Written by Don Pownell, former member of the Don Nehlen Recruiting Club
Chapter one – Background
Well, recruiting season is in full bloom, college coaches are chasing after would be high school recruits much the same as buck white tail deer chase does during the rut.
The major difference being that high school recruiting has a specified end- the first Wednesday in February. All football programs have their own methods or styles used to recruit would be college players.
Over the years every new coach at WVU has faced the same dilemma, they all had to find their own niche’ for recruiting talent to campus.
It has been interesting how all coaches who come to WVU expect to achieve the same results, we want to recruit 5 star players. It does not take long to find out recruiting big time talent to Morgantown WV is a difficult task.
Due to a population of only 1.75 million, the ability for the state to produce top talent is limited. So WVU has to go into someone else’s backyard and compete with that state’s major universities for their local talent.
If you look closely you find that WVU is the highest producing small state in the country in terms of having big time athletics, but not necessarily home grown talent.
It did not take Coach Nehlen long to understand that he had to go into Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey and later Florida and compete for top caliber talent in order to win. We all know that was not going to happen.
The strategy which eventually became the Nehlen way for recruiting was not something which someone dreamed up one night. It was an evolution which occurred after a series of events.
Nehlen did not necessarily plan to stay at WVU and he inherited a stable of existing talent from Cignetti. Once the 5 star recruit idea faded, he recognized that in order to play at a big time level some type of revised recruiting strategy was needed.
Before going any further, let me say I was not involved in any way with the coaches in creating a new way of recruiting. Being involved in the recruiting club did bring me a little closer to the strategy.
I simply observed and watched it unfold. In discussing the Nehlen niche’ I am sure you will get a variety of comments and thoughts, I am only going to comment on an overall theme.
Judging the success of any big time football program is based upon wins and the number of athletes who played pro football.
Nehlen has the most wins of any coach at WVU, with one of the highest winning percentages. He had 28 players playing pro football upon his retirement, many of whom played in the pro bowl.
No other Mountaineer coach has ever achieved Nehlen’s results. He is the only coach who led WVU into a national championship game in football; the Fiesta Bowl in 1988 against Notre Dame. He was greatly admired by his peers for doing it in style.
Even though WVU lost after quarterback Major Harris was injured during the first series, Nehlen later said that if those two teams had played four times WVU wins three of them.
That raises the question of how he did it, what was the magic formula? As previously stated, there was no written plan placed upon the wall. But a simple guiding principle did evolve.
As coach Nehlen settled in with a very competent and cohesive staff, he could take a longer view of recruiting.
First, WVU above all else had to recruit players with a blue collar mentality. He had to find players who had good skills but were less developed or as refined as others.
Second, by having a long term committed staff, the coaches who recruited an area were able to establish a rapport with local high school coaches. The majority coached in smaller schools which were not as heavily recruited by the major programs.
Third, WVU did not shy away from athletes who perhaps had some sort of a blemish on their record, whether academic or personal.
Chapter two – Blue collar recruits defined
The basis for the program was to take raw talent and coach them up. This approach took a lot more work and teaching ability. Don Nehlen started his career as a junior high teacher first and football coach second.
At his core he was a teacher. His educator mindset helped him blend the pressures of big time football into an academic setting. For Don Nehlen, WVU, and the great state of West Virginia, this approach was a home run.
What is a blue collar athlete? They consist of two types, and John Thornton is a good example of one. Thornton attended a small high school near Chambersburg Pa. and was not considered a big time recruit.
He possessed a lot of the required athletic skills, this was evidenced by the fact he made first team single A all state in basketball as well as football. He had great potential, but as of yet undeveloped athletic skills.
The rest is history; he came to WVU, worked hard and spent 10 years in the pros. Another good example is tight end Anthony Becht. He was very tall and thin as a high school senior, but had great hands and was a star basketball player.
His only scholarship offers came from WVU and Temple. He was redshirted his first year and worked really hard on his strength and conditioning. Becht spent 12 years in the pros.
Although both Thornton and Becht had skills, they needed to work hard to polish and refine them. A different example of blue collar is the kid who does not possess the required skills but is willing to work to create them.
Three examples of those blue collar types:
Wide receiver Charlie Fedorko, from Berwick Pa., who lettered in 1988-89-90. He came from the powerhouse Berwick Bulldog program in the coal region of northeast PA, not heavily recruited.
Charlie wanted to play football more than anything on earth. He was not really working into the lineup, but he begged for a chance. So even though he was not fast enough, the coaches put him on the kick off team.
During his first kick off practice, he raced down the field and blew both the runner and himself up. After the cobwebs cleared, he hopped up and asked to do it again! Fedorko became a major contributor from that point forward.
Example number two is Fedorko’s fellow teammate from Berwick Pa., quarterback Jake Kelchner who lettered 1992-93. He was highly sought after in high school and signed with Notre Dame.
He realized he would never start at Notre Dame- he was 6’0” and 200 lbs with not enough pure athleticism, so he requested a transfer.
He came to West Virginia and led us through one of the most incredible seasons in the history of the school, the 1992 undefeated season. I can still remember the Miami game (Miami was rated number 3 at the time), Kelchner had a pulled hamstring but refused to leave the game.
We were on the Miami 9 yard line on third down. He went back to pass but no one was open; he ran out of the pocket and hobbled to the 1 yard line. We went for it on 4th and one. Kelchner faked the run, rolled out to his right and hit the fullback standing all alone in the end zone for a touchdown.
The third example is another case of pure guts and a will to win attitude, linebacker Matt Taffoni, who lettered 1991-92-93-94. Matt came from a Catholic high school in New Jersey, his father played for WVU, a little short with not much weight but tough as nails.
He was not heavily sought after in high school. He came to WVU and like Jake turned into a blue collar star. He was never going to go to the pros but he played like a pro.
During the Boston College game in 93, BC was driving for a late touchdown to win the game. There was less than a minute to go inside our 10 yard line, 4th down and 6 inches for BC.
As the ball was snapped, Taffoni jumped over the blocker drove headfirst into the runner 2 yards into the backfield and knocked himself out as he tackled the ball carrier. Game over, you can put this one in the win column.
There were many others such as Zach Abraham, a walk on from Triadelphia, who caught the pass to beat Pitt in 94 by a score of 47-41 on the last play of the game.
Brian King, Grant Wiley, Rich Braham. These players and many others too numerous to name are the ones who defined the “Nehlen Niche”.
Chapter three – Coaching rapport
The second element to Nehlen’s recruiting success was creating rapport with high school coaches. If you are not going to successfully recruit 5 star athletes, you must have a system which assists in analyzing the talent.
No one can help you more than the high school coach. For instance, WVU knew it could not out recruit Penn State in Pa for a player Penn State really wanted. But that did not mean we could not recruit great players from Pa.
The coaches know the families, work ethic, and generally worked with the kids for years. The coaches knew the players would be taken care of and properly treated at WVU.
Through this relationship building process, we created pipelines through high schools such as Berwick, Matt Taffoni’s high school, Brashear in Pittsburgh, Bethel Park in Pittsburgh and later Okeechobee Fla.
Most of these players were blue collar talents which served as the bulk of the players who became the cogs which turned the wheel of success.
Also a part of the blue collar process is identifying players who in some way struggle either with personal problems or social problems, but who you feel will rise above their current situation.
Joe Paterno was once quoted in a newspaper in Pa concerning recruiting and he specifically said “I am not going into social services like West Virginia in order to get players”.
This statement is not entirely wrong. West Virginia recruited very successfully from Glenn Mills Prep in Philly. The boys who attended Glenn Mills were sent there through the court system.
To my knowledge all of the players who came to WVU from Glenn Mills stayed in school for the duration of their eligibility and some graduated. Also, I am aware of two players from Florida who were basically homeless.
Both stayed through their eligibility and contributed on the team. One became a professional football player. Many current school teachers, coaches, and school administrators in Florida owe their professional careers to the WVU coaching staff.
They put these kids in a system and worked with them. Yes many needed a kick in the rear end sometimes and occasionally fatherly advice, but in the end WVU and the student/ athlete both won.
Don Nehlen personally told me that he graduated every player who wanted to graduate. The WVU system provided a support mechanism for these young men to graduate, but they had to want to take advantage of it.
The last final comment on Nehlen’s recruiting is the opening up of Florida as a new territory. After WWII, the number of people attending college in West Virginia exploded. Not just WVU but all of the state schools. A predominate major in these schools was education.
The state of West Virginia was turning out more teachers than it could hire and the state of Florida was growing faster than it could educate teachers. So there was a match, many native West Virginians left the home state for Florida in search of teaching positions.
The WVU coaching staff decided to attempt to turn these previous residents into a pipeline for WVU football recruiting. Many of the players we first recruited came through Florida coaches and teachers who were from West Virginia.
In closing, the Nehlen Niche actually represented the state because we are blue collar. We work hard and achieve because that is how our families taught us. I put myself though WVU with the firm support of my family, even though all they could offer was to cheer me on.
Many of my fellow classmates were the same. We were the sons and daughters of telephone workers, coal miners, glass workers, steel workers and farmers. All of us were struggling to create a better way of life than our parents had, just like the players.
Don Nehlen’s program embodied the very nature of who we are. This work ethic was part of our heritage and Nehlen extended it through the football program and we loved it.
I am sure you can find many people; players, coaches, and fans who may have a different perspective on this article. But no one can debate Coach Nehlen’s success or the overachieving theme of the article. I hope you enjoyed it.
Written by guest columnist Don Pownell, author of “WVU is Where It Needs To Be”
Copy Edited by Michael Walker
Article Photo Courtesy of ESPN