Don’t diss the Donald (Nehlen, that is)
Last week in this column I asked West Virginia University fans to speak their mind about who they thought was the greatest Mountaineer quarterback of all time, Major Harris or Pat White.
I got some feedback on that question, but I also got some serious blowback on something else I’d written in last week’s column — a statement one of our readers didn’t agree with in the slightest.
I wrote last week that there are some WVU “best of all time” topics that aren’t even worth arguing about, such as who was the greatest Mountaineer basketball player. That’s Jerry West, no question.
I also wrote this:
“Similarly, there’s not much point arguing about who has been the greatest WVU football coach. Don Nehlen’s your winner, end of argument.”
Well, let’s just say a reader named Larry Barnes felt that argument shouldn’t end quite so quickly.
“Pat White is my vote” for best WVU quarterback ever, Barnes wrote, “but your pick of Don Nehlen as the best coach is a joke.”
A joke? Don Nehlen? Wow, that’s a bit harsh, Larry.
“Rich (Rodriguez) built WV football and the Big East into a nationally recognizable power,” Barnes wrote.
“Come to think about it, Dana Holgorsen is a better coach than what Don ever was,” Barnes wrote, gathering steam. “Don’s big problem was he would choke under pressure. ‘End of argument.'”
Boy, Larry definitely isn’t a Don Nehlen fan, to say the least.
Remember the plane that used to fly over the stadium during Mountaineer home games, trailing a banner that read “Nehlen must go”? I don’t think Larry was flying the plane, but I bet he definitely agreed with the sentiment.
Well, as I wrote last week, Rich Rodriguez was highly regarded (at least until he went to Michigan), and he definitely returned the WVU football program to prominence. Everyone is entitled to their opinion — including Larry — but I think describing my opinion that Don Nehlen was WVU’s best football coach as “a joke” is going a bit over the line.
So let’s do a side-by-side comparison of the WVU coaching careers of Nehlen and Rodriguez, shall we? They both have impressive resumes.
The first thing we should consider is that Rich Rodriguez, a West Virginia native, actually played for Don Nehlen. He was a defensive back for WVU from 1981 to 1984. After his playing career, he was a student assistant under Nehlen in 1985.
Rodriguez eventually came full circle, being hired as the WVU coach after Nehlen’s retirement following the 2000 season.
Nehlen coached WVU for 21 seasons, Rodriguez for seven.
Rodriguez went 60-26 in his seven-year WVU career. Nehlen went 149-93-4 in his 21 years in Morgantown. His 149 victories are the most in WVU football history.
Nehlen had the only two undefeated regular seasons in WVU history — in 1988 and 1993. Those same two Nehlen squads each finished 11-1.
One Rodriguez team — in 2005 — finished with just one loss, at 11-1.
Nehlen’s 1988 team was the first in Mountaineer history to finish in the top 5 in the year-end AP and Coaches Polls. The only other Mountaineer squad to finish in the top 5 was the 2005 Rodriguez team, which was No. 5 in the AP Poll and No. 6 in the Coaches.
Rodriguez won Big East Coach of the Year honors in 2003 and 2005.
Nehlen won three national coach of the year awards in 1988, and was named the Big East Coach of the Year in 1993. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
Now let’s look at their bowl game records — if we dare. Neither of them posted great results in this area.
Nehlen’s Mountaineer squads went to 13 bowl games, but won just four of them. He actually won three of his first four bowls at WVU, but then lost eight bowl games in a row before winning his last bowl in his final season.
This run of bowl futility is probably the major reason that plane kept flying the “Nehlen must go” banner over Mountaineer games, and why Larry Barnes — and others — are still unhappy with Nehlen.
Rodriguez, by comparison, went two for five in his bowl appearances at WVU. In fact, he lost his first three bowl games in a row. He then won his last two, before quitting prior to the Fiesta Bowl in 2007.
Just as Nehlen’s bowl game failures turned some WVU fans against him, Rodriguez alienated many Mountaineer followers through his actions at the end of the 2007 season.
That year, the Rodriguez-led Mountaineers, with just one loss late in the season, were ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings and No. 1 in the Coaches’ Poll, both the highest rankings ever for WVU.
Things were falling in line for WVU to play for the national title, but then the Mountaineers lost the final game of the regular season, at home to unranked Pitt — a horrible memory for any WVU fan.
Rodriguez then announced he would be leaving the school and the team — to become the coach at the University of Michigan — before WVU’s appearance in the Fiesta Bowl.
That would have been enough to sour many fans’ opinions of Rodriguez, but he also left WVU just four months after renogotiating his contract. WVU eventually sued Rodriguez, claiming breach of contract because he allegedly failed to pay the first installment of his $4 million buyout clause.
WVU fans miffed at Rodriguez were amused when his first team at Michigan finished 3-9, the worst season in school history. He coached two more years at Michigan before being fired.
The way Rodriguez exited Morgantown definitely hurt the reputation of this West Virginia native son. A poll in 2013 showed 47 percent of West Virginia voters had an unfavorable opinion of him, while only 11 percent saw him in a positive light.
Personally, I believe they were both great coaches at WVU, and I can even see why someone might think Rodriguez was the better coach. But Don Nehlen was no “joke” — and once he came to Morgantown, neither was the football team.
Oh, and I should point out that a reader added an interesting comment about the Major Harris vs. Pat White quarterback controversy.
“Like them both but gotta go with Pat,” Steven Creasey wrote, then added his reasoning: “He stayed in school.”
True enough, Major Harris left school after his junior year to try his hand at the NFL draft, as reports circulated that he wasn’t happy at WVU any longer.
On the other hand, Pat White was the Mountaineers’ starting quarterback from his freshman year through his senior campaign, and he led his team to four straight bowl wins –that’s reason enough for Pat White to be a hero in this state. Let’s hear it for loyalty to WVU! Let’s go, Mountaineers