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Will West Virginia's Nehlen Leave a Football Job That's Almost Heaven?

December 28, 1988|EARL GUSTKEY | Times Staff Writer

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Look at a map. West Virginia, like Australia, looks upside down. Blame it on football.

"This football team has turned this state upside down," said Fred Schaus recently. The former Los Angeles Lakers coach is now the athletic director at West Virginia University.

"This past season, you could have been in any little town or hamlet tucked away in the mountains on a football Saturday and not found anyone on the streets. And that's been the best part of this whole season--creating some pride, some excitement for a state that needs some good news."

West Virginia, almost heaven for football fans, deer and wild turkey hunters, has been anything but for many others in the state. The state's economy, tied to coal and steel for too many decades, has been hurting for years.

For sure, this was a state that could use an 11-0 football team.

But even if West Virginia upsets Notre Dame Monday in the Fiesta Bowl and wins a national championship, there will remain one burning question. Namely, can WVU keep its popular football coach, Don Nehlen?

Everyone who knows the 52-year-old Nehlen says he's a small-town guy at heart and is quite happy at Morgantown. Nevertheless . . .

Nehlen, who came to West Virginia in 1980 from Michigan, has often been mentioned as a possible successor to Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Or to Joe Paterno at Penn State. He has never made a secret of the fact he considers Schembechler his role model.

"I was a head coach at Bowling Green for 9 seasons, and then I was an assistant at Michigan under Bo for 3 years before I came here," Nehlen said recently.

"If I had gone directly to West Virginia from Bowling Green, not had that experience of working for Bo, I would not be as good a coach as I am today.

"The image the public has of Bo, ranting and raving on the sideline, is totally opposite of what the real guy is like. Every minute I was around him, my eyes and ears were always open. He is a master at taking a team right to the brink with discipline . . . and then knowing exactly the right minute for calling the dogs off."

Nehlen's brow knots up over two subjects these days:

--Any implication that West Virginia football has emerged from nowhere.

--References to WVU football fans as coal miners with no shoes.

"We've had three 9-win seasons here before this season, and the media makes it sound like we came out of nowhere to 11-0 this year," he said.

"Last year, we were 6-5 and we were a hair away from a great season. I mean, a couple of different bounces of the ball and we might have done this last year. It's a game of luck, in the final analysis. If Major Harris sprains his ankle this year, we don't go 11-0."

Nehlen says a major newspaper (he wouldn't say which one) made a reference to "caravans of pickup trucks" heading west to Phoenix for the Fiesta Bowl. And he disliked the imagery immensely.

"I've been in coaching for 30 years," he said, "and I've never been around more kind, more loyal people than the people of this state. We've given them a football team they can be proud of, and to see that kind of . . . in the press bothers me."

The best part of being 11-0, he said, is the recruiting. He chatted in his office at West Virginia's 65,000-seat stadium complex, on a day when 15 high school football prospects and their fathers were on campus.

"About half those kids are blue-chip kids, the kind of kids we couldn't get visits out of in past years," Nehlen said. "So we're all hopeful we can build on what we already have. When you're 11-0, kids are a lot more interested."

Nehlen plays his cards close to his vest about his own future. "I've been offered other jobs before this season," he said, "but I never had an offer for anything I liked better than what I have here."

Schaus said Nehlen has a unique annuity arrangement with the university.

"Don has a lot going for him here, financially," Schaus said. "His compensation grows every year, and the longer he stays, the sweeter the pot gets. I know they're two or three jobs he'd leave WVU for, but so far they haven't come up. We know we have no guarantee of keeping him. He's a very good coach, and there aren't all that many around."

Nehlen all but sneers at the notion of coaching in the National Football League. But he doesn't rule it out, either.

"I don't know if I could coach million-dollar hotdogs," he said.

His assistant coaches call him a players' coach.

"The 'do not disturb' sign is never on his door," said Mike Jacobs, his offensive coordinator for 7 years. "The players know they come first with Don, that they can walk in on him at any time."

Well, not if he's on the racquetball court, beating another assistant coach. Nehlen stays in top shape and regularly beats every member of his staff in racquetball. Recently, he took on one of the West Virginia state doubles championship team and beat him, too.

And now, Notre Dame.

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