Spurrier, Nehlen score with contrasting styles

January 02, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- Don Nehlen and Steve Spurrier enjoyed a little role reversal the past month.

Spurrier and his space-age passing attack have been linked to just about every vacant NFL coaching job in recent years. He's been a high-profile figure on the fast track with plenty to say ever since he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966, but in December he shied away from rumors that he would be taking over one of the expansion franchises.

Nehlen has spent the past 14 years in the relative obscurity of Morgantown, W.Va., and he sounds as if he would be delighted to end his coaching career there. He's a proponent of power football who doesn't ordinarily seek the limelight, but the people who vote in the national college football polls discovered that when Nehlen feels his players have been wronged, he has plenty to say.

Nehlen celebrated his 58th birthday yesterday by sending his No. 3 West Virginia team up against Spurrier's eighth-ranked Florida squad in the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome.

The two are perfect fits for their programs. Spurrier is guaranteed publicity for a Florida program that has to compete in state for recognition and recruits against Florida State and Miami. West Virginians prefer the strong, silent type who lets his accomplishments do the talking, and that's usually Nehlen's style.

Nehlen, however, can lead. As this season progressed, his digs at pollsters and pundits triggered a letter-writing campaign directed at voters in the AP poll and obscene T-shirts lampooning ESPN analyst Lee Corso, a Florida State booster.

"I get a kick out of Lee Corso and all these guys," Nehlen said when West Virginia's 11-0 record left it behind once-beaten Florida State in the coalition poll. "You know he's a Florida State graduate and never could win a damn football game in his life."

Nehlen isn't averse to self-deprecatingly pointing arrows at himself. He has a head coaching record of 156-90-8, but doesn't mind admitting to mistakes. He thinks that West Virginia had a better week of preparation here than in its previous bowl game, a 1989 Fiesta Bowl loss to Notre Dame that ruined its national championship aspirations.

"This year, we haven't gotten into that [the rankings] during our preparation," Nehlen said. "I've probably never been a good coach, and that was especially the case way out there [at the Fiesta Bowl]. Plus, things were so spread out there, it affected our preparation. Here in New Orleans, I don't have that alibi."

The only time Spurrier will poke fun at himself is when you ask him a question about the opponent's offense, which usually is of little interest to him. He fancies himself an offensive mastermind, and that self-assessment gets little argument. Most coaches say a game's outcome is in the players' execution, but Spurrier doesn't buy it.

"Sometimes, you look back and say 'Man, I called a lousy game. Other times, everything you call hits," said Spurrier, who returned to his office at 3 a.m. to review film the morning after an October loss to Auburn. "Most coaches don't like to admit that."

Spurrier's contract with Florida runs through 2000, and while he denies he isn't going anywhere, Gators fans fret over the rumors that the Charlotte Panthers will make him a serious offer now that the Sugar Bowl is over. He is something of a white knight in Gainesville, where he starred in the mid-1960s. The Gators got into trouble with the NCAA during both the Charley Pell and Galen Hall regimes in the 1980s, and Spurrier has restored its honor.

Spurrier-coached teams have finished in the NCAA top 10 in passing in six of his seven years as a head coach. The Duke and Florida record books are headed by Spurrier-coached quarterbacks, but he'll talk as much about the 12 Gators who made Academic all-Southeastern Conference.

Spurrier loves to banter. Before a Wednesday morning practice at the Superdome, he eyed a couple of photographers.

"Are you from West Virginia?" Spurrier asked. "Are they still taking Prop 48s up there?"

Florida lost several players to academic ineligibility after its win in the SEC title game, and yes, West Virginia did admit two players this year who did not qualify for freshman eligibility.

It's not as if Nehlen can offer a recruit in Morgantown what Spurrier can in Gainesville, but the Mountaineers have enticed 18 Floridians with a family atmosphere. Nehlen's next-door neighbors are his only daughter and her husband, Jeff Hostetler, his quarterback in 1982-83.

"Look at the recruiting ratings every year," Spurrier said. "You don't see West Virginia up there with Florida State and Notre Dame. Don't get me wrong, they've got some outstanding players, but I don't see many No. 1 draft picks on their team. To win 11 games is a great accomplishment for them."

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