Mike Nelson brings championship pedigree to Monmouth University Track and Field/Cross County
When he was younger, Mike Nelson immediately took up running, in large part due to his father being a track & field coach. Right after elementary school ended, Nelson would walk over to where his father coached and play in the sand pits. Even with playing basketball the majority of time and making it to the varsity level in high school, Nelson found running to be his passion.
“My Dad never pushed me into running and track,” said Mike Nelson. “He even encouraged me to look elsewhere but I kept coming back. He is in the Missouri Track & Field Coaches Hall of Fame and my high school coach at Northwest High School. Around 12 years old I started running competitively, middle distance running, 800 and 1500 all through high school. I ran cross country in the fall, played basketball in the winter and ran track in the spring.”
“You get out of what you put into it when it comes to track & field and cross country. There are no judges, stopwatches and tape measure. For better or worse you are painfully aware of where you stack up and your success is 100 percent dependent on you and I love that concept. Don’t get me wrong I love basketball and other sports and still do but there is something different with the success or failure is me and I have no one else to blame but me. Something with my personality clicked with that concept and I control my own destiny.”
A 2003 graduate of Truman State University with an undergraduate degree in Exercise Science, Nelson was part of a Bulldogs Cross Country team that won back-to-back Division II Championships. A little bit before graduation Nelson caught a major break when it came to being part of a college program staff.
“Ed Schneider was my college coach and a very good runner himself back in the day. A Division II national champion and he was kind of old school and tough nosed and could not have loved it anymore. One of the guys I ran with in college, Ben Rosario is the founder and coach of Northern Arizona Elite Group sponsored by HOKA Shoe Company and we’re still very close today. Big River Running Company owned by Matt Helbig and stationed right outside of Stg. Louis, Missouri. Some of the other guys on the team are now race coaches and in management and done really well. 2001-02 a very special group of guys and time in our lives.”
“The coach at Truman State knew the head coach at Emporia State College, the head coach at Emporia State College had run at Truman many years before and there was a connection there and opening for a graduate assistant. I thought I wanted to be a college head coach but that experience of two years at Emporia State College solidified in my mind this is the profession I wanted to take on. For any aspiring coaches out there whether it’s a graduate assistant or volunteer that is huge in terms of growth and development.”
“Those years at Emporia I will never forget because I met some of my closest friends. The coach I worked under Dave Harris who is now the head coach of cross country at the University of Nebraska and been a mentor of mine my entire professional life and those days were very challenging and rewarding. Dave was pretty good at putting you in a challenging position but wanted you to figure it out and needed to be done. He was not standing over your shoulder and did a really good job of helping us learn.”
After his time at Emporia State College, Nelson took over the Saint Louis University men and women’s cross country program at the rip age of 24. “A tremendous honor and blessing at the same time I probably made some mistakes I wouldn’t make now because I have a lot more experience but I really cherish my memories from Saint Louis because it only had cross country and the administration wanted to add track but they looked at me and said go do it,” Nelson said.
“An extremely productive learning experience but it was hard fundraising. We sold t-shirts, didn’t stay overnight at meets but there was a sense of pride that went along with the program helping kids have the opportunity to pursue their cross-country dreams. The program has continued to move forward and flourish. Always look back on those years with some satisfaction and pride.”
Aiming for loftier goals, Nelson became the head coach and assistant coach for track & field at Marquette University in 2007. During Nelson’s tenure the Golden Eagles enjoyed immense success winning six Big East indoor and track titles with four women’s and two men’s. In addition coaching more than seven school record holders and 16 athletes earned NCAA Regional spots. One of the biggest accomplishments for Nelson ended up raising $50,000 to renovate the university’s men and women’s track & field locker rooms.
“The locker rooms were not in great shape and needed to be updated,” said Nelson. “Just taking the initiative to start those projects and getting stakeholders involved and showing them the finished product. It was just not me but others involved and showing them the vision number one and you just can’t get people to give you the money without telling them what you trying to do with it.”
After 13 years at Marquette Nelson decided to make another bold career change becoming the Director of Track & Field/Cross Country at Monmouth University. A task that will be tall order with the recent retirement of Director/Head Coach Joe Compagni after 24 years. The Hawks flourished under Compagni winning 23 indoor and outdoor titles, 58 conference titles and track & field athletes earning 25 NCAA Division I All-America honors.
“My time at Marquette has been absolutely wonderful and made so many wonderful relationships but Monmouth was an opportunity to be the Director of six sports of Men and Women’s Cross Country Indoor and Outdoor and heard so many positive things about Monmouth and everything going on there so when it became open I was very excited and definitely an opportunity and I wanted to check into and might be a good fit,” Nelson said.
“To leave Marquette and student-athletes I have been privileged to work with here you just can’t find better people and leaving them very tough. The administration has been very supportive of the program over the years and Bert Rogers the head coach of track has been absolutely wonderful to work with and good friend of mine.”
“My mind is between two subjects you could say, on one side there is tremendous excitement taking over this program that has had all this success, great facilities and administrative support but on the other side a little bit of nervousness because there has been so much success you don’t want to be that coach that let’s people down and bar is so high you want to keep it that way. Joe (Compagni) did a wonderful job and we’re not here to re-invent the wheel. There will be a few tweaks in a new leadership but I’m looking to continue the legacy of excellence that Joe set and honor all those years of hard work.”
Nelson is cognizant of the fact of the role academics plays in the success of an athletic sport and program. “It starts with the recruiting process, when I talk to a recruit the first thing I always say you are just not competing to be coached by me, run, jump and throw but you are coming to be a student first and this is a place to help you advance professionally. Running and jumping are just icing on the cake, your passions and dreams at the same time you pursue your career ambitions.”
“Our athletes at Marquette really bought into that and already at Monmouth will continue to do that in the future and think that is an easy sell to the kids and parents. Monmouth is a stepping stone for them to pursue something extraordinary and set the world on fire and Monmouth is where they will get their opportunity. You can’t have a great collegiate program without having great resources and support from the stakeholders in your program who are the coaches, athletes and administration along with local track and cross country.”
“There is a brand to Monmouth University Track & Field, even in the Midwest they know the brand. There are a lot of good parts with an indoor facility in Ocean Bank Arena, outdoor facilities and one of the best in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Our goal is to be as competitive as possible and fighting for those Track & Field championships every year.”
Despite having his hands full, Nelson says he is a huge believer in continued development and education and never stop learning. Holding two Master’s Degrees, one from Emporia State in Health and Physical Education and last year securing one from Marquette in Leadership Studies. In addition completing a bunch of certifications.
“The certifications helped me set the foundation of knowledge for the science of coaching,” said Nelson. “It’s 50 percent art and 50 percent science. I have a degree in science and advanced education. Those are specific distance running and helped set the foundation of training philosophies and principles that helped me solidify my mind.”
However, most important to Nelson are his wife Cassie and three children. His wife was a two-time captain of cross country and track & field programs at Marquette and taught Life Sciences. In addition, she received a PhD from Biological Sciences in 2014 from Marquette.
“She was able to get a teaching faculty position at Rutgers University in physiology and we couldn’t be more excited,” Nelson said. “A perfect opportunity and timing all came together. She needed a new job and they had a position open that was absolutely perfect for her and could have not worked out any better. My wife is a track & field athlete and much more competitive than I was and still runs at a high level.”
“I have two daughters, one who is seven and other two and half and son who is five. The younger two don’t know what is happening but five-year old does and they are excited go to the ocean and visit New York City.”
Sunil Sunder Raj
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