It's official: Nielson leaves UMD for Western IllinoisBob Nielson officially left Minnesota Duluth as football coach and athletic director on Wednesday to accept the head football coaching position at Western Illinois.
By: Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune
Minnesota Duluth football coach and athletic director Bob Nielson was known for being rather stoic during his 14 years with the Bulldogs, but he often showed a softer side when dealing with his players, especially after a big win or a tough loss.
Nielson addressed those players one last time on Wednesday morning, an emotional farewell to let them know one of UMD’s all-time greatest coaches was accepting the head football coaching position at Western Illinois, a struggling Football Championship Subdivision school in Macomb, Ill. The Fighting Leathernecks introduced Nielson as the 27th head coach in program history later that afternoon at a news conference in Macomb.
After thanking Terri, his wife of 31 years, who Nielson called his “GM,” Nielson talked about turning around a Western Illinois team that has gone just 5-17 the last two years and is in need of a facilities upgrade.
Nielson, 53, guided UMD to a 100-26 record in 10 seasons, including two NCAA Division II championships. As athletic director, Nielson oversaw an athletic department that won five national titles, with women’s hockey (two) and men’s hockey (one) adding to the hardware.
“This is a great opportunity, and a great challenge, but great challenge always brings with it great opportunity,” Nielson said. “I believe that the future of Western Illinois football is bright and that we can accomplish much. This is going to be a team effort, and as the new leader of Fighting Leatherneck football I ask all of you to believe with me today, to join with me today as we move forward. My commitment to all of you is that I will give you my very best.”
Nielson was named one of three finalists for the Western Illinois job last week, and he interviewed for the position on Monday in Macomb, a town of 22,086 located about 70 miles southwest of Peoria, Ill.
Nielson agreed to a five-year contract with Western Illinois, but despite repeated requests by the Duluth News Tribune, the school had yet to release the financial terms of the deal as of Wednesday night. Nielson, in his dual role as UMD football coach and athletic director, made an annual base salary of $168,830 with the Bulldogs. He was expected to get a salary increase with the Leathernecks, who, coincidentally, also have a bulldog as their mascot.
UMD chancellor Lendley Black understood Nielson’s desire to move up to the FCS level but now has the challenge of filling two key positions in his athletic department. Black hopes to have a hiring plan in place by Friday.
“With all that Bob accomplished, you knew he was going to have opportunities like this, so it’s not a total surprise,” Black said. “My goal is to ensure as much continuity as possible, so we need to move quickly on both fronts (the AD and coaching positions). Bob helped us reach tremendous heights, but I want to build on that. I never like standing still. I want to take action that not only maintains what we’re doing, but also positions us to reach higher. The sky is the limit for us.”
Nielson is 170-59-1 in 20 seasons overall as a football coach, helping build winning programs at Ripon College, Wartburg College and Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Nielson couldn’t be reached Wednesday for comment, but he alluded to this fact when talking to the Leathernecks.
“I enjoy building, and if you look at my track record, you can see that there have been situations where I’ve taken over programs that needed a little push forward,” Nielson said. “That part of the situation here didn’t scare me, as a matter of fact, it got me excited about the potential here.”
Nielson stepped away from coaching after the 2003 season when he took the UMD athletic director’s job. He returned in a dual role in 2008, leading a team that had gone 4-6 the previous season to a 15-0 record and the school’s first national football championship. The Bulldogs have made the NCAA playoffs in each year since while winning five straight Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference North Division titles.
“For the past 13 years it’s been great people that have kept me in Duluth, Minn., and earlier this week I was impressed by another group of great people whose passion for Western Illinois football was overwhelming to me,” Nielson said at the news conference.
The Fighting Leathernecks have vowed to upgrade their program, which they consider the flagship of their athletic department, and their first step was getting a coach with credentials. Nielson was featured prominently in a photo collage on the school’s website, www.goleathernecks.com, on Wednesday.
Nielson, a native of Marion, Iowa, is closer to family relatives in Macomb, and with his twin children, Kyle and Kasey, graduating from Hermantown this spring, the timing was right.
“Bob was at an optimal point in his life,” said former Bulldogs basketball coach Gary Holquist, who now serves as UMD’s director of development. “He was either going to do it now, or never.”
Still, it wasn’t easy.
Former News Tribune football player of the year Nate Zuk of Moose Lake-Willow River will be a senior linebacker for the Bulldogs next fall and was at the meeting on Wednesday morning when Nielson addressed the team.
“It was obvious that Coach Nielson had thought about this for a really long time and that it wasn’t easy for him,” Zuk said. “When you leave such a big impact on a program like he has, you really think about your choices, but we’re all happy for him. Whenever a member of the Bulldog family has an opportunity like this, it’s a good thing. He built this program into what we are today, and you’ve got to thank him for that. Everyone moves on eventually, and this was his time.”