4 years after Mountaineers' peak, Nehlen finds W. Virginia toehold starting to slip

September 18, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Near the outskirts of this university town, contractors are hard at work on a house in the exclusive community of Greystone on Cheat Lake. The house, soon to be the new home of West Virginia football coach Don Nehlen, is said to be costing more than a half-million dollars.

"It's not your typical Appalachian house," said Paul Keener, a barber at Man's Image, across the street from the university and a football season-ticket holder. "It's the Taj Mahal."

A man afraid of losing his job doesn't build a Taj Mahal. And Nehlen doesn't have much patience for talk about an alumni uprising against him. But as the Maryland Terrapins arrive for tomorrow's 1 p.m. game, the picture of Mountaineers football is revealed in contrasting hues on and off campus.

"It's so stupid," Nehlen said. "Do you think I come to work every day looking over my shoulder? Our alumni all want to win. If they didn't, they wouldn't be very good alumni. As for how they view me, I've been nothing but honest with them. I tell them the way it is.

"I'm the most loyal football coach West Virginia has ever had. Every other good coach who was ever here started to build something and ran out on them. I've stayed. . . . and I've had a lot of opportunities to leave."

Perhaps Nehlen's biggest burden is of his own making. Since taking over as head coach in 1980, Nehlen has built expectations. He is the winningest coach in West Virginia history (87-51-2).

In 1988, he and quarterback Major Harris took West Virginia on a magic ride. The entire state joined in a year-long celebration of an undefeated season and the ensuing trip to the Fiesta Bowl to play Notre Dame for the national championship.

WVU lost the championship game, 34-21, but won the heart of the state's football fans.

Four years later, Mountaineers fans are restive. They expect Nehlen's team, coming off back-to-back bowl-less seasons, to produce again. The 1989 recruits have had four years to mature. Jake Kelchner, a strong-armed transfer quarterback from Notre Dame, has everyone expecting victory. And wide receiver James Jett has everyone anticipating heroics. Jett probably is college football's fastest player. He won an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, Spain, on the 4 x 100 relay team.

But the start of this season has been bumpy. Nehlen set off an early controversy by not starting Kelchner in the opening game against Miami of Ohio, a 29-29 tie.

"The media was trying to tell me who to start at quarterback," Nehlen said. "That's not their job. Darren [Studstill] was our best quarterback through spring training and through two-a-days. It's only now that Kelchner has passed him, and right now he's only this much, a pinch, better."

On the streets of Morgantown, in local businesses, in chats with season-ticket holders, it becomes apparent the Mountaineers and their head coach are being scrutinized.

"That win last Saturday [a 44-6 defeat of Pitt] was probably the best win we've had since 1988," said local businessman Ed Harper to his friend Albie Scudiere, owner of American Dry Cleaners. "Did you notice all those people limping around the state last week? Those are the ones who hurt their ankles jumping off the bandwagon. Now, they're trying to climb back on."

"That win probably saved Nehlen's job," said Mark Yost, a local businessman. "There is definitely a growing sentiment in the state as a whole that Nehlen is a builder and not a true tactician."

"If they had lost Saturday against Pitt, there probably wouldn't have been 20,000 fans at the stadium for Maryland," said Scudiere, who owns 10 season tickets and is a past president of the Mountaineers' Touchdown Club. "Now, it'll probably be just about sold out."

Season ticket sales soared toward 40,000 in 1989. After a 4-7 season in 1990, the number slipped to 30,000. Now, after last season's 6-5 finish, the number again has dipped. This time to 28,000.

Nehlen said he still gets good players through his Florida recruiting connections, but expectations of improved recruiting after the national exposure of 1988 weren't fulfilled.

West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong has voiced nothing but satisfaction with the football program. "Every program is going to have peaks and valleys," Pastilong said. "If we don't panic, we'll continue to accomplish our goals."

And Nehlen swears he does not feel hot breath on his neck.

"West Virginia is a tough place to keep at the top," he said. "Look at state universities comparable to us, with the same recruiting base -- North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho -- how often do they appear in the top 10? I think we've got a good football team this year. I think we can do some things this year -- if we stay healthy. Last year, we were snake-bit with injuries and yet were a fumble and a pass interception from being 8-3 in this lousy program.

"I think, over the last 13 years, we've done pretty doggone good, and if I hang around another five, you'll continue to see a successful program," he said. "And I don't plan on leaving."

But, in town, they talk about this program needing new blood.

"The people of West Virginia are so proud and so tired of being put down by everyone," Scudiere said. "That's why they take the performance of this team so seriously. I don't think Nehlen has a problem, as long as he has support. As long as the fans buy the tickets, they're making money. But now the season-ticket sales are down to 28,000, and it starts to get iffy. Another questionable year, and then the questions start to get serious."

Nehlen's record at West Virginia

1980 6-6-0

1981 9-3-0

1982 9-3-0

1983 9-3-0

1984 8-4-0

1985 7-3-1

1986 4-7-0

1987 6-6-0

1988 11-1-0

1989 8-3-1

1990 4-7-0

1991 6-5-0

1992 1-0-1

Totals* 88-51-3

* includes 3-4 bowl record

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