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West Virginia Legend Don Nehlen Talks College Football


-by Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden on twitter)

Athlon Sports' Braden Gall had a chance to sit down with legendary West Virginia head coach Don Nehlen. The former head coach of the Mountaineers touched on the current college football landscape, what the future holds for WVU, the job Dana Holgorsen has done and some of his favorite memories from coaching the planet’s greatest game.

Braden Gall: There has been a lot upheaval in the college football landscape lately. What are your thoughts on conference realignment and the direction college football is heading?

Don Nehlen: It’s a little scary. One of the great things about college football, in my opinion, is the rivalries. When I grew up I loved athletics as a kid. I couldn’t wait to see Nebraska play Oklahoma even though I lived in Ohio as a kid. It was Nebraska and Oklahoma. Or to watch USC and UCLA or Ohio State and Michigan. These types of rivalry could go by the wayside.

West Virginia and Pittsburgh have been playing football for a heckuva long time. It goes way, way, way back. And that rivalry is in jeopardy now that Pitt is going into the ACC. Frankly, we’ve got a homeless sign on the front door, you know, we are homeless. And we are waaaay too good to be homeless in my opinion.

If we go to 16-team leagues or a 64-team group and you are one of the 64, it’s all fine and dandy, but if you get left out it’s not so rosy. Now, it looks to me like there will be a two round playoff and national champion with those 64 teams when the season is over - which is pretty darn good, because it would be nice.

One thing I have always thought is that basketball does a sensational job of getting interest in the sport at the end of the year because of the Sweet 16 and the Final Four. Everybody gets excited and everybody watches it. And at the end of football, we have a lot of bowl games, but half of them are so ridiculous that nobody even watches them anyway.

So, I see the good that could come of it, but I worry about what happens to some of the great match-ups of the past. I hope they don’t disappear.

BG: With all of the violations and sanctions taking place around college football, is there anything that can be done to fix the problem or is it something we are going to have to deal with as college football fans forever?

DN: You know I wish I knew the answer to that question. The money has become so big – and I certainly don’t begrudge anybody making a lot of money – but when you are making that kind of money and you have got to win to keep your job, that is a scary situation in my opinion.

These boosters want to win so bad too. Kids leave the locker room and go through the parking lot on the way back to the dorm and these boosters call them up and say hey, do you want to have a beer or a pizza and then it’s hard to tell what else happens from there. And I don’t know how in the world you can control that. I don’t see how in the devil you can hold coaches accountable for something that happens like that because how in the world do they know?

Additionally, most of the athletes that are playing at the top level don’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of. So when somebody wants to hand them a $20 or a $50 bill on their way back to the dorms after a game, I wouldn’t be surprised if they take it even though that they know it is wrong.

BG: Is there a major scheme difference, Xs and Os wise, from when you played and what you see now on the field?

DN: When I played, we played the game in a phone booth. Now, they play it out on a football field. You use the whole field now. I grew up with Woody Hayes coaching Ohio State and power football. Full-house backfields, double-teaming, kicking it out and running it off-tackle and then throwing play-action passes off that kind of stuff.

Now, probably 65 percent of the teams are spreading the field all over. Even the teams that are power-running teams are doing it now on third down. I was pretty much a power running team – and I had Marc Bulger and a lot of other good quarterbacks and we threw the ball all over the lot too – but that was my third down offense, not my first down offense. Quarterbacks coming out of high school are running the spread so they are better prepared. There are wide receivers coming out of high school who have caught a lot of balls and so they are better prepared. They are getting recruited to play specific positions, and now you have skill position players and quarterbacks who have all kinds of experience at spreading it out and throwing it on three-step drops.

So it’s a completely different game now. It has forced the defenses to be able to tackle in space. It has forced the defenses to have guys that can run well. It has forced the defenses to use more three-down linemen sets rather than four down linemen because you want to match speed with speed. So the game has changed tremendously.

BG: Does the evolution of the athlete at quarterback, like a Major Harris or Pat White, level the playing field in college football?

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DN: I don’t think there is any question that if you run the spread stuff and you have a quarterback who can run the ball and throw it, you’ve got yourself a major, major advantage. Because you can go to a one-back set with the QB in the shotgun and that is, in essence, a two-back offense. But you’ve also spread somebody out somewhere that the defense has to cover with a linebacker. So you’ve got yourself a great situation to run the football with the quarterback. Of course, if the linebacker doesn’t go outside then, of course, you can throw it quickly to the guy they didn’t cover. So when you have a quarterback who can run and throw it, it absolutely drives the defense crazy.

Look at Michigan last year with Denard Robinson on a very, very average football team. Can you imagine if Michigan would have had a great defense with that kid at quarterback? But they couldn’t get the ball back. When I coached at Michigan, I don’t mind telling you, whoever we were playing would get the football for three downs and then punted. Because we played defense. Can you imagine what he would have done had he gotten the ball an extra four or five times a game? When I had Major Harris, he was so far ahead of his time. His thighs were so big and strong – he was about 215-218 pounds and would have been sensational in these modern offenses.

BG: What makes Dana Holgorsen’s offense so difficult to stop?

DN: First, of all, Dana and his staff know what they are doing. They are smart guys. When you think of football, you have 16 zones to protect and only 11 guys to protect them. So if you are a good offensive football coach, you can get match-ups on people that have both run responsibility and pass responsibility. You can make life pretty rough on those types of people. Especially, with the skill guys that WVU has. So I think Dana does a great job of finding match-ups that favor his offense.

Of course, the biggest thing is having a quarterback. And he is fortunate that he stepped into a job that has great quarterback. Geno Smith won’t beat you with his feet because he doesn’t want to. But if he has to, then he can. It’s not what wants to do – he wants to throw it – but he can pick them up and go if he has to. He is very, very accurate. He is very smart. He wants to be good and is willing to do what it takes to be good. He studies his opponents, and the offensive coaches do a great job of teaching him what they want him to do.

Dana’s offensive is very well-conceived. They screen; they do everything with the ball. One of the things I love is that they go down the field with it. They don’t always throw those little passes to the flats, they go down the field with it and I like that.

BG: Talk about your involvement in the Legends Poll and what that has meant to you.

DN: Number One, it’s a lot of fun. Every Monday morning I get a chance to talk with an awful lot of guys that I consider some of my best friends. Donny James and I coached against each other in the MAC. He grew up in Massillon, Ohio, and I grew up in Canton, Ohio. Heavens, I have only seen him three times in the last 20 years, but I get to talk with him every Monday morning and he is clear out there in Washington. John Robinson, Terry Donahue are out there on the West Coast too. Then we start to move east. LaVell Edwards is one of my best friends and I get a chance to hear him talk about the teams in that neck of the woods. So it’s a lot of fun for me because I am able to talk and discuss the landscape of college football and who is who with all those great coaches.

Number two, I think there is no one out there better able to rate the college football teams in the country than the guys who have coached the game for 30 or 40 years.

Number three, if I want to see a team then I have the ability to see any team I want to see on film. If don’t get to see Southern Cal on television for example, I have access to the game film and will look at them on tape. And it gives me some idea of how good they are.

So we have the expertise of guys who have coached and we have the expertise of being able to study teams on film. So if I want to vote for Oklahoma, LSU or Alabama, the best way for me to do it is to look at the film and try to figure out who is better. And I don’t mind telling you that you can flip a coin with those three.

I think the legends poll has real credibility and nobody hardly uses us. It’s ridiculous really. When I think of the Harris Poll and who has been picked to be a part of that – and I know the coaches don’t have time to do it because I was one of those guys – so I think we are the best poll by far.

BG: So who is the best team in the nation?

DN: I think that Alabama is a great football team. I was always taught you win championships with defense and you win games with offense. And I think they have a championship defense. They are extremely well-coached on defense. Their offense is not great but is very solid. What they do so well on offense is that they don’t make mistakes. They don’t get penalties, they don’t fumble, they don’t throw interceptions. They don’t do all the things that beat offensive football teams. So you put that great defense with a team, who offensively doesn’t make mistakes, and they are going to be very difficult for anybody to beat. And I think Alabama does that extremely well.

I think that LSU is pretty much in the same category. I think that defensively they are very quick, strong and have depth. I think that LSU and Alabama are very similar football teams. Who to give the edge to would be a heckuva decision. I think that Alabama makes maybe one or two less mistakes per game on offense.

When I watch Oklahoma, I see the same exact situation. A great offense, a great defense but I think they make a few more mistakes than Alabama.

So if I had to, it would be a toss up between Alabama and LSU for Number One with Oklahoma No. 3.

Check out other Athlon Sports Legends Interviews:

Air Force's Fisher DeBerry

Georgia's Vince Dooley

West Virginia's Don Nehlen

Washington's Don James
Arizona State's Frank Kush
Arkansas' Frank Broyles
BYU's LaVell Edwards

Special thanks to Athlon Sports partner The Legends Poll