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Don Nehlen era ends at WVU 20 years ago in dramatic fashion

Mineral Daily News-Tribune
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By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

MORGANTOWN - It’s hard to believe, but yesterday, Dec. 28, marked exactly 20 years since legendary WVU football coach Don Nehlen ended his coaching tenure by leading the Mountaineers to a 49-38 victory over Ole Miss in Nashville’s Music City Bowl.

Nehlen had been the head football coach at Bowling Green from 1968 to 1976, and at West Virginia from 1980 to 2000.  In that time, Nehlen compiled an overall head coaching record of 202-128-8, and as the 17th winningest coach in college football history.

He had accomplished so much at West Virginia.  15 winning seasons, undefeated regular seasons in 1988 and 1993, the 1988 Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year, two Lambert trophies, the 1983 Big East title, and the most successful coach in the first 100 years of West Virginia football.

He had nothing left to prove, but did so anyway, going out with a bang.

Looking back exactly 20 years later, we now see that the 2000 Music City Bowl, Coach Nehlen’s last game, had it all.  Not only was it Nehlen’s final game but in it, the Mountaineers were able to snap what had been an eight-game bowl losing streak (1987-1998).  In addition, WVU’s offensive explosion electrified the crowd and their 49 points was the most scored all year, a full 19 points higher than their average.

In his pre-game speech, the soon-departing Nehlen laid it out to this team, “I told you at the hotel, there’s a lot of adversity on this football team.  So, we’ve got a choice, what are we going to do about that adversity?  Now we can curl up and lay down like a bunch of nothings, or we can go out there and fight like a bunch of men.  We need every guy, on every snap, playing his heart out.  Every guy, on every snap, playing his heart out.”

The speech was effective as the players responded. With an uncharacteristically aggressive offensive game plan, the Mountaineers were able to shock Ole Miss, building an eventual unsurmountable lead before the Rebels came on strong at the end.

  “Our game plan was real exciting, we were not going to run the ball every play, we were going to go after the jugular.  We knew what they did on defense, they were predictable.  It just got them so completely confused, that we had guys wide open all day long,” Nehlen told the press in reflection of the game.

It didn’t take long for West Virginia to show that offensively, this day would be very different for the Mountaineers.  At the 9:35 mark of the first quarter, quarterback Brad Lewis hit our area’s own Wes Ours on a 40-yard catch and run down the left sidelines, punctuated by a collision at the two yard line and dive into the endzone for the game’s first touchdown.  

The announcers remarked that the 290 pound Ours, according to his coaches, “had good hands and good ball skills.”

As Nehlen told the press, “We snuck that play in for Wes, and we told the team, it’s going to score a touchdown.  Wes knew it was going to score, and lo and behold, it did.  And so when we scored that first time, then the kids said, hey gang, we really got it.”

Other than Ours’ touchdown, the first quarter was a defensive struggle.  In the second quarter, however, the Mountaineers exploded for 28 points to take a 35-9 leaf into halftime.  In the third quarter, the Mountaineers tacked on 14 additional points to open up a 49-16 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

“I thought Brad Lewis was absolutely sensational in that game.  Now, you have to understand, we were not throwing it three, four and five yards down the field, these were thirty, forty and fifty-yard bombs dropped in these guys’ hands.  I though Brad Lewis had his finest performance of the year.  Without Brad, we couldn’t have won that football game,” Nehlen detailed at the time.

According to Nehlen, “Everything went right for us, everything we did worked, and it was just one of those days.  Our game plan was real exciting, we were not going to run the ball every play, we were going to go after the jugular.  We knew what they did on defense, they were predictable.  It just got them so completely confused, that we had guys wide open all day long.”

Despite West Virginia’s comfortable 49-16 lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers would be made to sweat it out a bit, thanks to what would become known as the birth of Eli Manning’s legend in the game’s final stanza.

Trailing by 33 points, then redshirt freshman Eli Manning entered the game and went to work.  The stagnant Rebels’ offense came alive, not just alive but electric.  Manning led Ole Miss to 22 unanswered fourth quarter points to inch to within 11 points of the Mountaineers.  Despite the birth of a legend, it was too little, too late, as WVU held on for the victory.

“It made me especially proud that we finally represented the Big East in a bowl game and won, because I thought we had left them down in the past,” Nehlen remarked at the time. “We wanted a ring that said champion on it. We wanted that trophy that said champion.  It was a great time to get up in front of all those fans and say, this trophy is for you, and we finally got it done.”

Now, knowing it would be the last post-game speech of his storied career, Nehlen would need to address the team in the locker room.

“That was tough.  There’s no question, there was some tears I know in my eyes, and I know there was some tears in some of the coaches and some of the players’ eyes,” Nehlen stated

To the team, Nehlen expressed his feelings, “This is my last go around with you, and needless to say gang, I love all of you, you’re just super guys.  It’s kind of hard.  I’ve been around here a long, long time, and every team we’ve ever had, I just love them all.”

Don Nehlen will forever be remembered by Mountaineer fans as one of, if not, the best head coach.  Under his leadership, WVU rose to national prominence and a foundation was laid for some continued success into the future.  It all came to an end on a cold December day in Nashville some 20 years ago yesterday.