Since the end of WVU’s 59-20 loss at Oklahoma much has been made of the Mountaineers’ head coaching job.
Will Neal Brown be retained? Is this an opportunity to bring in state native Jimbo Fisher, who, yes, was spectacularly axed by Texas A&M, but also has a national championship on his resume?
The feedback I’ve received is WVU higher-ups aren’t even thinking along those lines. They are thinking the football team might finish the regular season with eight wins and the possibility of a ninth in a bowl. (The Athletic, by the way, now projects the Mountaineers playing Texas State in the Dec. 16 Independence Bowl.)
My phone has been blowing up with texts. The 2024 WVU recruiting class is ranked but in the 40s, according to 247 and Rivals. Of course, the transfer portal is huge these days.
Yet I hate the discord is taking off some of the shine on what should be a great Saturday in Morgantown.
See, Coach Don Nehlen is deservedly being immortalized in Milan Puskar Stadium.
It’s appropriate WVU is hosting Cincinnati on Saturday. In Nehlen’s first season in Morgantown, back on Sept. 6, 1980, the Bearcats visited in the christening of the stadium. John Denver flew in to sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Intense pressure was on, but Nehlen’s team won 41-27.
It was just the start. Of course, most WVU fans know of Nehlen’s successes. He’s a College Football Hall of Fame member. He’s the school’s all-time winningest coach. He coached 15 first team All-Americans, 28 total All-Americans, 82 All-Big East Conference honorees and 80 NFL players from 1980 to 2000.
He won three national coaching awards: the Walter Camp, Bobby Dodd and AFCA coach of the year honors.
On and on I could go. His WVU teams went to 13 bowl games. The Mountaineers had 17 winning seasons. Two — 1988 and 1993 – went undefeated with the former playing Notre Dame in the national championship.
What I’ll always remember, though, is the man behind all the success.
Yes, he was proud. Proud “as a banty rooster,” as he might say.
And yes, as a former sports writer, especially one that spent 10 years at the Dominion Post in Morgantown, we had our squabbles.
“Mitch Vingle!” he once yelled from midfield during a practice. “Get over here right now!”
I didn’t feel comfortable going onto the field, but the next thing I knew he was marching to me. He chewed me out for something I wrote.
And within moments he had his arm around me, smiling.
I’ve always said men can get in a fight, get up and have a beer together. That was our version.
Anyway, I know Coach had 202 victories, etc. I know he took over a sagging program and led it to national prominence.
What touches my heart about this award, though, is it’s a good man receiving it. I know. I’ve seen how he’s treated people with kindness. I’ve seen how he’s lifted people with encouragement.
Ask those who worked closely with Coach. Ask Shelly Poe, who once was the only female head sports information director at a Division I school. Ask her how well Nehlen treated her.
When I was trying to break into the Ohio Valley circle at age 58, guess who drove from Morgantown to help me with a live sports show. Coach Nehlen.
When my father turned 80, guess who showed up to the surprise party in Fairmont to the delight of all? Yep, Coach Nehlen.
He’s just a great guy. And I’m so happy he’s able to enjoy this honor. The street named for him by the stadium isn’t enough. Not nearly.
He changed WVU’s football program. I’ll never forget seeing him run onto the Sun Devil Stadium in the Jan. 2, 1989, Fiesta Bowl. I was there. I was at the press conferences, the practices and the game.
I saw how he handled both victory and defeat with grace through the years.
He raised not only the football program’s profile, but that of the school. He did so with hard work, with intelligence, with an open mind and, most notably, with honor.
Now, his name will join the six retired numbers at Puskar Stadium.
And if it were up to me, I’d assign him a number.
Because to me, he’ll always be No. 1.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.