UMD football coach Nielson a finalist for Western Illinois jobMinnesota Duluth football coach and athletic director Bob Nielson is one of three finalists for the head coaching position at Western Illinois University.
By: Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota Duluth football coach and athletic director Bob Nielson is one of three finalists for the head coaching position at Western Illinois University.
Nielson, who has gone 100-26 in 10 seasons at UMD, including two NCAA Division II championships, is scheduled to interview Monday in Macomb, Ill., according to a release posted Wednesday on the Western Illinois website.
Nielson, 53, couldn’t be reached for comment.
UMD players were mostly surprised to hear the news Wednesday.
“My dad just called and let me know that,” said linebacker Colby Ring, who led the Bulldogs in tackles as a junior this fall. “I’m surprised, but with the success we’ve had, that’s one of the reasons I’m not as surprised. Coach Nielson is a great coach, so there are a lot of teams out there that would love to have him.”
Missouri Science and Technology head coach David Brown, and Bill Cubit, former head coach at Western Michigan, are the other finalists. Interviews are scheduled to conclude Tuesday, with Western Illinois director of athletics Tim Van Alstine expecting to announce a head coach shortly thereafter.
With Nielson holding two key positions at UMD, filling the void left from his departure could be more difficult, especially if he were to take part of his coaching staff with him. It also could affect recruiting. National signing day is Feb. 6, when high school senior athletes announce where they plan to attend college.
Should Nielson get the Western Illinois job, Ring was confident UMD would find a suitable replacement. He said the Bulldogs outlook will not change.
“Our team is set, so if he is here, he’s here. If he’s not, he’s not,” Ring said. “We always have goals to be top-ranked in the conference and make a run in the playoffs, so none of that should change. We’re going to have returning players who have been here and know what it’s like to be a Bulldog. It shouldn’t be that much different.”
Western Illinois is a Football Championship Subdivision school, a level up from UMD and a level below Division I football.
The Fighting Leathernecks fired coach Mark Hendrickson after going 3-8 this fall and 1-7 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Western Illinois closed the season with six straight losses.
Nielson came to UMD in 1999 after helping build Ripon College, Wartburg College and
Wisconsin-Eau Claire into winners. His first season at UMD, the Bulldogs went 3-8. UMD has not had more than four losses in a season under him since.
Nielson stepped away from coaching after the 2003 season to become UMD athletic director. He returned in a dual AD and coaching role in 2008, leading a UMD team that finished 4-6 the previous year to a 15-0 mark and its first national football championship. In the five years since his return, the Bulldogs have gone 62-7 and won five straight Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference North Division titles.
Running back Austin Sikorski, who tied for the team lead with 893 rushing yards as a sophomore this fall, said he would be disappointed if Nielson leaves but would respect the decision.
“I’d love for him to stay, but it’s ultimately his choice,” Sikorski said. “He is the guy who brought me in and recruited me. He’s always been here for me, and his record speaks for itself. He’s a fantastic coach, and in my opinion, the best in Division II. Everything he does is very professional and to the highest level. The reputation UMD has, he’s built that.”
Mostly quiet and reserved, even stoic, Nielson showed an emotional side following some of the Bulldogs’ more memorable season-ending wins and losses.
Ring recalled Nielson visiting his home in Baxter, Minn., when UMD was recruiting him.
“Coach Nielson was a big part in me coming here, but you don’t really get to know the coach until you come and play for him,” Ring said. “All the coaches are going to put on a happy face for the recruiting, but Coach Nielson actually backed it up. He was the same person. He’s definitely a reason people stick around.”