Nehlen Reminisces; Impressed By WVU’s Neal Brown
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Some things never change.
Ask Don Nehlen.
Here he was, the first day school was back in session and he was stuck in traffic on the Mileground in Morgantown.
“Yep,” he said. “The students are back … and it seems all 31,000 of them have cars.”
That gave him time to reminisce and, in the same instant, time to look forward, for just 24 hours earlier the winningest coach in West Virginia history had gone over to the Puskar Center to meet the latest in the line of coaches to have followed him since he retired after the 2000 season … Neal Brown.
And, let it be put on the record, he was impressed by Brown.
But before we get to that — and it is important stuff — let us first go back to the initial premise of this tale that will occupy your time for a few minutes.
It’s typical Nehlen, for the caller to him had asked him if he remembered when he was in his shoes, how he had coached at a lower level with Bowling Green before going to Michigan as an assistant under Bo Schembechler when he took the job.
“It’s funny because it seems like it was only five or six years ago that I was driving across the bridge coming into Morgantown,” he said.
“Driving?” was the reply. “You mean they didn’t send a private jet to get you?”
“No, drove my Ford Fairlane from Michigan,” he said. “It was different then. My first contract was for $43,800. Know how I remember that? A short time ago I was at memorabilia show in Cross Lanes and a guy comes up to me and says ‘Coach, I have something no one else has’ and he pulls out my first contract and asks me if I will sign it for him.”
Like we say times change. Brown is getting just over $19 million for six years and has $3.5 million with which to pay his assistant coaches.
But people don’t change and that brings us back to Nehlen’s first meeting with Neal Brown.
In some ways it was a perfect merger, the 38-year-old new coach meeting the 83-year-old Hall of Fame coach and impressing him greatly.
“He impressed me as just a good old-fashioned down-to-earth guy and he’s excited to be here. He’s from Kentucky; he has a little bit of that Appalachian culture in him,” Nehlen said. “I don’t think this guy’s head will swell up if he won and I don’t think he’ll get too depressed if he lost.
“That’s very important about a leader.”
So what is the key to coaching successfully?
“You have to be consistent and I think this guy will be a very consistent guy. If you’re players know you are honest with them and you are consistent, you will have good morale on your team,” Nehlen answered.
“He strikes me as that kind of guy. I think Shane Lyons did a good job of finding us a coach.”
Nehlen said Neal didn’t ask any advice during their first meeting and that he didn’t offer any.
“That was the wrong time,” Nehlen explained. “He said ‘I’d like to sit down and talk to you when I get settled. I’d like to pick your brain.’”
And Nehlen’s reply to that?
“Well, that won’t take very long,” he said.
If Brown had asked him how he managed to come to WVU and stay 21 years and win over the people while they won him over, what would Nehlen have replied?
“You know, when I came here there was a poll out that coach Schembechler showed me that said West Virginia had one of the five worst football programs in America,” Nehlen said, recalling the conversation this way.
“Don, if you win, you’re gonna leave and if you lose they’re gonna fire you. Why not stay here a little bit and we’ll get you a good job,” Schembechler said.
“Bo, I’m going to go and build a program just like you did here,” Nehlen answered. “Was this a good program when you came here? No. They didn’t have facilities, they weren’t winning every Big 10 championship and you built a program and never left here.”
“This is Michigan,” Schembechler replied.
“So what,” said Nehlen, and he’s been here ever since.
So how does Brown hit the road running?
“Any time you take a new job the most important thing is selling yourself to your players and getting your staff assembled. I was very impressed there were four or five kids who came in at mid-year, he went and shook everyone’s hand, introduced himself,” Nehlen said.
“When you take a job like this recruiting is the name of the game, so you have to hire staff quickly and get them out on the road, especially to keep the kids they have committed. There might be some who say I’m not too sure any more, so they have to sell themselves and their program.”
And as for Nehlen, you knew he would rather be game planning to face Foge Fazio at Pitt at the moment than stuck there on the Mileground in traffic.
The new ball coach meets the old ball coach. Thanks for coming by Coach Nehlen! 🐐 pic.twitter.com/ck7MJ6uhcZ
— West Virginia Football (@WVUfootball) January 6, 2019