Northwestern assistant football coach Andy Lind approached Greg Nelson in the summer of 1988, when Nelson was working at his dad’s gas station.
It was a couple weeks before football practice was about to start, and Nelson didn’t know if he was going to start or be a key contributor. He wasn’t sure if it was worth it. Lind caught wind of Nelson’s potential plans, so he tracked him down where he worked.
“Coach Lind told me, ‘You’re a great player, we need you, the team needs you,’” Nelson said.
Nelson didn’t just go out. He ended up being a starting tackle on Northwestern’s state title team, and the rest, as they say, is Tigers’ history.
Lind has coached football off and on for about 35 of the past 40 years at Northwestern, much of it on a volunteer basis, and is known for his passion and intensity, yet, extremely soft heart.
If Northwestern football is a family, Lind is the patriarch.
Football teaches great life lessons, and Nelson said nobody delivers them better than Lind. Nelson’s son, Harrison, is a senior wide receiver and defensive back on this year’s team. After last Friday’s hard-fought homecoming win over St. Croix Falls, six Tigers seniors, including Harrison Nelson, gathered near the south goalpost with their dads — all of whom played for Lind — to take photos, tease, tell old stories, and thank Lind for those lessons learned, even if, sometimes they come the hard way.
“You play hard, but life isn’t always going to be fair, it’s not always going to go the way you want it, but you gotta get up and go through it again, get ready for the next play,” Greg Nelson said. “Coach Lind has that passion for the game and that wanting to play extremely hard, but yet, never ever is there talk about playing cheap or getting back at someone. It’s all about playing hard between the whistles, playing Tiger football.”
With COVID-19 pushing the start of the season back this year, practice started in September and Lind wanted to get a feel for who the Tigers had back this year. Lind asked, “How many of your dads played for me?” More than a dozen hands came up. Lind doesn’t know them all well yet, oh, but he will. You can be sure he will.
“I’m just getting to know them,” Lind said. “It’s fun, I’m going to tell you, I love it. It’s fun to rib the guys about what their dads did, and some of the things that happened when they were playing. We have some good laughs about it.”
Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall far from the Maple tree.
“When I hear some of them laughing behind me, I have to turn around (and almost do a double take),” Lind said. “They sound just like their dads, and some of the goofy things they say and do, it’s just like their dads when they were playing. I feel very fortunate to be able to coach these players today. It’s just as much fun as when I had their fathers 25 or more years ago. I love it, and it’s kind of a neat thing. Whatever is good for the Northwestern Tigers is good for me."
Lind, 69, started coaching in 1977 in Meadowlands, Minnesota, before going to his alma mater, South Shore, to coach football. South Shore eventually dropped football, and in 1985, Lind went to Northwestern as an assistant coach under Bill Pelkey. Lind took over the head coaching job in 1990 and was head coach at Northwestern for seven years. He took some years off and coached girls basketball when his daughter was playing, but it didn’t take him long to get back into football.
Lind retired from teaching in 2007 and works mostly with the offensive and defensive lines.
“When he speaks, you listen, and with his experience and success, there’s no reason not to listen. They listen and do what they’re told,” Greg Nelson said. “He corrects you, he’ll tear you down, but he immediately brings you back up and encourages you, and when you do something right, the whole world knows it, because his voice carries. So when he’s on you about a mistake, it’s more one-on-one, but when you do something good, he makes sure everyone knows that you did it. That’s just another reason you want to play hard for him.”
Both Nelsons admitted it can be intimidating playing for Lind when you’re a freshman or sophomore. While he’s slimmed down, the older Nelson said back in the day, Lind stood a little over 6 feet tall and was full of muscle — clearly, a phenomenal athlete.
But any intimidation factor quickly subsides. Lind is tough, old school as it gets, but it’s tough love, and players eventually get it: He wants what’s best for them.
“I definitely learned to love him,” Harrison Nelson said. “I’m very blessed to have him as a coach, and it’s kind of crazy that my dad had him, too. My friends and I talk about it, just how crazy it is, to have a coach like that, doing the same thing for us that he did for our dads. It’s definitely a family tradition.”
Not done yet
The family ties, of course, aren’t just about the players. Head coach Jovin Kroll is Lind’s son-in-law and was coached by him, as was assistant coach Cody Fechtelkotter, his nephew.
Northwestern loves its football, in part because everyone is so invested in it. Winning doesn’t hurt, either. Northwestern is accustomed to winning, including an undefeated regular season last year. The Tigers (3-0) will be challenged this week when they play at Cumberland (3-0) at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16, in a Heart O’ North Conference clash.
“We have great practices. We have a lot of fun working with each other,” Lind said. “Pete Lawton works with the offensive and defensive lines and Nick Olson … it’s just a terrific staff. Josh Antilla, one of our assistant coaches, his dad is Jeff Antilla, who played on the ’88 team (and was Wisconsin’s player of the year in 1988). It’s just a constant connection from the community to our football program, and that’s what makes it so special. The whole program is really connected, and that’s what makes it so much fun.”
Kroll joked that Lind should have a doctorate in psychology, with some of the pregame preaches he gives. Just the other day, he weighed in on pain vs. injury. Google search “Andy Lind Northwestern football” and in a couple photos that pop up, you’d think it was Charlton Heston delivering from atop Mount Sinai.
But what makes it work is his players A) respect him, and B) believe him. His track record and knowledge speaks for itself, but a little passion and emotion never hurt, either.
“He always makes sure we’re doing the correct things. That we try our best to win,” Harrison Nelson said. “He definitely gets into his speeches. He gets everyone hyped up for our games, and we definitely play for him. We don’t want to let him down.”
Nobody can coach forever, of course, and it would be selfish to expect a coach to keep coaching when he’s got family, friends, fishing, whatever he could be spending time doing. Greg Nelson would love to see him coach until his seventh grade son comes through the ranks, but he knows that might not happen.
Lind was asked the obvious question, but of course, in his humble way, acted like it came out of left field. How much longer will you coach?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’m going year-by-year right now. It’s so much fun to work with our staff, and so much fun to be at practice. And you make these relationships, you become good friends with these players, and you hate to leave them. As long as it’s fun, I’m going to keep doing it, and I’m having a lot of fun right now, so I don’t see myself leaving any time in the near future. They might be stuck with me for a couple more years.”
And that’s perfectly fine with Greg Nelson, who went from strongly considering not playing his senior year to playing college football at Northwestern in St. Paul. Thanks to Lind.
Every coach makes an impact, good or bad, but some change a life. There were only so many state champions crowned in the state of Wisconsin in 1988, and Nelson is proud to say he was one of them. He said that season was the best year of his life, and to think that it almost never happened isn’t lost on him.
“If it wasn’t for Andy, I may not have even played my senior year,” Nelson said. “I’m really glad he talked me into playing. If I didn’t, it would have been a sad deal, but he made me feel like I was important and would be a value to the team, so I did it. He’s the best role model a kid could have.”