MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The First Lady of West Virginia University football has died.
Merry Ann Nehlen, 82, wife of Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen, passed away peacefully at home yesterday evening surrounded by family following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“She was such a class act, such a dignified lady,” Lori Rice, Mountaineer football’s longtime administrative associate said.
Merry Ann, spelled Merry instead of Mary because she was born on Christmas Day, shunned the spotlight and preferred to support her husband and her family from behind the scenes.
She rarely traveled, with the exception of one yearly trip with the other coaches wives, but she faithfully attended all of the home games at Mountaineer Field, sitting with the other coaches’ wives in an outdoor box, frequently bundled up when the weather turned cold.
Through the good times, when Nehlen’s teams were nationally ranked and earning bowl bids, and the not-so-good times when misguided fans would sometimes fly unpleasant banners over the stadium, Merry Ann’s outward demeanor never changed.
“She handled those types of things with such dignity,” Rice recalled. “She was just so impeccable whenever you saw her.”
Nehlen, in his autobiography I’m Nobody Special, co-authored by the late Bill Smith, wrote that he and Merry Ann grew up in Canton, Ohio, and had known each other since the third grade.
“We had gone steady since my junior year in high school and had been engaged since my junior year (at Bowling Green),” he wrote.
Although she was born and raised in Ohio, Merry Ann quickly adopted West Virginia once Nehlen was hired to replace Frank Cignetti on Dec. 7, 1979.
During Nehlen’s introductory press conference held at the WVU Coliseum, Merry Ann was asked about her husband’s decision to take over a football program that was coming off four consecutive losing seasons and was regarded by some as a graveyard for football coaches.
“I had the feeling that the moment I got off that airplane that I was a West Virginian,” she replied.
And she remained a West Virginian for the rest of her life.
When Nehlen entertained other job offers seemingly every year following his team’s stunning upset victory over Florida in the 1981 Peach Bowl, Merry Ann would subtly remind her husband that their son, Danny, and daughter, Vicky, were all together here in Morgantown.
Then, when Ohio State opted to hire John Cooper instead of Nehlen following the 1987 season, Merry Ann made her desires clear.
“Don, that’s enough,” she told him. “This is our home.”
21100When Nehlen decided to retire with three games remaining in the 2000 season, Merry Ann was also supportive of her husband’s decision.
“I was driving home on a Sunday night and we had already played about seven or eight football games,” Nehlen recalled in 2006. “It was about 11 o’clock at night and I was thinking, ‘I’ve been doing this for about 43 years and I think it’s time to let somebody else go home at 11 o’clock at night and let me sit home and watch television.'”
The Nehlens went out on top a month later when West Virginia defeated Ole Miss 49-38 in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Every bowl game we ever played I’d tell my wife, ‘Hey, Mac, this is going to happen’ or ‘that is going to happen.’ I told her before the Mississippi game to hang on to her hat. We could get beat by 40 points,” Nehlen said. “They had won eight games in the SEC and they were a pretty good football team and at times we were good and at other times we were bad.
“My coaching staff was all upset because they were all told they would not be staying, our practices were terrible and the weather was terrible,” he continued. “The only thing nice about the entire experience was the locker room. That game was great because not only did we go out winning, but it was in a bowl game because bowl games had been an albatross hanging around our necks.”
Nehlen always considered himself “nobody special” despite lifting up an entire state in the early 1980s during a time when the coal industry was struggling mightily and people were leaving West Virginia in record numbers.
If he ever got the urge to feel just a little bit special for all that he had accomplished at WVU, however, Merry Ann was always right there to bring him back to down to Earth – gently, of course.