EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second story in a two-part ‘State of South Dakota’ college football series examining the coaches and their programs at South Dakota State and the University of South Dakota
VERMILLION — Don’t let his calm and soft-spoken demeanor fool you, Bob Nielson is filled with passion.
He just never expected that passion to be focused toward his current career.
“I didn’t start out planning to be a college football coach,” said Nielson, who enters his fourth season as the head coach — yes, he became a football coach — at the University of South Dakota.
Nielson, you see, was offered the chance to be a student coach near the end of his stay as a student at Wartburg College in his native Iowa. He jumped at the chance.
Thus began a 38-year foray into the world of college football.
“It’s amazing that those kinds of things just happen,” Nielson said during an in-depth interview last month.
Six different programs — across every level of college athletics — are certainly thankful they did.
Known as a man who can build a program into a winner, the 59-year-old Nielson has in his 27 years as head coach twice won a national championship, three times earned a national coach of the year honor and has taken five consecutive programs to the playoffs within his first four years.
Nielson’s head coaching journey has taken him from Ripon (1989-90), Wartburg (1991-95), Wisconsin-Eau Claire (1996-98), Minnesota-Duluth (1999-2003, 2008-12), Western Illinois (2013-15) and South Dakota (2016-present).
He guided Minnesota-Duluth to Division II national titles in 2008 and 2010, guided Western Illinois to the FCS playoffs in 2015 and took USD to its first FCS playoff appearance in 2017.
At each stop along the way, Nielson has developed his own coaching style and philosophies, but what hasn’t changed is him. The location and the people around him may have changed, but Nielson said he is the same person off the field as on it.
“I’m proud of it,” he said. “I’m still the same person I was 30 years ago when I got my first head coaching job.”
Nielson had a good thing going in Macomb, Illinois.
His Western Illinois program had just come off a 7-win season and a run to the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2015. He was clearly building something special in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
He had no visions of leaving.
“I wasn’t looking for a job, that’s what makes this unique,” Nielson said.
Out of the blue, officials at USD reached out to Nielson to gauge his interest in taking over in Vermillion, following the retirement of Coyote legend Joe Glenn.
Nielson didn’t immediately say yes, but he eventually agreed.
“It wasn’t necessarily something I jumped at, but it was easy to see the commitment that they were making here and the passion they had for moving this program forward,” he said.
Belief — a trait Nielson has always looked for at his schools — is what eventually won him over, Nielson said. The leadership of men like Jim Abbott (former president), David Herbster (athletic director) and Dave Williams (former deputy A.D.) made it clear to Nielson, he said, that USD was moving forward.
“It’s always important to me to be at some place where college athletics are seen with value and with what they provide,” Nielson said.
Although the Coyotes were 4-7 in Nielson’s first season at the helm in Vermillion in 2016, there were obvious signs that things were moving in the right direction — namely, five losses by a touchdown or less.
A victory the following season at FBS Bowling Green helped spark an 8-win campaign and a trip to the FCS playoffs — with a win and then a loss in the second round — in Nielson’s second year.
One year ago at this time, the question facing Nielson’s program in Vermillion centered around how the Coyotes would follow up their playoff debut. Could they do it again? Could they take the next step?
Then came a 4-7 record.
“There was a lot of disappointment last year when we didn’t reach that goal,” Nielson said.
“We would have wanted to win more games last year and capitalize on some momentum, but it shows you how good the league is and how hard it is to win games in this league,” he added.
That playoff run two years ago taught the Coyotes what’s necessary to reach that point and also showed them why they were unable to do it a year ago, according to Nielson.
“Once you’ve tasted it, you want to get back there again,” he said. “That’s where we’re at right now.
“We understand what it takes to get there and we realized why we didn’t get back.”
Of course, when you play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, you can’t afford slip-ups in any fashion. The league has a 59-25 playoff record this decade (the winningest FCS conference) and has sent two teams to the semifinals four times in the past five years.
Programs like North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Illinois State have established themselves as regular playoff contenders, and the rest of the league has also shown signs of regular improvement.
Put another way, if you’re not moving forward, you’re losing ground, according to Nielson.
“What really makes it hard to build a program in the Missouri Valley is that nobody is going backward, everyone else is building, too,” he said.
And USD is building in a figurative and literal sense.
The 40-year-old DakotaDome is undergoing a $24.2 million construction project that will completely modernize the west end of the facility. The four-tiered project will, in part, provide new locker rooms, meeting spaces, lounge areas and office spaces for the football program.
That project follows the completion of a $2.1 million football practice field to the north of the dome.
“The kinds of facilities that we’re building are attractive to high-level student athletes,” Nielson said. “That’s all part of the process, and part of what you have to do to gain ground.”
Shirt & Tie-Clad Coach
As much as he’s known for building programs into playoff threats (and in most cases, fairly rapidly), the Nielson coaching style is also known for its attire.
He wears a shirt and tie on the sidelines.
Where does that look stem from? How did it become the routine?
At the time he became a head coach for the first time, at Ripon College in 1989, Nielson was 29 years old — in those days, a rarity for someone so young, he said.
“I was 29 and looked like I was 25,” Nielson joked.
To compensate for his youthful looks, Nielson said he mimicked what he remembered seeing on TV from coaches like Hank Stram (Kansas City Chiefs) and Woody Hayes (Ohio State) — both of whom were known for wearing shirts and ties.
“So I thought, ‘What can I do to represent a higher level of professionalism as a young guy on the sideline?’” Nielson said.
In time, the look has stuck.
Oddly enough, Nielson began his career by wearing a white shirt and a red tie while at Ripon (home of the Red Hawks) and he’s now come full circle with a white shirt and red tie at USD.
It’s what the look represents, though, that means the most to Nielson, he said.
“There’s something to be said about looking at this job as a profession,” he added. “And to me, there’s professionalism within a shirt and tie.”
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