There are never a shortage of storylines when North Dakota State and South Dakota cross paths, but there will be a little something a little more personal in play when the two schools meet Saturday afternoon at the Fargodome.
In my line of work, you learn very quickly that the coaching world is as small as it gets. The connections are endless. And while some run much deeper than others, it is difficult to find a coach in any sport that hasn’t landed at least one job based solely on a previously established relationship.
In the case of USD head coach Bob Nielson and NDSU head coach Matt Entz, it all started nearly 30 years ago.
After graduating from Waterloo West (IA) High School in the spring of 1991, Entz elected to continue his football career at nearby Wartburg College. The head coach that recruited him there was then 32-year-old Bob Nielson, a fellow Iowa native who had just made his way to Waverly after a successful two-year stint at Ripon College in Wisconsin.
Entz was part of Nielson’s entire five-year run with the Knights, which ended with 39 wins, one Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship and two appearances in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Nielson moved on to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire following the 1995 season. Entz would begin his own coaching career three years later.
While Entz was making a name for himself at places like Illinois College, Wayne State (Neb.) and Winona State (Minn.), Nielson managed to turn around two more programs.
After taking UW-Eau Claire to the NCAA Division III semifinals in 1998, he climbed into the Division II ranks at Minnesota-Duluth. Nielson coached the Bulldogs for five seasons before stepping away to become the school’s athletic director. He returned to the sidelines in 2008 and went on to guide UMD to five more playoff appearances and a pair of National Championships.
That run caught the attention of Western Illinois University, which ultimately offered Nielson his first Division I opportunity in 2013. When he accepted the job, one of the first calls Nielson made was to Entz, who at that time was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator at the University of Northern Iowa.
“I always thought what a great opportunity it would be if I got on his staff,” Entz told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier at the time. “The type of coach and person coach Nielson is – is what put it over the top for me.”
Entz would serve one season as Nielson’s associate head coach, co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach with the Leathernecks.
What pulled him away? You guessed it…another connection. This one originated from fellow Waterloo native Chris Klieman, who had just taken over for Craig Bohl at North Dakota State.
The Dakotas Dynamic
Entz and Nielson have stayed in touch since going their separate ways, which hasn’t been all that difficult.
The two have crossed paths every year since Entz first made his way to Fargo, although their relationship took on another layer earlier this year when Entz – the 2018 FCS Coordinator of the Year - replaced the Kansas State bound Klieman as the Bison’s head coach.
“We talked a little bit during the process of what was going on at North Dakota State when Coach Klieman left,” Nielson said Monday. “He asked a little advice on a couple of things. We probably communicate a little bit less than what people think during the season. There’s just not a lot of time for that. I sent him a couple of congratulatory notes when he’s had some wins. He’s very focused on his season, just like we are down here on our season.”
Those seasons have traveled very different paths.
While Nielson’s team has fought through the inconsistencies that coincide with inexperience, the Bison haven’t missed a beat with Entz at the controls.
Top-ranked North Dakota State (10-0, 6-0 MVFC) – which claimed its seventh FCS championship in eight years this past Jaunary – can clinch at least a share of its 9th consecutive MVFC title with a victory over Nielson’s Coyotes on Saturday.
Irony aside, no one is less surprised to see Entz flourishing in his new role than Bob Nielson.
“I’ve had the chance to coach a lot of players over the years and Matt is one of those guys that really stands out,” Nielson said. “He’s a high-quality person and one that’s very passionate about the profession of coaching. I’m very excited for him to get the opportunity that he’s got to be a head coach at North Dakota State. Obviously, he’s going to do a great job as he is this year.”
In the end, it’s just another head-to-head meeting between schools that have been competing since the early 1900s. But for Bob Nielson and Matt Entz, its one that will likely never be forgotten.