach but a gentleman with class.

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Mickey Furfari
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