MORGANTOWN — It was a little more than a week ago that it was announced that former West Virginia football coach Jim Carlen was back on the 2023 ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame, something that has become a yearly exercise in frustration.
It has happened before, almost a decade worth of times, without election, which may or may not be the right decision by the voters, but certainly a case can be made for his inclusion.
In an effort to dig into the credentials Carlen carries in his resume and to get to know the late coach from inside the program out, we decided it would be best to go to the man who quarterbacked his WVU teams while they recorded a 25-13-3 record in four years at WVU, from 1966 to 1969.
That man is Mike Sherwood, whose career as a player was good enough to earn him election to the WVU Athletic Hall of Fame and who’s career represented exactly what Jim Carlen was all about as a coach.
Sherwood quarterbacked WVU to two classic victories during his career, but if you were to look at the statistics you would wonder if it was the same man playing behind center, and the same head coach.
Let us assure you it was, but there is a third spoke on this wheel, that spoke being acknowledged as a Hall of Fame coach himself, a fellow named Bobby Bowden, who was Carlen’s offensive coordinator and who had as much to with the split personality that WVU’s offenses developed during Carlen’s rein.
Or, perhaps, we should say “rain”, as you soon will note.
Let us understand that while times have changed dramatically and that to the modern fans, Sherwood may not be looked upon as someone in the same tier of QBs as a Major Harris, himself a College Football Hall of Famer; Pat White, Geno Smith or Will Grier.
But to understand Carlen, you must understand the two games referred to earlier.
In 1968 Sherwood was a sophomore, starting just his second game for the Mountaineers. He had debuted the previous week by completing 13 of 22 passes for 195 yard with one touchdown and two interceptions against Richmond.
But Week 2 was the Backyard Brawl and Sherwood would rewrite the recover books at WVU, completing 27 of 37 passes for 416 yards, two touchdowns and no intercept6ions in a 38-15 romp. .
The 416 yards passing was a standard that would last more than 30 years at WVU.
“We were very effective throwing the ball,” Sherwood explained. “They were Coach Bowden’s things. We were doing a lot of things then that other people weren’t doing yet,” Sherwood said.
Marc Bulger finally broke the record in a 34-31 loss to Missouri when he threw for 429 yards in the Insight.com Bowl.
Obviously, Sherwood was a gunslinger, but now we must look to the other end of the spectrum. The following year, Carlen’s final year as head coach at WVU before moving on in a career that took him to South Carolina and Texas Tech, finishing with a 107-69-6 record for 16 years, things would be dramatically different.
In the Peach Bowl that year, ironically against South Carolina, the team he would be head coach of the following year, Sherwood had exactly 3 passing yards, throwing the ball twice.
True, the game was played in a driving rainstorm that made the field almost unplayable, but that is strictly a sidebar to this story.
See, WVU did not plan on doing very much throwing anyway.
Let’s listen to Sherwood on how Carlen’s coaching approach made all this possible.
“He was a different kind of coach,’ Sherwood said. “He was kind of a CEO coach. He’d kind of oversee everything. The assistant coaches did most of the coaching with us. His coaching with me was very limited in terms of on the field stuff.”
That does not mean he was disinterested. Quite to the contrary.
“He was not about HOW to do things, but WHY did you do things? Why did you do this? Why did you do that?” Sherwood went on. “Don’t mistake his reluctance to involve himself in the technical aspects of working with the players for any kind of indifference. He was as involved as could be, just in a different way.
“He was a guy who knew everything that was going on. He would know what your GPA was, whether you’d been to class. He knew all about everything going on.”
And so it was on the day Sherwood threw for 416 yards. He almost found himself suspended for the game.
“One of the big things I remember from that day was I overslept for the morning meal,” Sherwood admitted. “Coach Carlen had to send someone after me and wasn’t very happy. I remember he told me ‘Maybe you don’t need to play today. I’ll let you know after we warm up whether you will play today.;”
Now it’s difficult to imagine a sophomore in his second start going against Pitt in a renewal of the “Backyard Brawl” oversleeping. Most people, one suspects, would have trouble sleeping before a game like that.
“I was rooming with Tom Digon and he woke up and said he was going down to get some coffee. I told I’d see him down there. I laid back down and fell asleep,” Sherwood said.
In the end he played and had a game for the ages.
Trouble was, Sherwood didn’t realize it.
“I didn’t know anything about it until after the game when I was walking toward the bus with my parents. Bill Van Horn, who was sportswriter here in Wheeling, came up the walk and he told me about it, the record then.
“To be honest with you, I had no idea what it meant in terms of school records and stuff like that. Those things just didn’t seem to be emphasized as much as they are now.”
Carlen trusted his assistants, and when your offensive coordinator is Bobby Bowden, who would go on to win national championships at Florida State and become known as one of the great offensive minds in the game, you turned things over to him and let him proceed.
“They were two completely different types of coaches,” Sherwood said. “Coach Bowden was more of a people person. Not that Coach Carlen wasn’t a people person and didn’t treat us well. They were just different personalities. Coach Bowden was more of a down home kind of guy and Coach Carlen was more of a businessman.
And, as noted, this was reflected in what transpired in that 14-3 Peach Bowl victory over the Gamecocks.
Carlen’s nature was to run the ball, as was in vogue at time. Because of that, for the 1969 season WVU changed its offense and went to a ground-bound veer offense.
“We had a lot of good running backs and still had good receivers. We had Wayne Porter and Oscar Patrick. Jim Smith was our tight end,” Sherwood said. “Coach Carlen was a much more conservative coach than Coach Bowden. Coach Bowden, he liked things wide open. Carlen was more of a defensive guy than he was an offensive guy.”
The running backs were the strength of the team, so they emphasized the veer, right up until the Peach Bowl.
“Oscar Patrick had gotten hurt the third game of the year down at Tulane and Wayne Porter had gotten suspended for the Peach Bowl. I think Wayne had cut a class. Ironically, he wound up being a dentist, so it wasn’t like he wasn’t a serious student,” Sherwood said.
“We were down our best wide receivers but we still had our best running backs. Eddie Williams had played well for us and had a big game against Pitt. Of course, Bobby Gresham and Jim Braxton played well.”
So they decided to go to the wishbone and put Eddie Williams in the backfield. He would run for a school record 216 yards in that game.
The wishbone, which had come from Darrell Royal at Texas, was putting up gawdy rushing figures, 500 rushing yards and more with some teams, so Bowden decided, with Carlen’s blessing, to install it for the bowl game.
“It wasn’t much of an adjustment. It was just a little different angle of approach from the back on the handoff and it required the running backs to block on the end at the edge, which they didn’t have to do out of the veer.”
Come game day it was cold and pouring down rain in Atlanta’s Grant Field, home to Georgia Tech.
“It was awful difficult that night. I think we tried only two passes that night,” Sherwood said.
That was probably two too many.
“We just kind of went up and down the field on them. The conditions were so bad it was tough to score,” Sherwood said.
They rushed the ball 79 times, gaining 376 yards on the ground.
“Obviously, it was better that we had prepared that night to run the ball rather than throw it. I thought the big thing that night was we didn’t fumble the ball a bunch. Dick Roberts was our center and he handled the ball great throughout the game.”
Actually there were six fumbles by WVU, losing three of them, but there were 73 carries where they held on to the ball.
“Being able to handle the ball was a big deal for us ... the snaps, the handoffs, the pitchouts, the backs catching the pitchouts. We held on to the ball well that night. That was one of the things that allowed us to be successful,” Sherwood said..
So now, more than a half century later, was Carlen a Hall of Fame coach?
“He had a lot of skills as a coach. He was able to hire good coaches and let them coach while he oversaw everything,” Sherwood said. “He had his finger on every detail. He got coaches. He always wanted coaches who recruit. I remember him saying all the guys know the x’s and o’s, but it’s the guys who can go find good players and recruit.”
In the end, that is a solid formula for success.