Bob Nielson to South Dakota: Did the Coyotes Make the Right Hire?
The end result of the University of South Dakota's national search for a new head football coach didn't take them very far. In fact, the 30th coach in Coyotes history had been standing on the opposing sideline each of the last three seasons.
Bob Nielson will be officially introduced in Vermillion Tuesday, just two weeks after being named 2015 Missouri Valley Football Conference coach of the year, and just nine days after his Western Illinois team was eliminated by Illinois State in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.
At first glance, it appears USD athletic director David Herbster got what he wanted as he looked to replace Joe Glenn, who retired last month after four seasons in Vermillion.
Nielson is a Division I head coach with a history of turning around struggling programs in a short period of time, and not just making those teams competitive, but putting them in the post season on a fairly regular basis. In 23 seasons at six different schools, Nielson's teams have qualified for the playoffs ten times.
In five previous stops, Nielson has never gone longer than three seasons before having a winning record, and never longer than four years without putting a team in the post season. Nielson has the rare distinction of qualifying teams for the playoffs at all three levels (Division I, II, III) of NCAA football.
That resume alone is enough to make Nielson more than qualified to take over at USD, but there are two other items worth noting: Nielson already knows the Missouri Valley Conference, and he already knows how to recruit in the Upper Midwest.
In three years in Macomb, Nielson experienced first-hand the rigors of playing in the top league at the FCS level. He knows the lay of the land, and more importantly, knows what's awaiting him at USD after scouting - and handily beating - the Coyotes each of the last three seasons.
Nielson is also very familiar with the area after ten seasons as the head coach at Minnesota-Duluth. With Nielson at the helm, the Bulldogs made the Division II playoffs six times and won two national championships (2008, 2010). Those UMD rosters weren't full of kids from Texas, Florida, and California. They were made up in large part of players from the Twin Cities, as well as the rest of Minnesota, and throughout the Midwest - the same recruiting base USD currently scours for the majority of their players.
There are not a lot of question marks on Bob Nielson's resume, but there is one huge question surrounding his hire at South Dakota - why in the world was Nielson available in the first place?
Isn't this is the guy who just guided the Leathernecks to their first playoff win in five seasons with a first round victory at Dayton, after playing the toughest schedule in the FCS in 2015? In the last two seasons, WIU won 12 games. In the two years before Nielson was hired in Macomb, the team won just five times.
Why leave now when things are just starting to fall into place? Maybe it's because everything else at Western Illinois seems to be falling apart these days.
Just last week the University announced a series of significant budget cuts that are already having a dramatic effect on things in Macomb. Enrollment is down nearly 2,000 students in the last decade and tuition rates are being reduced in the hopes of reversing the decline.
The immediate effect on campus is staffing. In an attempt to cut costs quickly, university officials offered early retirement to senior staff, and so far 50 employees have taken advantage. Another 50 employees are being laid off.
That's not exactly the economic blueprint to continue to grow a Division I football team, which typically is the biggest budget buster in any athletic department. Facilities, equipment, and staffing are what football programs are built on. Not having the money to fund those three things makes a coach look for a place that can offer more stability, even if that place (South Dakota) can only offer one-year contracts.
Location could be another factor.
Macomb has a population of right around 20,000 people with very little else in the vicinity. It ranks as the 127th biggest city in Illinois. By contrast, Vermillion has about half the number of people (11,000), but it is the 11th largest city in South Dakota, and sits less than an hour away from Sioux Falls and Sioux City, a pair of solid USD fanbases. Translation: a small fish in a big pond in the Land of Lincoln, or a big fish in a small pond in the Rushmore State.
The rumor mill had Nielson flirting with jumping to another MVFC school, Southern Illinois, before he ultimately landed in South Dakota. Looks like either way one thing is certain - Bob Nielson's time in Macomb was over.
So did the Coyotes find him or did he find them? We'll probably never know the answer to that question, but it seems highly unlikely that the folks at USD were able to lure away a perfectly happy coach who had no designs on leaving in the first place.
The initial reaction from some Coyote faithful has been lukewarm to say the least. Some are pining for a 'splashier' name with local ties to lead their team. Others are complaining out loud about how a national search firm could only deliver a 56-year old guy from USD's own conference, rather than some highly touted up-and-coming assistant or top Division II coach.
South Dakota fans seem to be operating in the same unrealistic orbit that Nebraska fans were when it came time to replace Bo Pelini after the 2014 season. The cold hard reality is neither the Coyotes or Cornhuskers currently have football programs that are going to attract the top coaches in college football.
I'm guessing if Bob Nielson delivers USD's first Division I win over South Dakota State and leads the Coyotes to the post season in the next few years, even the biggest skeptic in Vermilion will warm up to the new coach in no time.