Former Idaho State Track and Field head coach Dave Nielsen announced his retirement after 33 years with the program, 31 of which were as the head coach.
Assistant Coach Hillary Merkley has taken over for the remainder of the outdoor season.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve been rewarded and I have had some really great people to work with,” Nielsen said. “I can think of some people I had issues with, but nobody I didn’t like.”
Nielsen’s legacy consists of 21 All-American athletes, 403 athletes holding All-Conference honors, 172 athletes with Big Sky Conference Championships and 45 athletes advancing to NCAA Championships.
Nielsen led ISU’s men to indoor conference championships in 1997, 1998, 2005 and 2006 and coached the women to their first Big Sky Outdoor Championship in 2007.
Nielsen said that his relationships with his players was what he was best at.
“Hopefully most of them had a good experience. I think a lot of them did.”
Nielsen originally planned to retired in 2017 but decided to retire now because he found himself not being the person and coach he once was.
“I just wasn’t the same and I wasn’t making good decisions,” Nielsen said.
Another factor in Nielsen’s retirement was the unexpected deaths of former players and close friends around the time of 2011 and 2012.
One of these deaths was Nicole Peterson, a former distance runner who committed suicide.
“That was just devastating,” Nielsen recalled. “It was just a horrible thing.”
Just five months after Peterson’s death, Nielsen suffered the loss of a man that he calls his second father after Nielsen’s own father passed away.
“He moved out here and he was like a grandfather to my kids,” Nielsen said.
Just two weeks before that death, Nielsen suffered the passing of his track mentor, Jerry Quiller who was a former coach at ISU and talked Nielsen into coming out to Pocatello.
Nielsen also dealt with assistant coach Jackie Poulson getting electrocuted in a canal. Nielsen described Poulson as the daughter he never had.
About two weeks after, an athlete of Nielsen’s was paralyzed in a skiing accident.
“He went out by his parent’s barn and shot himself,” Nielsen said. “And you know what, I never quite recovered.”
After the deaths, Nielsen was not the same. “I was just a mess,” Nielsen said, recalling when he attended a coach’s convention in December of 2012. “I went to the meetings and stuff and I just knew I wasn’t effective. I just was never the same since.”
Part of the reason for the devastation for Nielsen was the fact that he had great relationships with not only his family and friends, but also with his players and other coaches.
One of those players, Amber Welty, was the first Bengal to ever win a NCAA National Championship. Welty, a high jumper, had her winning mark at 6 feet, 3.5 inches in 1988.
“[Seeing her win the national championship] was like a dream come true,” Nielsen said. “What we had talked over and over again is come with what you know. You don’t have to do something special, just do what you do. And she bought into it.”
“She almost made it, just nicked off what would have been an NCAA record,” Nielsen said. “Just a wonderful person and a pleasure to work with.” Welty went on to qualify for the Olympics in 1992.
In 2000 Nielsen was named USA Track and Field Nike Elite Coach of the Year, which Nielsen said he was lucky to win, but it was a pretty cool deal.
“Success sometimes is a bit of luck,” Nielsen explained. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
Nielsen also started Stacy Dragila in pole vault.
He had a hunch that she might be able to become an elite vaulter due to her athletic ability. “She just got better,” Nielsen recalled. Dragila went on to win a Gold Medal in Pole Vault in the 2000 Summer Olympics held in Sydney, Australia. “That is what essentially gave me the honor,” Nielsen explained.
Despite the success at ISU, Nielsen decided to stay in Pocatello instead of returning to the Big 10 where he attended college.
A graduate of Iowa and former assistant at Wisconsin, Nielsen had originally planned to get back to the Big 10.
“I have not regretted it a moment,” Nielsen said. “I have been frustrated plenty of times, but I have not regretted a moment.”
“One of the things we try to do is provide realistic goals. Where are you at? Where are you going to go? Here are your markers along the way. Here you have an end goal for the year and provide them with a pathway.”
Nielsen said that it has been an honor to work at ISU and is grateful for the people who helped him through a tough time in his life.
“It wasn’t very timely, but it was my time to retire.”