When Bobby Bowden was assembling his Florida State coaching staff in 1976, one of the guys he wanted to take with him from West Virginia was Donnie Young.
Bowden had great respect for Donnie as a football coach and even greater respect for him as a person.
Donnie was a Mountaineer through and through, and West Virginia is where he always wanted to be. Earlier today, Young passed away in Morgantown after years of declining health, according to a Facebook post made by his son, Chad.
“One of the all-time great Mountaineers,” Hall of Fame West Virginia coach Don Nehlen said. “No one loved this University and the Mountaineers more than Donnie did. He was on my staff for 21 years as an on-field coach and administrator, and he did a great job in every area.”
Donnie came to West Virginia from Clendenin in 1961 as part of Gene Corum’s first full recruiting class. Young, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound guard, once recalled feeling a little bit intimidated about the prospect of being recruited by WVU because he came from such a small town.
“I came up on my recruiting trip and watched Richmond kick the crap out of West Virginia, and I left thinking, ‘I can play here,'” he laughed.
That was during the year when Corum’s Mountaineers didn’t win a single football game.
But by the time Young was a senior in 1964, he had played on an eight-win team in 1962 that won for the first time ever at Syracuse’s Archbold Stadium, and a seven-win squad during his senior year when the Mountaineers faced Utah in the Liberty Bowl.
Young was a backup, two-way guard on those West Virginia teams.
“Donnie was known for having the meanest forearm on the football team,” longtime friend, teammate and colleague Ed Pastilong recalled earlier today. “Donnie and I have been friends for nearly 60 years. It began at Jackson’s Mill when we were freshmen and when we came back to Morgantown after training camp, neither of us had a roommate so we became roommates on the top floor of the old men’s dormitory.”
It was Pastilong’s wife, Mona, who introduced Donnie to his wife, Chyleen, when Mona and Chyleen worked together at the WVU Med Center.
When Young was named Salem’s head football coach in 1966, one year after graduating from WVU, he called Pastilong and asked him to join his Tiger coaching staff.
“He told me, ‘Ed, I need an assistant coach, and I want to make sure the guy I hire isn’t smarter than me. I think you fit the job perfectly,'” West Virginia’s former athletic director laughed.
After leading Salem to an 8-1 record and earning West Virginia Conference Coach of the Year honors, Young returned to his alma mater in 1970 to coach the Mountaineer freshman team. A year after that, Bowden promoted Young to linebackers coach when Howard Tippett left.
Donnie remained involved with West Virginia University football for the next 43 years until retiring in 2012.
“If there was anybody who was Mr. WVU Football it’s Donnie Young, without a doubt,” Steve Dunlap, WVU player and former defensive coordinator, said this afternoon. “He was the secret ingredient to West Virginia University’s football success, let me tell you.”
Young’s long tenure at WVU included a nine-year stint as an on-field coach for Bowden and Frank Cignetti, including one season as Cignetti’s defensive coordinator in 1977.
It was probably the most difficult year of his coaching career, according to Dunlap.
“He once told me, ‘That was the most miserable year of my life, being the coordinator,'” Dunlap said. “He would second-guess every call he made, and if it didn’t work then it was his fault. I always felt the players play the game, and when I became defensive coordinator I was just calling the defense. I never thought like that.
“He felt every call was critical, and it just made him a nervous wreck,” Dunlap added.
West Virginia never had a better football coach from Sunday to Friday than Donnie Young. He was at his best on the practice field drilling his players in the basic fundamentals of the game.
He spoke with a high-pitched voice and rarely ever cussed or yelled at his guys, but he was tougher than the West Virginia coal sitting underneath us.
“We did things over and over and over,” Dunlap recalled. “When I became a senior, I asked him, ‘Why do we keep doing these things over and over?’ He said, ‘You may know it, but what about the guys behind you?’ He always had an answer for everything.”
When Cignetti was fired following the 1979 season, Young was one of the coaches on Cignetti’s staff in jeopardy of losing his job.
At first, Cignetti’s replacement, Don Nehlen, wasn’t too interested in keeping Young around because he didn’t know much about him, but once he realized how valuable he was, he found a spot for him as the recruiting coordinator.
Young moved from the field to the office and became one of the most valuable members of Nehlen’s staff because of his keen eye for football talent.
There is no person in the history of Mountaineer football, past or present, who can match Young’s evaluation skills.
He didn’t rely on recruiting lists or pay attention to which schools were recruiting the prospects he targeted – he trusted his eyes.
“He was very instrumental in helping build this program and sustain the success we enjoyed for a lot of years,” Nehlen said.
“He sat in the office all day and evaluated film, and he was the best I ever saw at it,” Dunlap marveled. “He could find this 6-foot-4 guy who weighed maybe 230 pounds, ask him a few questions and the next thing you know he’s 290 pounds and a second-round NFL draft pick. He was just absolutely amazing. His evaluation skills were really phenomenal.”
In 1993, when West Virginia had a vacancy on its defensive staff, Dunlap wanted Young to return to the field to coach the outside linebackers.
At the time, Dunlap was doing a lot of cutting-edge stuff, borrowing a lot of concepts that were popular in the NFL back then, and Donnie was the perfect sounding board for some of the more exotic things Dunlap would sometimes come up with.
“He’d say, ‘How can you remember all of that stuff?'” Dunlap chuckled, using Young’s high-pitched voice. “But when we had the No. 1 defense in the country, guess who was coaching the outside linebackers? Donnie Young!”
“He was a great guy, a great coach and a great person,” Nehlen said. “He was the best friend I had in Morgantown. I don’t know anyone who did not like Donnie Young, nor who Donnie did not like. Everyone thought the world of him, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Young continued to work for West Virginia under coaches Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart and Dana Holgorsen before retiring in 2012.
That’s an amazing 44 years at one place!
You don’t work 44 years at one place without being exceptional at what you do. Young had a great feel for people and was so genuine; a true gentleman. There were no strangers to Donnie, just old friends and new friends.
He was also smart enough to let the head football coach win some racquetball matches through the years as well.
“He’d say, ‘Why do you always try and beat Don in racquetball all of the time?” Dunlap said. “You know, it doesn’t hurt to lose every once in a while’ and then he’d just wink at me.”
“Donnie is one of the finest people I’ve ever met,” Pastilong said softly, his voice trailing. “He was a good person, a good student, a good coach, a good husband, a good father and a good man.”
In 2016, Young was inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame for his many years of outstanding service.
He continued to make his permanent residence in Morgantown with Chyleen, although the couple also had a winter home in Florida.
Young is survived by two grown children, daughter Tabitha and son Chad, and several grandchildren.
He was 77.