BANGOR — Niles Nelson knows all about replacing a successful, popular coach.
He did it at the high school level, and now he’s doing it again in college — for the same man.
Nelson, 71, was named Husson University’s new head football coach Wednesday. He takes over for Jonathan “Gabby” Price, who resigned two weeks ago after seven seasons.
Nelson replaced Price 24 years ago at Bangor after Price won 58 games and two state championships in nine seasons as the Rams’ head coach. Nelson, who coached Orono High to three undefeated seasons and three state titles in three seasons (1978-80), went 9-9 and was Class A state runner-up in 1986 in two seasons with the Rams.
“It’s just the way it turned out, but “I wouldn’t say there will be major changes,” said Nelson, Husson’s defensive coordinator for the last five years. “I’ve learned over the years it’s better to make any changes subtle changes.
“Obviously, we want to win. The stipulation for me is that we win with attitude, but I don’t want to win with problems and a bad attitude. We’re going to hustle, or we’re not going to be playing.”
Nelson and two other in-house candidates for the head coaching job — offensive line coach and special teams coordinator Nat Clark of Bangor and defensive line coach Greg Marter — were informed of Nelson’s promotion Wednesday morning by Husson athletic director Cindy Connelley.
“We could have gone with a long search, or named an interim coach, but we felt this route was the best one to take,” said Connelley. “I guess two things were at play as far as going the interim route. When you name one, there are always questions being asked the whole question and you’re kind of standing on a bubble.”
Connelley, who was on a family trip to Sweden with her parents until Sunday, said the finalists were interviewed Monday and Tuesday.
”It was a really close race. Nat Clark is a great guy and does a great job here as assistant football coach and assistant athletic director in charge of student wellness and compliance,” she said. “It’s not any secret that Nat was one of Gabby’s ‘hands,’ if not the right hand, but after all was said and done, we felt Niles Nelson was the best choice.”
Nelson hopes to retain the current staff, but understands there may be some changeover.
“I’m sure there will be some resentment or at least disappointment because nobody wants to be told they’re a second choice,” Nelson said. “I understand that, but I hope to keep changes in our staff to a minimum.”
Nelson said he’s spoken with defensive coaches Tom Whitney (defensive backs) and Marter and has been assured they plan to stay on. He hadn’t spoken with offensive coaches before Wednesday’s press conference and said he won’t have a chance to speak personally with any players until they report back to the team in August. Husson opens its first season of conference (Eastern Collegiate Football Conference) membership Sept. 12 at Merrimack (Mass.) College.
Connelley twice cited Nelson’s educational background as a major plus in his resume. Nelson earned a Ph.D. in physical education from Florida State University.
“I think his diversity and exposure to southern football as well as being a student at Maine and coming back home, having a Ph.D., which makes him very versatile, are all great strengths,” Connelley explained. “Right now he’s our football coach, but it’s our hope at Husson that every coach here teaches. That’s the true NCAA Division III philosophy.”
Nelson, who has homes in Bucksport and Surfside Beach, S.C., has seven weeks before preseason begins for the Eagles.
“I’m just ready to go,” said Nelson, who envisions an eight-man coaching staff with him continuing as defensive coordinator but is taking a flexible approach at this point, depending on how much of the current staff remains.
“I love defense, but it all depends on who we bring in staffing-wise as to how it’s going to go,” he explained. “I’ll be the coordinator on one side or the other. That’s the nature of Division III staffs.
“If I have to hire someone as offensive coordinator, I’ll probably want to know what they’re doing, make some suggestions, and then let them go.”
Nelson has also coached at The Citadel, University of Rhode Island, Nichols College, and Methodist College. He has also been Kennebunk High School’s athletic director and an administrator in Bangor’s school system.
Nelson said his style is not particularly hands-on as a head coach, but he may have to change that approach initially.
“I think the thing about Gabby is he let me coach,” he said. “He had an assistant who could coach and he let me go. I’ll probably be a little more hands-on at least until I get familiar with everything.”