The great Don Nehlen celebrates his 87th birthday Sunday.
Nehlen controlled the sidelines at Milan Puskar Stadium for 21 seasons and took the Mountaineers to some of the highest peaks of success that the program has ever enjoyed. He coached 15 first-team All-Americans, won a school-record 149 games, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
As he celebrates another birthday, and as the world celebrates a new calendar year that has just begun, let’s take a look back at the biggest victories of his tenure with the Mountaineers.
Dec. 31, 1981, vs. Florida (Peach Bowl)
Nehlen won the first game of his WVU head coaching career the previous season at home over Cincinnati. It was the opening game at Milan Puskar Stadium. While that win was big on a personal level, this was his first win with the Mountaineers on the national stage.
Nehlen’s Mountaineers, led by game MVPs Mickey Walczack and Don Stemple, dominated the Gators 26-6, and didn’t give up a point until the fourth quarter.
West Virginia’s first bowl win since 1975 came just one day before the head coach’s 46th birthday.
Sept. 11, 1982, at No. 9 Oklahoma
With West Virginia’s recent win over the Sooners in November, the Mountaineers have now beaten the Oklahoma football program three times. Don Nehlen was the first WVU football coach to beat OU, and the only one to win in Norman.
Nehlen’s Mountaineers entered the second quarter trailing 14-0. But West Virginia, led by quarterback Jeff Hostetler, outscored the Sooners 41-13 over the final 36:05 of the game.
Hostetler threw for 321 yards and four touchdowns. Defensive tackle Rich Walters collected four tackles for loss.
The Mountaineers defeated Barry Switzer’s Sooners, as Nehlen collected his first win over a ranked opponent since being WVU’s head coach.
Sept. 24, 1988, at No. 16 Pitt
It took Nehlen a few years to finally beat the arch-rival Panthers, but he did so back-to-back years in 1983 and ’84. However, Nehlen had yet to knock off a ranked Pitt team in three tries.
That changed in 1988.
Anthony Brown rushed for 110 yards and a score individually, as the Mountaineers rushed for 261 yards as a team. The story of the day, though, was the WVU defense, which collected a trio of interceptions against Pitt passers.
The final score, 31-10, marked West Virginia’s most lopsided win over the Panthers since 1969.
Nov. 19, 1988, vs. No. 14 Syracuse
West Virginia was enjoying its best season since 1969, and just the third 10-win season to that point in program history. But on this day at the end of the ’88 regular season, a spot in the national championship game was on the line.
Nehlen and company would not be denied.
The fourth-ranked Mountaineers rushed for 312 yards as a team. Major Harris passed for 114 yards and ran for 96 more.
West Virginia led wire-to-wire in front of a sold-out home crowd. The win vaulted West Virginia to No. 3 in the national rankings, and earned the Mountaineers a spot in the Fiesta Bowl title game against Notre Dame.
Nov. 6, 1993, vs. Rutgers
Win No. 100.
It took Nehlen less than 14 full seasons to earn his 100th win with the Mountaineers. Already the program’s winningest head coach, he earned the monumental win with ease.
Final score: West Virginia 58, Rutgers 22.
Nov. 20, 1993, vs. No. 4 Miami
Never has a game been played in Morgantown, West Virginia with more fans in attendance. 70,222 spectators packed themselves inside Milan Puskar Stadium to watch the ninth-ranked Mountaineers take on the fourth-ranked Hurricanes.
WVU had already secured its fifth nine-win season under Nehlen. But a win against No. 4 Miami would secure the program’s second ten-win season under its head coach. The largest crowd in stadium history was treated to an all-timer that is still talked about today.
The Mountaineers took a 3-0 lead into the locker room at halftime after a low-scoring first half. Miami moved in front midway through the third quarter, but Rodney Woodard found paydirt late in the period to regain the lead for the Mountaineers.
The Hurricanes scored early in the fourth to take a 14-10 advantage. After trading possessions, Robert Walker scored from 19 yards out to put the Mountaineers back on top. West Virginia held on for the final six minutes, and collected one of the biggest wins in program history.
The following week, the 1993 team secured the second undefeated regular season under Nehlen, and just the third in program history.
Dec. 28, 2000, vs. Ole Miss (Music City Bowl)
Win No. 149 with WVU. Nehlen’s last win with WVU. Nehlen’s last game as a college football head coach. Nehlen went out with a win to secure the 15th winning season during his time with the Mountaineers.
The win over Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl not only counted for all of those aforementioned accomplishments, but it also secured the program’s first postseason win since 1984.
“We’re pleased as the devil to have won. We’ve had a long dry spell,” Nehlen said after the game. “If nothing else, the jokes will disappear in Morgantown for a while. This game was something.”
West Virginia’s offense built up a 40-point lead in the third quarter. Quarterback Brad Lewis was a perfect 7-for-7 with four touchdown passes in the first half, and finished with 318 passing yards.