Nehlen Nearly Became OSU Head Coach – Twice

Best wishes for a speedy recovery go out to former West Virginia football coach Don Nehlen, who underwent triple heart bypass surgery on Tuesday. Nehlen is recovering at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, and is said to be coming along well.

He is the winningest coach in West Virginia history with a 149-93-4 record over 21 seasons. But did you know that Nehlen twice was on the verge of becoming head coach at Ohio State?

Although he is best known for being a Mountaineer, Nehlen is a native Ohioan who became a star quarterback at Bowling Green and led the team to the 1956 Mid-American Conference championship before embarking upon a coaching career that began at the high-school level in Ohio. He served as an assistant at his alma mater Mansfield High School, and then moved on to head coaching jobs at South and McKinley high schools in Canton. Nehlen later served as an assistant coach at Cincinnati and BG, and then took over the Bowling Green program, where he was 53-35-4 in nine seasons from 1968-76.

In 1977, Nehlen left the Falcons to become quarterbacks coach on Bo Schembechler’s staff at Michigan. Two years later, when Woody Hayes was fired after the 1978 Gator Bowl, Nehlen made inquires into the Ohio State coaching position. He was considered but didn’t make the final cut of six interviewees – longtime Woody assistants George Chaump and George Hill, Don James of Washington, Ron Meyer of SMU, Rudy Hubbard of Florida A&M and Earle Bruce of Iowa State.

Nehlen stayed at Michigan through the 1979 season and took over the West Virginia program the following season.

Eight years later, when Bruce was fired with a game remaining in the 1987 season, Nehlen was again a candidate for the Ohio State coaching job. This time, he was much more viable and was apparently on the university search committee’s short list that included Jack Bicknell of Boston College, Bill Mallory of Indiana, Larry Smith of USC and John Cooper of Arizona State.

Bicknell was considered the frontrunner. He had been rumored as Bruce’s successor in 1986 when the Ohio State coach was being pursued by Arizona. Bicknell, however, had no ties to OSU or the state of Ohio and eventually decided he would rather stay in Boston. Mallory dropped out after Indiana signed him to a contract extension through the 1992 season, and Smith excused himself from the proceedings, saying he was not interested in leaving Southern California.

That left Nehlen and Cooper in the running – until the university decided it had to interview more than two candidates. The search committee quickly added several more names and finally pared the final list to seven: Glen Mason of Kansas, Willie Jeffries of Howard, former Cleveland Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano, Chaump (who was then head coach at Marshall), Bicknell, Nehlen and Cooper.

Nehlen got the first interview, speaking with Ohio State athletic director Jim Jones, university president Edward Jennings, associate AD Bill Myles and the rest of the interview committee in Cambridge, Ohio, on Dec. 19, 1987. Over the next four days, the committee interviewed all seven candidates, including Cooper in Dallas on Dec. 21.

The final decision was said to have come down to Nehlen and Cooper, both of whom reportedly interviewed well. The tiebreaker was immediate past performance. Nehlen was rebuilding at West Virginia and was coming off a 6-5 season in 1987 that included an invitation to play Oklahoma State in the Sun Bowl. Meanwhile, Cooper’s team at Arizona State had posted a 6-4-1 record that had produced a spot in the Freedom Bowl against Air Force.

Those seasons seemed to be a wash, so the OSU search committee decided to take a look at the season before that. It was no contest. While Nehlen’s team went 4-7 in 1986, Cooper had guided the Sun Devils to a 10-1-1 finish that included a 22-15 win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. A win over the Wolverines in Pasadena clinched it for Cooper, who was announced Dec. 31, 1987, as Ohio State’s 21st head football coach.

Nehlen didn’t shed a lot of tears about being passed over again in Columbus. The following season, his Mountaineers went 11-1 with the only loss coming to Notre Dame in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, the game that served as that season’s national championship game.

Nehlen never seriously considered leaving West Virginia again, and piloted the program through the 2000 season. During his tenure in Morgantown, he coached 15 first-team All-Americans, 82 all-conference players and sent 80 players to the NFL.

He finished his career with 202 career victories, one of only 17 coaches at the time to crack the 200 mark at the Division I-A level. In 2005, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, part of an illustrious class that included tight end/defensive end Jim Houston of Ohio State.


Among the notables celebrating birthdays today are former President George H.W. Bush, actor/singer Jim Nabors, sportscaster Marv Albert, jazzman Chick Corea, Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, former Atlanta Braves first baseman Ryan Klesko, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Mathieu Schneider, Washington Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd and supermodel Adriana Lima. It’s also the birthday of songwriter Richard M. Sherman. You may not know who he is but if you’ve ever been to Disney World, chances are you know his most famous song: “It’s A Small World (After All).”

Also on this day in history, could it really be 14 years? On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found murdered outside Brown Simpson’s condominium in suburban Los Angeles. Former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson was charged with the murders, but on Oct. 3, 1995, after what was billed as “The Trial of the Century,” Simpson was acquitted on all counts.

Today also marks the 21st anniversary of what many believe was the beginning of the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. On June 12, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Brandenberg Gate of the Berlin Wall and challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “open this gate” and “tear down this wall.” Regardless of your particular political bent, there is no denying this seminal moment in world history. If you’d like to relive it, click on this link: “Tear Down This Wall.”


** Fellow BSB staffer (and Bengals fan) Marcus Hartman was telling me that the NFL Network recently replayed the 1981 AFC Championship Game between Cincinnati and San Diego. That contest, otherwise known as the “Freezer Bowl,” was won by the Bengals in wind chills calculated at 37 degrees below zero. As a result, I got to wondering whatever happened to Cincinnati backup QB Jack “The Throwin’ Samoan” Thompson, who played a couple of downs in that game. Seems that he landed on his feet after a checkered six-year NFL career. Thompson, who was an All-American at Washington State, returned to the Pacific Northwest after his playing days and became a mortgage banker in the Seattle area. His son, Tony, is a tight end at Wazzoo while Thompson’s nephew, Tavita Pritchard, is the quarterback at Stanford who engineered last year’s huge upset against USC.

** Once a coach always a coach, I guess. Former coaches Bill Curry and Dan Reeves are going to collaborate to pilot the new program at Georgia State, which will begin play in Division I-AA in 2010. Curry, who has been a college football analyst at ESPN for the past 10 years, previously had coaching stints at Alabama, Kentucky and his alma mater Georgia Tech. His career record is 83-105-4. Meanwhile, Reeves will continue to serve as a consultant for the university after having helped raise more than $1.2 million in pledged donations to help get the new football program off the ground.

** I think it’s now safe to refer to Texas Rangers outfielder/designated hitter Milton Bradley as “Crazy Old” Milton Bradley. He bolted out of the Rangers clubhouse after the team’s 11-5 win last night and headed up four flights of stairs looking for Royals television announcer Ryan Lefebvre. Bradley, who was DH’ing for Texas, heard was he considered derogatory remarks make by Lefebvre on a TV in the clubhouse. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington managed to intercept Bradley about 20 feet from the broadcast booth and led him back to the clubhouse. This is the same Bradley who blew out his knee being wrestled to the ground by his manager during an argument with an umpire … the same Bradley who was suspended for five games after throwing a water bottle at a fan in 2004 after someone had thrown the bottle onto the field … and the same Bradley who earned a four-game suspension after throwing a bag of baseballs on the field after an ejection … and the same Bradley who had a dugout confrontation with Cleveland manager Eric Wedge – during a spring training game.

** Evidently $4 gas has yet to hurt America’s Heartland. Yesterday, while waiting in traffic, I began to compare the number of guzzlers to the number of regular passenger cars. My final count: 24 SUVs and light trucks to just seven cars. I wonder if that 3½-to-1 ratio will continue if gas continues to climb toward $5 a gallon.

** And keeping with the monetary theme, another popular Yogi-ism: “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”