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Editorial: History of WVU football coaches

Written by Don Pownell:

There is one thing which is true that separates me from most WVU football fans. I personally knew the following WVU coaches- Gene Corum, Jim Carlen, Bobby Bowden, Frank Cignetti, Don Nehlen, and Bill Stewart. I chose not to know Rich/Rod and to date have not taken an interest in meeting Dana Hogerson.   Due the fact that I knew these coaches, I would like to provide some insight into who they were as individuals. It has been a struggle to write this piece as I want to write fact with no personal reflection of the writer. And, of course I want it to be interesting. My assignment is not to write about won/lose records or state simple facts which anyone can find. My assignment is to write about them as people. After many failed attempts in writing the article, it became perfectly clear this article is going to reflect the changing social values of America. I cannot help it, people 50 years ago were different than they are today and of course so is college football. I am not attempting to write something to provide a basis for anyone to judge one against the other, I am writing about who they were as individuals.

Gene Corum was known as “gentleman” Gene, which is a perfect definition for him. Upon being relieved from head coaching duties at WVU, coach Corum was provided a position as an instructor in the department of physical education at WVU. Back in those days we at WVU did not put a man out in the cold, we took care of them. How did I meet coach Corum? While a student at WVU, I stop by his office and informed him I was a great mountaineer fan and I just wanted to shake his hand. He ask me to set down and did I have anything in mind to discuss. Of course we had lots to discuss. He was a gentleman in every respect and he made me feel perfectly at home. We had about a 30 minute conversation but he left me with the following impressions; first and foremost he remained a mountaineer and he was very proud to have lead the old gold and blue. Second he loved the state of West Virginia. Third he understood the position WVU held within the state and the value it created for the residents of WVU. Fourth, he ended his career as a teacher- This is an important point- Coach Corum saw his role as a coach as more than wins and loses- at heart he was a teacher and saw a responsibility to produce athletes who would contribute positively in society. One issue that gets looked over in Coach Corums tenture is that fact that he broke the color barrier, he recruited Roger Alford, the first African American to play football at WVU.

Jim Carlen without a doubt was the most dynamic of any head coach to come to WVU. I was in high school and my high school coach ask me if I wanted to meet coach Carlen and hear him speak. I have to say the guy was electric, his personality drove you to him. Coach Carlen is the one who really started the change to make us into who we are today. One may ask how did he do that- first he was unbelievably organized –he understood how to create an athletic organization- he started the organization at the grass roots on a local town by local town level-he convinced us that we had a rightful place in college football. His first year in Morgantown he traveled the state and gave 367 talks in 365 days. Second he brought in a great staff and delegated staff responsibilities. Third he recruited, he brought in some of our greatest players, Carl Crennel, Jim Braxton, Bobby Gresham, and Oscar Patrick, all of these were big time recruits and players. As an individual he was very religious, not only did he go to church on Sunday, all football players were required to go to church. Also, he wanted college athletes to graduate and he brought in a program to promote education within the athletic setting. Coach Carlen understood that College football was housed on an academic campus and the two were inseparable. Again He was very organized and ran a tight ship for the benefit of the State of West Virginia, WVU, and the student athlete- totally win/win. Carlen also got us out of the Southern Conference and we evolved into the eastern independents, a major step up in competition. My senior year in high school I worked and saved my money to buy two seasons tickets- I hitch hiked to the games (Morgantown was 3 hrs from my hometown) and whoever gave me a ride got a ticket to the game- enough said about Coach Carlen

Bobby Bowden was Carlen’s offensive coordinator, he was the mastermind behind the great offensive game plan to beat South Carolina in the first peach bowl. I don’t think WVU even considered anyone else except Bowden to be next head coach. I personally knew coach Bowden as well as his children Terry, Tommy, and Robin. Robin married Jack Hines a football player from Morgantown. Coach Bowden was a great family man. He was very involved with the local Baptist church. He even taught Sunday school. Coach Bowden did not drink and to the extent possible did not want alcohol served at various fund raisers and receptions. Like Carlen he put on a lot miles traveling the state to support various WVU programs. Bowden was not near the public orator as Coach Carlen but he was a great one on one guy. I would call coach Bowden a true southern gentleman. He had very high morals and principals. During his stay at WVU the entire college seen started to change of which I am sure created a challenge for him as it relates to his players. He was a successful head coach while at WVU. He followed coach Carlen and many expected him to produce more than we did. But in the end his record speaks for itself, we upped our schedule, recruited some of the most talented players ever to where the blue and gold, and won more than we lost. And of course Coach Bowden was a great guy.

Coach Cignetti came along much the same as Coach Bowden, he was offensive coordinator under Bowden. Being from relatively nearby Indiana Pa, it was thought that Cignetti would be more likely to stay. From my own knowledge I have a strong feeling that was a correct statement both for WVU and coach Cignetti. Within any organization we tend to hire people to key positions with views similiar to your own, so it is not surprising that in a lot of ways Cignettis personal principals were very similar to Bowden’s. Both of these men where very strong family men. If you followed coach Cignettis career you will be able to follow his relationship with his family, he was very loyal. Also, I would say Cignetti’s intention was to build a program and stay. The reasons Bowden left were two fold, first he had a really good opportunity at Florida State and second he lost everything in terms of talent his last year, so he was in a total rebuilding situation. Cignetti with a long term commitment from the WVU administration took a long term approach to rebuilding the program. In his first year Cignetti redshirted nearly the entire incoming freshman class. In his first year of coaching he had a really bad year. But he started us on a path for long term improvement. Unfortunately, something happened which nobody saw coming, coach Cignetti got a rare form of cancer. Coach Cignetti and WVU went through a very difficult time. He was not supposed to live. So what do you do, how inhuman it would be to let him go. Also, if anyone knew or Knows Cignetti, he is a fighter, he is a tough person. He came through and survived but would it relapse, how long could he coach. We were getting killed in recruiting with rumors most of which were untrue. In the end, WVU and coach Cignetti both did the right thing. Reluctantly Cignetti gave up the reigns of the football program and became assistant athletic director. This gave him a position with stature, an income, and mostly a source of health insurance. The rest is history, he totally recovered became athletic director at Indiana State University in Indiana Pa and later head football coach. In the end he wound up in the NCAA hall of fame. In my opinion it could not happen to a nicer guy. Way to go Frank, we are glad you were a part of us and likewise we hope you feel the same. In closing I want to mention I did meet Frank on a number of occasions and new several staff members.

The next coach without a doubt I knew the best. I cannot say I liked him personally the best but I will say I respected him the most. I liked Bobby Bowden the most but Coach Nehlen was the man. Coach Nehlen created a recruiting club and I became a member of that club. By NCAA rulers the involvement of alumni today in recruiting has been basically eliminated. I do want to set the record straight in one important area which has gotten lost over time. Coach Nehlen won from the git/go, he did so with Frank Cigenttis talent. As previously stated Cignetti was building for the future, so we had experienced talent in school. Now having said that I can tell you coach Nehlen took the program to a level which I am not sure many other people in the country could have done. He had two great qualities: first he had the same trait as Carlen. He understood how to build and administer a large organization. Nehlen knew how to build an organization in doing so he built a great team around him. The second, a mark of the man is respect from previous players, associates, and colleagues. I cannot tell you how this network sent players to WVU to play for Don Nehlen, it was unbelievable. People trusted their kids/kin folk with coach Nehlen and I can tell you he did not let them down. Nehlen told me personally, I graduated every player who wanted to graduate and than some. He started out as a junior high school teacher and coach. He too understood that college football is located in an academic setting and the two had to coexist in order to have a successful program. Coach Nehlen was a man of personal chariture and integrity. Of all the coaches I truly believe that he took his responsibility with the players to a higher level of any WVU coach. I could provide many many examples but the space on the page will not allow it.   In closing, I will say this amount Don Nehlen, in the end we discovered he is one us, he’s family. That is the highest compliment I can pay him.

The next coach, Bill Stewart, I knew him and his family. We worked together one summer at the Shinnston Power station. His father and my father in law worked together for many years as welders and pipefitters. I could provide more information than many would want to read about Stew. But I say this, Bill was a true mountaineer he was one of us. He loved the state and WVU, what else can you say. There was a lot controversy over Bill, most of it brought on by the previous president, Ollie was a willful mouth piece, both have moved on. Many younger fans did not like him while many of the older fans liked him. I will end by saying this about Stew, he is the winningest coach ever in their first 3 years of coaching at WVU.

The next remaining coaches Rich/Rod and Dana Hogerson I have never met. It would be unfair to attempt to put forward information gained from my personal knowledge of other coaches and then create stories on these two coaches gained from third parties. There is adequate information contained in this article for the reader to clearly delineate the changes in coaches and big time college football over the past 50 years


To me over time WVU Football has been a great reflection on the state and a great asset for the state. Bobby Bowden, Don Nehlen, Rich/Rod, and Dana Hogerson all brought trend setting offenses to college football. Bowden, Nehlen, and Cignetti all wound up in the college football hall of fame. We need to continue to be proud of who we are and what we are. WVU football continues to amaze me. We are the smallest state in the country to have a very successful national football program.

As we move forward we need to always remember we West Virginians are special and we need to continue to keep what makes us special a part of our football program.

Lets goooooooooooooooooo

Other editorials from this writer: WVU is Where it Needs To Be – published November 5, 2014

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