There is a sports adage that says “You don’t want to be the coach who follows the legend. You want to be the coach who follows the coach who follows the legend.”
Former Husson University football coach Niles Nelson fell victim to that adage. Nelson was fired after two years at the helm.
When he inherited the Husson program from Jonathan “Gabby” Price, he was in a no-win situation.
The charismatic Price began building the football program after the decision was made by the Husson administration to reinstate football after a 60-year absence.
Husson played its first game in 2003. Price had 50 players.
Price and his staff eventually expanded the roster to 115 players and the Eagles became a consistent winner, going 19-10 in Price’s last three seasons (2006, 2007 and 2008) and spending time ranked among the top 10 in the New England Division III poll. There was also a berth in the ECAC Division III Northeast Bowl.
The football program unified the school and Price was very popular among his players.
He was intense with a tough-love approach, but he cared deeply about his players and their families.
And they knew it.
He was not only grooming good football players, he was adamant about developing good human beings.
They knew that, too, and had a tremendous amount of respect for him.
When Price resigned in July 2009 due to philosophical differences with the administration, there was a huge void.
Nelson was part of Price’s staff, but it was assumed offensive line coach Nat Clark, Price’s right-hand man, would be the successor.
But Nelson, with close to 40 years of coaching experience, was picked to succeed Price.
Some players didn’t return and others didn’t play up to potential because they felt betrayed by the administration.
Nelson went 4-5 a year ago, but three of the losses were by a combined five points. They went 1-9 this season.
University of Maine hockey coach Tim Whitehead can sympathize with Nelson.
He was the successor to the legendary Shawn Walsh when Walsh died due to complications from kidney cancer on Sept. 24, 2001.
Walsh had inherited a Maine program that went 12-51 over a three-year span in ECAC Divsion I league games.
After two building seasons, Walsh transformed the Black Bears into a perennial national contender and two-time NCAA champion.
“Naturally, it’s always a challenge when you’re following a legend, to say the least,” said Whitehead.
He guided Maine to four Frozen Fours in six years, which was a first in program history, and the Black Bears played in two NCAA championship games only to lose by a goal to Minnesota and Denver.
But there were still people who weren’t sold on him.
“If I was at any other school in the country and had that kind of immediate success, I certainly wouldn’t have been criticized,” said Whitehead. “But I understood the reality of the situation I was stepping into. I was very aware of what to expect. There’s a fine line between winning and losing and there are many things that are out of your control, especially in college. It can be very frustrating. People on the outside don’t recognize the challenges you face in that situation.”
“But that’s life and you have to deal with that reality,” added Whitehead.
The 72-year-old Nelson did the best he could under difficult circumstances. He’s a quality person and coach.
But new athletic director Bob Reasso knew they couldn’t afford another sub-.500 season because it hurts recruiting.