Mountaineer Gameday: WVU’s win over Sooners in ’82 altered program
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the West Virginia University football team boarded a flight bound for Norman, Okla., 30 years ago, third-year Coach Don Nehlen didn't possess unwavering internal optimism before his team played nationally ranked Oklahoma and Barry Switzer's renowned wishbone attack.
"I wasn't too sure," the 76-year-old Nehlen said this week, as the Mountaineer program he helped build hosts the Sooners this Saturday.
"Our kids believed we could win; we had convinced them they could win."
WVU did, in fact, win. It was a program-altering 41-27 victory that is the only time in the Mountaineers' rich football history that they went on the road as an unranked team and beat a top 10 opponent.
"We had defeated Florida at the end of the year before and everybody thought that was a fluke," Nehlen said. "So we opened up the (1982) season with Oklahoma and we were probably an underdog by 30 or 40 points, but we went out there and won that thing.
"I think it gave us respectability. My first year (1980) we won six and our second year we won nine, but we were perceived as a team who only played teams in the east that weren't any good.
"Beating Oklahoma put the program on a different plateau."
If Nehlen truly wasn't sure how his team would respond against Switzer's superior players, he didn't show it externally. OU built a 14-0 lead early - something Nehlen thought could bury his team - before the Mountaineers started to whittle away at the deficit.
WVU scored 20 unanswered points in the second quarter and Nehlen set up the go-ahead touchdown by going for an onside kick just before halftime.
"We put a lot of eggs into that basket," Nehlen said. "We studied Oklahoma hard and we knew their tendencies and we knew what they were going to try to do. We figured if we could ever get ahead of them we could beat them because they were a wishbone, running team.
"We knew there was a chance we could get behind early because of their team speed, which we couldn't emulate in practice. We told the kids to not let that bother them, and when we went into the locker room at halftime with the lead the kids were completely convinced they would win it."
Nehlen had 149 (school record) of his 202 career coaching wins in his 21 seasons at WVU, and has watched the program prosper in the past decade.
He'll be in Morgantown this weekend to watch the Mountaineers take on the Sooners as conference counterparts, something that seemed unfathomable three decades ago.
"I never thought we'd be in their league," Nehlen said. "The distance is so far. When (Bobby) Bowden and (Frank) Cignetti coached we were in the Southern Conference, which was mid-major at best. When I came here we were an independent and played a difficult schedule. I always envisioned us in a conference with Penn State and Pitt and Virginia Tech and those guys."
Regardless of conference affiliation, the signature win over the Sooners started WVU down its current path. The recruiting base broadened. The Flying WV, which Nehlen introduced, became known outside of Mountain State borders.
There was brand recognition and the program blossomed.
"The better players started to look at us a little bit after the Oklahoma win," Nehlen said. "Up until that point real good high school football players didn't. We started to make a few inroads in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and after that victory over Florida (in the 1981 Peach Bowl), we started to attract a kid or two out of there.
"When I retired we had 20 or 21 kids from Florida, and now there are eight or 10 former players down there coaching and sending us players because we treated them fairly and honestly."
And, if you're curious, Nehlen is a fan of second-year Coach Dana Holgorsen. Nehlen thinks the Mountaineers are going to snap their four-game losing streak against the heavily favored Sooners.
"I got a good feeling about this one," Nehlen said. "You are never as good as you think you are and you are never as bad as you think you are. Our kids are going to play with a chip on their shoulder.
"I didn't have a good feeling for the Texas Tech game and I didn't have a good feeling for Kansas State, but this one I have a good feeling."
This time, he seems convinced.