In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Maureen Fulton talked with Don Nehlen, a former Bowling Green State University football coach and player who was recently selected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Nehlen coached at BGSU for nine seasons and spent 21 years at West Virginia, where he took the Mountaineers to 13 bowl games, including the 1988 national championship game.
One of Bowling Green State University's favorite sons is being honored as one of college football's best.
Don Nehlen, coach of the Falcons from 1968-1976 and quarterback before that, will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame Dec. 6.
One of only three with Falcons' ties to be inducted,
Nehlen is also one of three BGSU members in the Mid-American Conference Hall of Fame.
From Canton, Nehlen earned three letters at BGSU under coach Doyt Perry. As the quarterback of the Falcons, Nehlen led the team to its first MAC championship in 1956 with an 8-0-1 record. He was All-MAC second team in 1956 and 1957.
After graduating, Nehlen coached at high schools near and in his hometown. He came back to the Falcons as the defensive coordinator in 1965. In 1968, he began as head coach at age 32.
In his nine years at BGSU, his best season was in 1975 when the Falcons finished 8-3. His teams scored upsets over higher-profile schools such as Purdue, Syracuse and BYU over the years.
Nehlen resigned after a 6-5 season in 1976 and went to Michigan to be an assistant under Bo Schembechler. He was hired at West Virginia in 1980 and went on to have 17 winning seasons. In his first year the Mountaineers finished 6-6, followed by three 9-3 seasons.
In 1988 Nehlen was named the national coach of the year when the Mountaineers finished 11-0 in the regular season and played for the national championship against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, losing 34-21. The Mountaineers also went undefeated in the 1993 regular season, winning a Big East title.
Nehlen retired after the 2000 season. In his final game, the Mountaineers broke an eight-game postseason losing streak by winning the Music City Bowl. Nehlen finished with a career record of 202-128-8 (53-35-4 at BGSU).
Nehlen, 69, still resides in Morgantown, W.Va. He is a spokesman for the Friends of Coal, involved with the American Football Coaches Association and is part of a lecture series.
"WHEN I PLAYED we ran pretty much the very basic offense. We had three in the backfield, no split receivers, and got three yards on a cloud of dust. Coach Doyt Perry came from Ohio State and we were a very basic team, very well coached. He turned the program around. We were not a very fancy football team. It's a 180 from now. When we played you made tackles in a phone booth, now they're on the open field. If we threw 12-15 passes a game that was an aerial circus."
"ONE OF MY first coaching jobs was at Canton McKinley, one of the better high school jobs in the country. Then I had a chance to be an assistant coach, either at Ohio State or at Bowling Green for less money. I chose BG, and my dad said, 'I never thought you were very smart.' When I was promoted to head coach I was the youngest head coach in America at that time.
"The job was starting to change at that time because our opponents were not teaching and we were. I always loved BG, but I always felt that the school never made much of a commitment to me or the program. I always felt we could have been champions if we had just had a little more help. I taught Tuesdays and Thursdays. All my coaches had to scrounge around to find a car to recruit and find the time in between teaching."
"THE BIGGEST MOMENT of coaching career at BG was when we beat Purdue in the opener in 1972. They were a preseason pick in the top 15, they had about 7 or 8 pros on that team. I remember coming back on a little old brown school bus. When we got back to BG some of the players' girlfriends were waiting, other than there wasn't a soul. I have fond memories of Bowling Green because they gave me my first head coaching position in college football. We went out to BYU and won, Syracuse and won twice. Their coaches worked all day. They went out and prepared all day for you."
"I IDOLIZED DOYT PERRY and a lot of the stuff that he taught I took with me. Bo Schembechler worked under him too and his program was run like Doyt's. When I left BG and went up to Michigan, I was surprised how similar our programs were. I remember going home and telling my wife, 'You know what, we weren't so bad in Bowling Green.' About everything we were doing was the same. Going from Bowling Green to Michigan gave me a great deal of confidence."
"MAKING THE HALL of Fame, that's kind of a dream come true if you're a football coach. I'll be honest, I didn't expect it. I coached at BG and West Virginia, not Notre Dame and Michigan. I coached 43 years, I'd have done it for nothing if someone had paid my bills. It was just a great honor."
Contact Maureen Fulton at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6160.
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