After Shelley Moore Capito and Betty Ireland took themselves out of the potential line-up, Gale Catlett, likewise, pulled his name from the roster and elected not to suit up for the Big One next year.

Which might have the Republicans in West Virginia wailing that old George Jones song, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”

Could it be legendary West Virginia University football coach Don Nehlen?

“Don Nehlen is a Republican and I would love to have him, if he would be interested,” state GOP Chairman Rob Capehart said Friday, shortly after announcing Catlett’s decision not to run for one of two key offices next year.

Catlett carved his niche as winningest coach in Mountaineer history in amassing a 439-276 record in 24 seasons, but he is shying from the political game in 2006.

An announcement Friday by Capehart ended dual speculation that Catlett would seek to either upend Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., in the 1st District or challenge Sen. Robert C. Byrd in the major statewide contest.

Capehart had better luck the first time he met Catlett, back in 1978, when he was the student representative of a three-member selection committee that visited him before he was hired to lead WVU on the basis of his work at Cincinnati.

“He was very deliberate,” Capehart recalled of his initial encounter with Catlett just before WVU took him on as its hoops coach.

“He’s not one of those people to jump at anything. He had a good job at the time. He’s a guy that listens, takes it all in. We recommended him. It was unanimous.”

As for politics, he added, “When he looked at the life he has now, he enjoys his private life. He’s got a pretty nice life.”

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With Catlett out, some shifted attention to Nehlen, the winningest football coach in Mountaineer history who has appeared in media commercials touting West Virginia’s coal industry.

Capehart acknowledged the former coach isn’t likely to enter the political fray, saying, “He’s living such a good life.”

Catlett provided much the same reason in begging off, telling GOP leaders he wanted to enjoy his private life. Only recently did he return from a visit to China to see his daughter, who works in the U.S. Embassy there.

Before Catlett, talk was rampant that Rep. Capito would abandon her 2nd District seat and take on West Virginia’s senior statesman, but she decided to pass up the race with an October announcement.

Attention then shifted to Ireland, but the secretary of state wanted no part of a Senate campaign — for now, anyway.

Presumably, that leaves the GOP without a heavyweight in the fight.

So far, Byrd has attracted Republican opposition in Hiram Lewis, a National Guard captain, Princeton optometrist Zane Lawhorn and Morgantown business George Johnson. State Sen. Steve Harrison, R-Kanawha, has shown some interest, but says he must weigh a number of political and professional options, and Prosperity home build-er Rick Snuffer has vowed to get into the race.

“Coach Catlett is a valued member of the Republican Party and we are grateful for his loyal and active participation,” Cape-hart said in a statement.

“A Catlett campaign for U.S. Senate, or in the 1st Congressional District next year, would be exciting, but the GOP will put forth a winning team when the filing deadline closes in January.”

Catlett did not return calls left this week at his Morgantown area residence.

Without any identifying any alternatives for the Senate and congressional races, Capehart said the Republicans will have opponents to take on the incumbents, reminding a reporter the filing deadline is still three months off.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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