Picture this: an embattled and nationally-renowned track coach walking onto his former university’s home track a month after abruptly retiring — a shocking move that spelled an end to 33 years at Idaho State. He has a salt-and-pepper colored beard few have seen. He’s beloved by students and peers. He fought a string of tragedies that changed him forever.
He’s greeted with smiles by members of the ISU track team.
“Got a cat sleeping on your face, huh?” one of them quips in reaction to Dave Nielsen’s newly grown-in beard, a new addition to years of a clean-shaven chin and cheeks.
“Hi there!” Nielsen says.
The veteran coach had planned to retire following the 2017 season. He hired Hillary Merkley to be his heir apparent in 2013, and she was thrust into the role of head coach when Nielsen couldn’t continue his career and called it quits midseason in March.
You see, Nielsen loves coaching. The fire still burns on the track as he instructs ISU student-athletes on a volunteer basis.
But he grew tired of certain administrative policies and could never properly grieve from losing five people close to him in the span of just over a year.
“About halfway through last year I just was kind of counting the days,” Nielsen said. “… I wasn’t the guy I wanted to be and … I’m in a better place now than I was before. I just got tired.”
Nielsen quickly explains the string of deaths. He avoids details but is able to gloss over them as if he’s talked about them more times than he wished. There was Nicole Peterson, a former distance runner Nieslen coached. She committed suicide. Keegan Burnett was paralyzed in a pole vaulting accident and shot himself a few months later.
“Uncle Bill,” a man Nielsen called a father figure, moved to Pocatello to live with Nielsen while he was in declining health. He eventually passed. Nielsen’s coaching mentor, Jerry Quiller, died of cancer.
Then there was Jackie Poulson, Nielsen’s assistant coach at ISU. She was electrocuted attempting to rescue the family dog from a canal, a tragedy that claimed the life of her and two of her rescuers.
All that in a year. And Nielsen coached through it all.
“That was kind of the beginning of the end for me,” Nielsen said. “I hate to put it that way. I don’t want to quite think of it like that, but it was.”
Every 30 seconds or so, he interrupts himself to coach one of the two athletes taking high jump reps.
“That’s better,” he says. “You’re quite a ways out and you’re kinda jumping to the bar.”
He continues, describing marital and drinking issues, saying discussions would quickly turn to arguments.
“There you go, that’s close,” he tells one of the athletes. “Little more, but you’re on the right path. You got your foot down. You were a little soft on your leg. Be ready to jump more. But that was much better.”
The athletes radiate with energy in Nielsen’s presence. They know they’re being taught by coaching greatness.
Nielsen coached Stacy Dragila, whose namesake graces the street to Holt Arena, home of ISU’s indoor track. Dragila was crowned the first ever women’s Olympic gold medalist in the pole vault at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
Mike Arnold, who recently finished eighth in the pole vault at the IAAF World Indoor Championships: a Nielsen product.
He also aided the career of Amber Welty, who’s Idaho State’s only NCAA champion to date. She qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona in the high jump.
Nielsen slept on a park bench in Barcelona for three days while Welty and her teammates stayed in the Olympic Village. The 2016 version of Dave Nielsen couldn’t do that.