CEDAR RAPIDS — A few eyebrows were raised last winter when a man known as a program builder left as head coach of Western Illinois to take over at South Dakota.
It wasn’t that Bob Nielson leaving Macomb for another job was surprising. It was that the 57-year-old Marion native and Linn-Mar graduate took another job in the same conference.
“When you get to be my age, people become extremely important,” Nielson said at his introductory press conference. “A program that has the vision of moving forward and continues to do things you’re going to need to do to compete at a national level is something that I want to be a part of. You look at that, and you look at a place where you think you can make a difference. I thought that was a tremendous match here at the University of South Dakota.”
Nielson began his head coaching career in 1989 at Ripon College in Wisconsin, going from 2-6-1 his first season to 7-2 his second. He then went to Wartburg, his alma mater, where he was 39-14 in five seasons, including a pair of NCAA Division III playoff appearances.
Nielson spent three seasons at Wisconsin-Eau Claire, taking it to the D-III semifinals in 1998.
Then it was time for a jump to Division II and Minnesota-Duluth, where Nielson won a pair of national titles in five seasons. He took over at Western Illinois in 2013, where his last team made it to the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Western has had many financial issues and dealt with severely declining enrollment, which probably explains Nielson’s move within the Missouri Valley Conference. South Dakota is 1-3, 0-1 going into its MVC game Saturday afternoon at 2 at home against Northern Iowa (2-2, 1-0).
“South Dakota, I just know their philosophy now because I know their head coach so well,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “They will be very sound at what they do, they will be very good at what they do, they will be prepared. They do a nice job of maximizing their personnel to a game plan ... You can see the progress with them week to week because they are getting better week to week.”
Farley has known Nielson for many years and has great respect for him.
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“I first got to know Coach Nielson when I was an assistant coach here and he was head coach at Wartburg,” he said. “He’d come down to our practices, come down in the spring, and I’ve always stayed in touch with him ever since. He’s always been that type of person. He’s such a good person. He’s a guy you want, a person to talk to kind of shoot ideas off of when we weren’t in the same league. He’s a good man with a lot of good ideas.”
Northern Iowa is coming off an impressive 42-21 MVFC-opening win last week against Southern Illinois. South Dakota lost its opener at Youngstown State, 30-20.
Like UNI, the Coyotes have an FCS transfer at quarterback in Chris Streveler. Like Aaron Bailey of the Panthers, he leads his team in both passing and rushing.
“He is a very talented young man,” Farley said. “That’s what you see when you see the numbers on him. He’s a great runner.”
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