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Donald Eugene Nehlen, West Virginia University football coach, was born in Canton, Ohio, January 1, 1936. He played high school football and lost only three games as a starting quarterback at Bowling Green State University. He coached his alma mater to some of its best records before becoming an assistant at Michigan in 1977. From there, in 1980 he came to WVU, which had only one winning season in the previous six.

Nehlen inherited a just-opened new Mountaineer Field and finished his first campaign 6-6. The next year, he improved to 9-3 and upset Florida 26-6 in the Peach Bowl. In 1982, Nehlen’s Mountaineers upset Oklahoma 41-27 at Norman for one of the school’s greatest victories. That win catapulted WVU into the elite of college football. Jeff Hostetler, who would become Nehlen’s son-in-law, quarterbacked the victory.

The 1988 team finished the regular season unbeaten for the first time in school history behind quarterback Major Harris, a contender for the Heisman Trophy. WVU won the Lambert Trophy, but lost 34-21 to Notre Dame at the Fiesta Bowl. In 1993, the Mountaineers again went undefeated, won the first Big East championship, and won the Lambert again. Third-ranked at the end of the regular season, WVU lost 41-7 to Florida, thereby also losing another shot at the national title.

Nehlen stressed fundamental football throughout his coaching career. Although he had the dubious distinction of losing more bowl games than any other coach, he led WVU football to unprecedented levels. In a state with, proportionately, few high school standouts, he elevated recruiting in nearby states and in Florida. He often attracted players without big names and turned them into All-Americans. Many played professionally. The most successful football coach in West Virginia University’s first century, Nehlen is one of the 20 most winning coaches nationally. Nehlen retired from WVU football and coaching after the team’s 49-38 victory over Mississippi in the December 2000 Music City Bowl.

Nehlen’s overall coaching record was 202 wins, 128 losses, and eight ties. His record at WVU was 149-93-4. Don Nehlen was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005. At a home game in November 2023, Nehlen’s “name” was officially retired, alongside the numbers of WVU greats Major Harris, Ira “Rat” Rodgers, Chuck Howley, Sam Huff, Bruce Bosley, and Darryl Talley (90).

This Article was written by Norman Julian

Last Revised on November 20, 2023

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Cite This Article

Julian, Norman "Don Nehlen." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 20 November 2023. Web. 20 July 2024.


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