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Next fall, when the UMD football team is preparing for a challenging season in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference under new coach Curt Wiese, the new coach at Western Illinois -- Bob Nielson -- will be preparing his new team to face the University of Minnesota. That’s right, the Golden Gophers quest to find Subdivision teams that are not too challenging will be taking on a Western Illinois team that will be trying to take a giant step into being more challenging, under one of the most impressive coaches in the land.
UMD has indeed been fortunate to have its football teams run by two of the most successful coaches in the college game, and we can only hope the Bulldogs can maintain their high standard under Curt Wiese -- who was named the new UMD coach last Friday.
Wiese, a native of Stoughton, Wis., had been offensive coordinator for five years under Nielson, and what an amazing five years they’ve been. Under Wiese, UMD created the varied attack that was run so effectively by quarterback Chase Vogler, the center piece of the last four years of Wiese’s offense. With Nielson being named last Wednesday, UMD acted faster than you can say “We’ve got to post the opening for two weeks,” and pounced on a logical successor.
“Curt is going to do a great job,” said Nielson. “He’s an outstanding person as well as an outstanding football coach. The program will move forward under Curt.”
That will take some doing, although it’s commendable to keep the cohesiveness and systems in place with the personable Wiese, rather than have to undergo a major transition. Wiese’s biggest challenge is keeping pace, because Bob Nielson’s record is flat amazing. Most impressive is that Nielson decided to give up the coaching reins after becoming athletic director, and after the team ran hot and cold for a few years, Nielson took over again with his firm and totally disciplined rule.
In his first year back, Nielson took a Bulldogs outfit that had gone 4-6 and headed for the top. Nobody could have imagined that he could pull that team together and hit the heights of a perfect and unprecedented 15-0 season, climaxed by UMD’s first NCAA Division II national championship. Two years later, the Bulldogs did it again -- tying their unprecedented 15-0 season with another 15-0 season and their second national title.
The last two seasons have been highlighted by continued Northern Sun Conference North Division championships, and runs at the NCAA tournament. And it may be that after this past season of success, Nielson realized that at age 53, he must either decide to entrench himself as king of the hill at UMD, or take on the challenge of moving up. He chose “B.”
“We’ve accomplished a lot here, and I’m very proud of everything we’ve done,” said Nielson. “At the same time, this was the right time in my career to make a move.”
How big a move is it? As a Division II program, UMD could recruit up to 36 full scholarships, but the Northern Sun Conference lowers that maximum to 24. As a Division I-AA team, Western Illinois has 63 full scholarships, and the Missouri Valley Conference team that has had its ups and downs in search of consistency, wants to have football become a showpiece for the institution. They couldn’t have attained a better man to do just that than Bob Nielson.
When Western Illinois called, Nielson made his move. He was hired, and it might well have not been a difficult decision. Nielson will take a Missouri Valley team that finished 3-8, losing its last six games, and try to work his magic again. He turned Wisconsin-Eau Claire from a mediocre team into a Division III power, before coming to UMD.
“This job will be more equivalent to when I went to Eau Claire, because they had been struggling for a couple years,” said Nielson. “UMD has always had such great tradition under Jim Malosky’s coaching, and it had such a great base to build from.
“Western has had some good runs. They made the 2010 playoffs, but they haven’t had the consistency they’d like to have. The Missouri Valley Conference is one of the top conferences in the country at that level. North Dakota State left the North Central Conference and moved into the Missouri Valley, and won the national championship last year, and now they’re back in the championship game.”
At UMD, Nielson did an outstanding job of recruiting the top prospects from Northern Minnesota, the Twin Cities, and the towns of Western Wisconsin, primarily. At Western Illinois, he undoubtedly will look nationwide.
“We’ll have a much larger scope for recruiting,” Nielson said. “We’ll go more nationally, but at the same time, we want to develop a geographic base from Chicago, and St. Louis, and Southeast Iowa.”
Nielson will be able to relax for a few days, spending the Christmas holidays at home with his family, but then he will be off to start program-building.
“I’m just wrapping up loose ends in Duluth, and I’ll be at Western right after Christmas,” said Nielson. “It’s hard to leave Duluth. It’s a tremendous place, with tremendous people. I feel great about UMD and I’ll have lots of fond memories about being here. And I’m going to have a lot of work to do in a short time at Western, because we’ve got teams like the Gophers on our schedule.”
Through all his success, Nielson has always remained approachable, and been respectful of the job Jim Malosky had done as his predecessor.
Malosky was also strict on details, and a rugged idealist who made his teams into his mold. The Bulldogs were extremely successful under Mo, although it was a different world then, in small college football. Playing in the MIAC, UMD rose up to challenge the powerhouse Division III teams from Concordia and St. John’s. Back in the early 1960s, Malosky’s UMD teams rose to championship level in 1960 and 1961 with some of Malosky’s most storied teams.
In fact, a rookie freshman columnist in the UMD Statesman had the audacity to predict that the 1960 team could beat the Gophers, head on. Looking at the Bulldogs achievements, you could make that case, although it might have been the wrong year for such a prediction, because the Gophers went on to win the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. Remember when the Gophers went to the Rose Bowl? And won it? Well, that rookie hotshot columnist went on to work at the Minneapolis Tribune for 30 years before coming home in time to catch the end of the late Jim Malosky’s historic run at UMD. Yup, I confess: It was me.
Malosky was old school. He had been quarterback at the University of Minnesota and played with Bud Grant. He demanded execution, and he ran only a few plays, keeping them simple, with the philosophy that he didn’t care if the other team knew or could guess exactly what the Bulldogs were going to come at them with. If UMD executed well enough, nobody could stop the plays from succeeding. He was right. While Malosky’s teams would run a specific play out of a specific offensive set, Nielson came in with a multiple offense, that might run the same play out of several different sets. Tremendous change in strategy, but the same success.
The difference between Malosky and Nielson might have been 180 degrees, but their demand for excellence and their resulting success, was the same. Some giant shoes for Curt Wiese to fill, but we know he’s capable.
It’s been a pleasure to watch Jim Malosky’s great teams, and now to watch Bob Nielson’s great teams playing and winning in James Malosky Stadium. We wish Nielson the best of continues success at Western Illinois, and the only problem he leaves behind at UMD is that they only have one football stadium, and it’s already named after Jim Malosky.