WVU football: Former Mountaineers football coach Carlen dies at 79
Memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Friday at Trenholm Road United Methodist Church, in Colombia, S.C. A visitation will immediately follow at the church gymnasium.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Noted as a man who helped make the present possible for West Virginia because of his willingness to stare into the future, former Mountaineers football Coach Jim Carlen died Sunday at his home in South Carolina.
Carlen was 79.
"He really set the tone for where things are today," said former WVU running back Garrett Ford. "He started offseason programs that we never had and that were totally new to us. His recruiting was different from what we were used to. He placed an emphasis on special teams that we never experienced.
"He was a very good person who I think came to Morgantown at a time in America where there was a transition taking place racially throughout the country."
Carlen, who coached the Mountaineers from 1966-69 with a record of 25-13-13, succeeded Gene Corum after Corum integrated WVU football in 1962 when he signed Dick Leftridge and Roger Alford. Ford was on the roster as a junior when Carlen arrived from Georgia Tech and built a staff made almost entirely of coaches from the south.
"We didn't know what to expect," said Ford, who was one of just a handful of black players on the roster. "Many of us had never been to the south and the things we knew about the south were what we heard on the news. Then he brings in this offensive coordinator, a guy in his 20s, from Birmingham, Ala., which had a terrible reputation for racial segregation down there.
"Now, that guy was Bobby Bowden, but we just didn't know. These guys had never coached black kids before. But it was never really a problem. I can never remember him saying, 'I'm playing him because he's black,' or, 'I'm not playing him because he's black.' He just did what he felt was right."
Carlen continued the transition, trusting the opinion of others to further advance a change he believed in at WVU.
"I remember he came to me and Garrett and some other guys and asked us how he could recruit black players and I remember one of the things I said was, 'You've got to do something about the population. You have to increase the comfort level of the other minorities all around, not just on the football team,'" said former WVU offensive, defensive and special teams star John Mallory.
"I don't know exactly what he did, but what I always heard was he went to the admission office and said, 'You've got recruit more minorities to the school, not just the football program, so everyone feels comfortable with this.' "
In Carlen's first recruiting class, he landed Dale Farley, Jim Braxton and Bob Gresham. Each played in the National Football League.
"Coach Corum was the one who took the risk, but Coach Carlen was the one who picked it up and ran with it," Mallory said.
Carlen relieved and impressed his players during a coaching transition and a monumental time in the country's history. He disciplined on equal terms and held everyone to the same, strict curfew. Players and coaches went to church together. When the Mountaineers weren't playing football, chances were they were hanging out somewhere together.
"He was really business-like," said former quarterback Mike Sherwood. "There wasn't a lot of monkey business with him. There wasn't a lot of fooling around. He was aware of everything you were doing, wherever it was. He knew what everyone was doing in the classroom and out and about socially. And the guys respected him because of that."
That was just a part of his overall vision. Carlen was WVU's first football coach who aggressively assessed the present and projected what he saw for the future. Carlen didn't always like what he saw and pushed for more and better things for the program.
Carlen had gripes about the roads and is widely credited with at least getting people thinking about Interstate 79 so that there was easier access to the campus. He wanted a team trainer and some sort of a plan to keep players fit after the season. He was even a key factor in getting WVU out of the Southern Conference before the 1968 season so the Mountaineers could play tougher opponents, recruit better players, draw bigger crowds and make more money.
Everything would benefit his players, who could be invited to the top bowl games and get drafted into the NFL.
"One day at spring practice, when I was a junior going into my senior year, he called me over to him and said, 'Look, you've got to extend yourself here. Do you know who those guys are over there? Those are scouts and they like you,' " Mallory said.
"Well, up until that time, I was serious about football, but I wasn't thinking about going pro. I was thinking about being a phys-ed teacher, but he changed that for me."
Carlen was 3-5-2 in his first season and followed that with 5-4-1, 7-3 and 10-1 records. The Mountaineers lost only to Penn State in the 1969 season and ended up playing in the Peach Bowl against South Carolina.
WVU had lost receiver Oscar Patrick to a season-ending knee injury before the Penn State game and Carlen benched receiver Wayne Porter for the bowl after he found out Porter had cut class. Down two receivers for the bowl, Carlen secretly installed the Wishbone for the game. WVU beat the Gamecocks in the rain and mud, 14-3, and ran 79 times for 356 yards.
"If it hadn't been raining, we would have beaten them by 40," Carlen said in 2007.
As Carlen was keeping that a secret, he was also hiding a behind-the-scenes struggle with university President James Harlow. Carlen, who was making $17,000 that season, wanted more money for his assistants.
"He said we had a good year, but we would have had a better year if we had beaten Penn State," Carlen said.
Texas Tech was looking for a coach and Carlen agreed to meet with school representatives in Atlanta as Carlen was preparing for the Peach Bowl. The morning of the game the news had finally went public. After the win, Carlen and Harlow spoke and Carlen said he was leaving, despite never visiting the Texas Tech campus.
Harlow asked what he needed to do to keep Carlen.
"I'm insulted," Carlen replied. "You didn't want me until someone else wanted me. I don't want to do business that way."
He was 37-20-2 in five seasons with the Red Raiders and went 1-2-1 in bowl games. The school inducted him into their Hall of Honor in 2008. Carlen was hired by South Carolina in 1975 and was 45-36-1 in seven seasons, when he was also the athletic director. In 1980, Gamecocks running back George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy.
"I'm really hurting about this and I'm sure everyone else is," Mallory said. "He was a man I definitely consulted with on some major moves in my life because I respected him so much and because he was not one who lacked an opinion or gave you a couple of views on how to do things. He told you what he thought."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.