Bob Nielson, who took the University of Minnesota Duluth football program to unprecedented heights during his 10 seasons on the sidelines and also spent the last 10 years serving as the school’s athletic director, has resigned from both positions to become the new head football coach at Western Illinois University. He is expected to begin his duties at the NCAA Division I (FCS) institution immediately.
“We hate to lose Bob, but understand this is a well-deserved opportunity for him to coach at the Division I level,” said UMD Chancellor Lendley Black. “We wish him and his family the best. Bob’s legacy includes multiple national championships in football and men’s and women’s hockey, as well as excellence in both the athletic and academic performance of UMD student-athletes in many sports. We are committed to upholding the quality of UMD athletics, including the football team, and will move quickly to designate Bob’s successors.”
Under Nielson’s watch, UMD captured the program’s first two NCAA II national championships (2008 and 2010), five Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference titles (including a school-record four in a row from 2008 to 2011) and five NSIC North Division crowns, turned in two perfect 15-0 regular seasons, and qualified for six NCAA II playoff appearances. Nielson, 53, who also helped produce 30 All-Americans, 67 All-NSIC first team selections, two Harlon Hill Award finalists (running back Isaac Odim in 2009 and quarterback Ted Schlafke in 2008), seven CoSIDA Academic All-Americans, and the 2012 Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year Award recipient (Garth Heikkinen) during his Bulldog stay, amassed a 100-26 overall record at UMD, including a 10-2 mark this past fall. That .793 career winning percentage is far and away the best mark in the storied 80-year existence of Bulldog football.
In 2010, Nielson and the Bulldogs did something no other NCAA II club had ever been able to do – finish 15-0 for a second time. For his efforts, Nielson was bestowed with two of the most prestigious national coaching honors in Division II football – the American Football Coaches Association DII Coach of the Year and the Liberty Mutual DII Coach of the Year awards – in addition to being selected for that same honor by Don Hansen’s Football Gazette and the NSIC.
After a four-season hiatus, Nielson returned to the UMD football fold in 2008 and proceeded to oversee one of the most impressive one-year turnarounds in NCAA Division II history, taking a club which had gone 4-6 in 2007 and molding it into a national champion. Along the way, his Bulldogs rolled up a 15-0 overall mark (only the third NCAA II team, at the time, to ever accomplish that feat) and set or equaled 50 team and individual records, en route to Nielson being chosen the 2008 NCAA II Coach of the Year by American Football Monthly magazine, D2Football.com, and the Football Gazette,.
Nielson, a three-time NSIC Coach of the Year honoree (2010, 2008 and 2002), was officially hired as UMD’s fourth full-time coach in the spring of 1999 and over the course of his first five seasons with the Bulldogs, he elevated the UMD program back to national prominence. In 2002, for example, his Bulldogs posted their second unbeaten, untied regular season record at that time (11-0), advanced to the NCAA II playoffs for the first time ever and captured the NSIC championship. Nielson’s resume also includes directing UMD to its inaugural post-season appearance (the 2001 Mineral Water Bowl in Excelsior Springs, Mo.) and the school’s second greatest one-year turnaround to date (the Bulldogs went 7-4 in 2000 after managing a 3-8 mark the previous fall).
The runner up for the 2002 American Football Monthly magazine NCAA II Coach of the Year award, Nielson coached for three years at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (1996-98), five seasons at his alma mater, Wartburg College (1991-95), and two years at Ripon College (1989-90) and now owns a career coaching record of 170-59-1.
As athletic director, Nielson oversaw a sports program which won five national championships — football (two), women’s hockey (two) and men’s hockey (one) — and 18 conference titles over the past decade.
“It’s been a great 14 years,” said Nielson. “I’ve met and worked with a lot of terrific people and had the chance to coach a group of outstanding student-athletes along the way. I’m certainly proud of what we were able to accomplish during my time at UMD and am now excited for this new challenge and opportunity at Western Illinois.”
NIELSON BY THE NUMBERS
Record at UMD (Year) 100-26 (10th)
Overall Coaching Record (Year) 170-59-1 (20th)
Career NSIC Record 78-15
Career NCAA II Playoff Record 11-4
Career NCAA III Playoff Record 3-3