The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

December 31, 2013

Nehlen found ways to win games; has Holgorsen?

MORGANTOWN — “Blow it up!” That was the harsh response when a media type asked head coach Dana Holgorsen what he suggested be done to the 15-year-old Caperton Indoor Football Practice Facility at West Virginia University.

Holgorsen was complaining to reporters that the building, for which WVU’s winningest coach Don Nehlen spent years urging its construction, was inadequate and allegedly unsafe for its intended use.

Well, Nehlen will tell you that the late Dr. Douglas Bowers, then the football team physician, made sure that there was adequate space on all four sides of that still-fine indoor facility.

Holgorsen, in his third year as a head coach (at any level), also complained that the height of Caperton isn’t high enough for his team’s needs.

Permit me to recall, for those reporters who were not around in 1964, that WVU met Utah in the Liberty Bowl indoors at the Convention Center in Atlantic City, N.J., in December.

And the Mountaineers lost on a field with end zones that were eight yards deep, not 10. That was a 60-minute game — not a two-hour practice session, during inclement weather.

There’s a tremendous difference, I’d think.

It was Nehlen, with then-athletic director Ed Pastilong, who approved its construction.

Unfortunately, Nehlen — for whom Luck played football two years — enjoyed just the last two of his outstanding 21 years as WVU’s longest-serving, greatest, winningest coach ever.

What’s more, the Ohio native, now a member of the National Football Hall of Fame, is a class act as well as gentleman in every respect.

He noted recently that the Caperton Indoor facility, which has some form of soft protection turf, was used by his team only sparingly when the weather was simply too bad to practice in. Before it was built, his Mountaineers worked out on Old Mountaineer Field downtown or on one of the old grass fields.

Despite the lack of more modern, so-called updated new facilities for which young Holgorsen is clamoring, the highly respected Don Nehlen guided the Mountaineers to within a shot at the school’s only national championship effort in 122 years of football. That was in 1988 when WVU met Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. The Fighting Irish prevailed by a score of 34-21.

However, if All-America quarterback Major Harris wouldn’t have injured his left shoulder on that third offensive play, there’s no doubt in many people’s minds — including Nehlen’s — that West Virginia would have won the title.

WVU finished No. 3 nationally with an 11-1 record in 1988, then Nehlen came up with a second 11-0 regular-season mark in 1993.

For his 21 seasons, Nehlen shows a record of 149 victories, 93 losses and 4 ties for a .614 winning percentage.

Not bad for a guy who made the most of facilities available to him, including construction of what in 1980 was a modest version of the now-updated Puskar Center.

It was Nehlen who averted a possibility of the Mountaineers having to dress in a locker room of tents when the brand new Mountaineer Field opened in 1980 — his first year as head coach here with nine previous seasons at his alma mater, Bowling Green.

As WVU fans are readily aware, the late Bill Stewart — a West Virginia native — produced teams that posted three 9-3 records. Then Luck forced him out of a scheduled fourth, if not promised, season. He had given his own alma mater, as an athletic director with no previous top experiences in intercollegiate administration, the school’s first-ever “head-coach-in-waiting.”

With Bill Stewart’s recruits — not his — Holgorsen guided West Virginia to a 10-3 record in 2011. But in 2012, his Mountaineers went from a sizzling 5-0, No. 5 nationally ranked start, to a final 7-6 mark.

In some 70 years of sports reporting, I can’t find a WVU team equal to that totally unacceptable collapse.

Then, in 2013, after losing three of the greatest yarders in WVU history, Holgorsen’s squad ended up 4-8. It’s only the fifth time in school history (1,228 games, 122 years) that WVU lost as many as eight games in a season.

What’s more, the program has won only six of its last 20 games. Can that sad, sad state of affairs really be attributed to the lack of facilities, or to recruiting, coaching and knowledge of the highest paid — by far — coaching staff in WVU annals?

I don’t know. I’m just asking.

Maybe the million-dollar donors and shrinking WVU fan base can decide.

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