The Times West Virginian

August 18, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: ‘The Warden’ leaves WVU

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — The phone started ringing early in the day at the Puskar Center, the calls for Mike Kerin. They came from Flatwoods to Flatbush, from Philly to Phoenix, from Wheeling to Wildwood.

Former player at West Virginia University all, from the 1980s and the 1990s and the 2000s.

All of them wishing Mike Kerin luck, all of them thanking him.

For what?

Well, maybe it was teaching them how to tie a tie.

In 32 years as equipment manager and director of football operations, how many kids had come out for picture day or to go on a road trip with no more idea which side of the tie went on the right and which on the left than they had of tying it.

So there would be Mike Kerin, showing them a Windsor knot — “this goes over that, then through here”— patiently, kindly, getting them ready for the photo shoot or to get on a plane for a road trip in the day when a coat and tie was required dress.

“I did it right up until they went to wearing warm-ups for the trips,” he said.

You know, a lot of Nike customers see you when you travel, and in many ways his world had become the same big Nike commercial that ours had become.

Through most of the years under coach Don Nehlen, who hired him when he first came to West Virginia in 1980, through Bill Stewart, they called him “The Warden.”

“And come graduation day he’d say, ‘We’re releasing a bunch of them back into society,’” Shelly Poe, the longtime sports information director, remembers.

On Tuesday, they released “The Warden.”

For the record, he is retiring, sort of the way Richard Nixon retired from politics.

“I decided now was the time because the A.D. (Oliver Luck) didn’t renew my contract, so my future was uncertain. An offer became available, and it was something I was interested in, and I made the decision to go,” he said.

He didn’t want to go. He may have played tight end at Colorado, but he had become a Mountaineer.

And one they could be proud of.

As recently as last year an organization named him College Football Operations Director of the Year.

Another time he found himself on The Football News’ best-dressed list, this director of football operations in Morgantown, W.Va., on the list with Mike Tagliabue, Hank Stram and Barry Sanders.

“Hey, it’s the nature of the beast,” he said of his departure.

In this case the beast is college football today, a game turned into a business.

Dana Holgorsen was brought in as coach, and rather than keeping ties to the past, he wanted his own man.

Kerin said there were no hard feelings about it, that he understood.

Didn’t necessarily agree, but understood.

It’s been a slow death for Mike Kerin as director of football operations. In April the department brought in Brady Ackerman, a close friend of Holgorsen’s. He had some bogus job and was supposed to move into Kerin’s office at a later date, but it turned out that he couldn’t hold his tongue, said some inappropriate things at a function for boosters in New York City and found himself out of favor and out of work.

After Ackerman blew the gig, Kerin was given an extension through the football season, but no further, as Holgorsen ran through his list of cronies trying to find someone else he could reward with a job.

Meanwhile, Kerin leaves with a lot of memories.

There was the time a player was suspended for having dinner (a hamburger) with an agent, and Nehlen came in and told Shelly Poe and him to get out a release that he’d been suspended and clear him out of the locker room.

“The next day Coach Nehlen comes into the office and says, ‘Don’t put that out; he’s going to appeal it,’” Poe remembered.

They told Nehlen he was too late. They had put it out already.

Nehlen looked at them, shook his head and said, “You two, just because I tell you to do something, you don’t have to do it right away.”

That was a different time, though. A different atmosphere hung over the school and the program.

In those days, WVU football was a transitory place. Jim Carlen came in, won and left. Bobby Bowden came in, won and left. The same probably would have happened with Frank Cignetti, but he became ill and left in favor of Nehlen.

It looked like it would be more of the same with Nehlen when, after he won the Peach Bowl, he was offered the job at South Carolina.

“He locked himself in his office for a couple of days and mulled it over,” Kerin recalled. “He decided to stay. West Virginia football had some consistency. That was the day the face of West Virginia football changed.”

And now it has changed again.

It’s colder, less personal, more bottom line. It is, perhaps, what society wants it to be, or is it? Would it not really like its sports to be an escape from the cold, hard world in which we live rather than a continuation of it?

Either way, Mike Kerin heads for his new job running Mylan Park.

“All good things come to an end,” he said. “I’m at peace with it. I’ll be able to lead somewhat of a normal life now. I’ll have Thanksgiving dinner with the family and be home for Christmas. I’ve sacrificed that for a lot of years.”

Email Bob Hertzel at Twitter @bhertzel.