MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The West Virginia University Department of Intercollegiate Athletics will immortalize legendary Hall of Fame football coach Don Nehlen in Milan Puskar Stadium as his name will join the all-time greats on the Diversified Energy Terrace during the Cincinnati game on Nov. 18.
The department has developed criteria beyond the WVU Sports Hall of Fame and the Mountaineer Legends Society that if met, will honor its greatest coaches with the all-time legends who have had their numbers retired at West Virginia University.
The first West Virginia football head coach to ever walk the sidelines at Milan Puskar Stadium, and the school’s all-time winningest coach, Nehlen coached 15 first team All-Americans, 28 total All-Americans, 82 All-Big East Conference honorees and 80 NFL players from 1980 to 2000. In 1988, Nehlen was recognized with three national coaching awards, the Walter Camp Coach of the Year Award, the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award and the AFCA Coach of the Year. In 1993, he was named the Big East Coach of Year and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
Nehlen guided his WVU teams to 13 bowl game appearances, 17 winning seasons and the 1993 Big East Conference title, and his 1988 and 1993 squads finished the regular season with undefeated records. The 1997 president of the prestigious American Football Coaches Association, Nehlen received the 2002 Distinguished West Virginian Award from the West Virginia Broadcasters Association, and in 2017, he received the AFCA’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Award for advancing the best interests of college football.
His final numbers included 202 victories, two Lambert Trophies for eastern football supremacy, the 1993 Big East championship and at the time of his retirement, he was just one of 17 coaches to win 200 or more career games on the collegiate level.
When he took over the school’s sagging program, WVU was coming off its fourth consecutive losing season. In nine decades prior, no West Virginia football team made two consecutive bowl appearances until Nehlen took the Mountaineers to four straight from 1981-84. After 21 seasons in Morgantown, he is now known as WVU’s most successful football coach in 131 years of football.
History will show that not only did Nehlen do a lot for the game of college football, but he also built West Virginia football into a national power. When his coaching career ended, Florida, Oklahoma, Pitt, Penn State, Syracuse, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Kentucky, TCU, Louisville, Duke, Virginia, South Carolina, Missouri, Purdue, Miami and Ole Miss all had one thing in common – they lost to Nehlen on the West Virginia sideline.
Nearly 32% of his players ended up in professional football, 36% of them earned all-East honors and better than 91% made a trip to a bowl. His former players will tell you that playing for him, despite the odds, despite the opponent, they always felt they had a chance to win every game, and they knew that Don Nehlen would make sure they had a path to earn a college degree.
Nehlen played quarterback at Bowling Green from 1955-57, where he led Doyt Perry’s team to a 21-2-4 record and one Mid-American Conference championship. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green in 1958 and a master’s degree from Kent State in 1966.
After graduation, Nehlen paid his dues on the high school level, coaching at Canton South and Canton McKinley. He gained collegiate experience at Cincinnati as backfield coach and served as defensive coordinator at his alma mater from 1965-68.
In 1968, Nehlen accepted the head coaching position at Bowling Green, where he turned in a 53-35-4 record during nine seasons. His 1974 team finished 8-3, Bowling Green’s best record in a decade. Nehlen also earned the title of “Master of the Upset,” coaching the Falcons to victories over Syracuse, Purdue and Brigham Young. Counting his West Virginia and Bowling Green years together, Nehlen turned in 21 winning seasons as a collegiate head coach.
In 1977, Nehlen joined Bo Schembechler’s staff at Michigan as recruiting coordinator and quarterback coach. He remained in Ann Arbor until coming to Morgantown to rebuild a football program that had hit hard times, and he hasn’t stopped working for WVU since. In retirement, he has continued to be an ambassador for the school and even assisted in getting the Mountaineers into a Power 5 football conference back in 2011.
Throughout his career, he has been named for about every hall of fame you can achieve. The WVU Sports Hall of Fame came knocking on his door in 2003, and he was an inaugural member of the prestigious Mountaineer Football Legends Society in 2016. He has been inducted into the Mid-American Conference, Bowling Green, Gator Bowl, West Virginia Sportswriters, Stark County (Ohio) High School, and most recently, the inaugural National High School Football Hall of Fame, where he was enshrined in Canton, Ohio, on July 30, 2023.
The Ohio native coached his first football game at WVU on Sept. 6, 1980, against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first game ever at New Mountaineer Field. Nehlen’s team defeated the Bearcats, 41-27, in which not only a new stadium, but new uniforms, and more importantly, a new logo were unveiled.
Nehlen was instrumental and worked with athletic staff members and designers to create a new logo for WVU football, which 43 years later, stands as one of the most recognizable world-wide and best logos in all of college sports – the Flying WV, which has also since been adopted as the official West Virginia University logo.
Fittingly, against Cincinnati this year, Nehlen will be the first Mountaineer coach to join the six retired numbers in Milan Puskar Stadium.
WVU President Gordon Gee:
“Don Nehlen’s many contributions to West Virginia University extend well beyond the field of play. He has made a positive and lasting impact in the lives of countless student-athletes, as well as colleagues and friends across the national intercollegiate athletics landscape. I can think of no better tribute to such a fine coach and exemplary person.”
WVU Director of Athletics Wren Baker:
“Coach Nehlen led our football program to one of the most successful eras in WVU athletics history, and he embodies everything it means to be a Mountaineer. He was loyal to and invested in WVU and West Virginia. He cared deeply for his players, coaches and everyone associated with WVU. He led with integrity and class and continues to support this community and institution in every way imaginable. It is fitting he will join our all-time great football student-athletes inside Milan Puskar Stadium. We are very fortunate he was, is and always will be a Mountaineer.”
WVU Head Football Coach Neal Brown:
“I am so happy that this honor is being bestowed on Coach Nehlen, and I cannot thank him enough for what he has done for this football program since his arrival in 1980. Everything this program has today was either built by or the foundation was laid by Coach Nehlen and the success he brought to this program and University. He has been very supportive and helpful to me in my time at WVU, and I have really enjoyed getting to know one of the game’s legendary coaches. Whenever you walk into the stadium, you will forever see his name with the all-time Mountaineer greats, and that’s where it deserves to be.”