The Nehlen factor
Retiring coach has lost eight consecutive bowls
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- Don Nehlen never thought he'd be linked to Bo Schembechler this way.
Before Nehlen left Michigan as an assistant coach to take over at West Virginia in 1980, the Wolverines had lost seven straight bowl games under Schembechler, including four Rose Bowls.
Nehlen has continued that tradition in his 21 seasons with the Mountaineers. West Virginia (6-5) has lost eight straight bowls heading into Thursday's Music City Bowl clash with Mississippi (7-4).
"I brought the disease with me from Michigan," said Nehlen, who is retiring after the game. West Virginia regrouped Monday night and flew to Nashville, Tenn. It's been so long since a postseason win for the Mountaineers that their last one came in a now-defunct bowl - the 1984 Bluebonnet.
Although the NCAA doesn't keep records for bowl futility, West Virginia is tied with South Carolina for the longest such losing streak in Division I-A. The Gamecocks lost eight straight from 1946 to 1998 before contributing to West Virginia's current streak by beating the Mountaineers in the 1995 Carquest Bowl.
Nehlen's teams haven't even led in a bowl since the 1994 Sugar, a span of four games. And in that game, Florida won in a rout, 41-7.
So he's finished trying to figure out ways to win and how to motivate his players.
"I have been to so many bowls with so many different approaches. I don't know what to do," he said. "We tried everything from killing them to kissing them. I can't get up there and say, 'Win this game for me.' If they don't know we have not won a bowl game, they are really stupid."
Nehlen, who is 201-128-4 in 30 seasons as a college coach, says going out a winner doesn't matter to him.
"201 or 202, I better have a buck when I go get coffee," he said. "But I sure like to see these kids win it, I'll tell you that."
And West Virginia's players sure want to win this one for Nehlen, the dean of Big East coaches who turns the program over to new coach Rich Rodriguez after the game.
"The new guys don't want to be the ones to keep the streak going," linebacker Kyle Kayden said. "The seniors, especially, don't want to go out a loser. It's big."
The bowl blemishes have little bearing on Nehlen's impact on the program.
When he arrived, the Mountaineers were coming off four consecutive losing seasons. He got WVU into a bowl in his second year, upsetting Florida in the Peach Bowl.
He is the fifth active Division I-A coach with 200 wins. He's had 15 winning seasons in Morgantown, including undefeated regular seasons in 1988 and 1993.
In recent years, Nehlen reversed his own tendency for boring, straight-ahead football by opening up his run-oriented offense with four-wide receiver sets. This year, his sideshow was fullback Wes Ours, a 290-pound converted lineman.
He'll have a few surprises saved for Mississippi, which will play West Virginia for the first time.
"We have one or two wrinkles we have not shown, but wrinkles do not beat anybody," Nehlen said. One thing he's sick of is mistakes on special teams. Bad snaps on punts, blocked punts and poor judgment on fielding punt returns have led to opponents' touchdowns all season.
"Maybe we won't punt this game," Nehlen said. "Maybe I will be an innovative coach my last game. Fourth down, the hell with it. We are just going to heave it."