Jan. 18, 2013
By: Chelsea Einerwold, Assistant Communications Director
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The city of Austin, Minn., is a mid-size community located in the southeastern part of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It's the home of Hormel Foods Corp., and home of the Spam Museum, which is located on Main Street. It's also the hometown of University of New Mexico head volleyball coach Jeff Nelson who will make a trip north next weekend to be honored by Austin High School as an inductee of its Athletics Hall of Fame.
For Nelson, who just completed his sixth season at the helm of the Lobo volleyball program, it's a great honor.
"My dad was recognized as a Distinguished Alumni from AHS, so to have this happen now is very cool," he said. "I loved it there, I loved going to school there, I loved my experience and I had great friends. It's really nice to have that come back into my life with this."
According to Nelson, Austin was a wonderful community to grow up in and his high school years are ones he remembers fondly.
"It was a very stable and safe place to grow up," he said. "I had friends that I really enjoyed and it was a good time to grow up there. It was so many things that you don't see anymore in society, but it was really good."
Nelson was involved in a number of activities as a prep student. He wrote for The Sentinel, the school newspaper, served as an editor for the senior class section of the yearbook and took pictures for both publications. He swam in ninth and 10th grade, was the manager for the girls' volleyball team his senior year and played tennis for the Austin Packers all four years of high school.
"Austin had a really good tennis program at that time," Nelson said. "Our coach, Mr. (Keith) Paulson, was really good. He was a really low-key and modest person and got us all to play and play a lot.
"We were Big 9 conference champions and it was a pretty big deal for the kids from Austin to be good at tennis because tennis was more of a Rochester Mayo or an Edina kind of sport. Rochester Mayo was our big rival in tennis, but while I was in high school we beat them."
Nelson finished second in doubles at the conference tennis tournament his sophomore season, and then he and his doubles partner won it his senior year. The Packers were Big 9 and Region 1 team champions his junior and senior seasons, advancing to the Minnesota state tournament those years. At the end of his high school career, Nelson was the tennis team's recipient of the Nat Goudy Award, an AHS honor for an outstanding senior in each sport.
As there was no high school boys volleyball team, Nelson got involved with the sport at the local YMCA and through the community park and rec league.
"There was a group of adults that played volleyball a couple of nights a week at the YMCA in Austin," Nelson said. "They let me play with them and that's how I learned to play. We also had a group of guys in seventh grade join the men's park and rec league.
"All through high school I played on a co-ed team through the Y which would play against other Y teams, and a men's team through park and rec. I even got a job later in high school setting up the nets and other equipment for leagues so I could work, play and hang around the game. It was a lot of volleyball and a lot of fun."
The teams he played on won the State CoRec A-League Championship and were runner-up finishers in the AA-League for three consecutive years.
The drive to be involved and work hard was passed down to Nelson from close family members. From the time he was in sixth grade and through his college years his dad, Tom, served as a Minnesota State Senator (representing Dist. 31), and for a few years early on in his state political career, even continued as a middle school social studies teacher. His mom, Suzie, was a manager and, for a while, an owner of a jewelry store.
Being a competitor was also something he was taught from a very young age.
"My family played games a lot--maybe that's something people in Minnesota do because it's cold up there--we played a lot of games, and my grandparents and my parents never let us win," he said. "It was a super competitive environment. There's no question that that has shaped a lot of things."
In addition to his family, Nelson says there are a number of people who influenced him as a high schooler.
"I've been thinking about this a bit because we'll have to give a short talk at the reception next weekend," he said. "There were a lot of influential people. I don't want to miss anyone."
He cited his tennis coach, Paulson, as well as the girls' high school volleyball coach, Deedee Marx, as positive influences on his career.
"My cousin, Mary Ann, played volleyball and she was a person that really encouraged me," he said. "She told me to pursue playing. She was one who pushed me to go farther in the sport.
"When I was involved with the yearbook and did some writing, Mrs. Rosie Seltz was our instructor. She was amazing. She told us, 'It has to be perfect. It has to be good,' and so of all the teachers in high school, I would say that she was the most influential."
Several of Nelson's family and friends will be attending the weekend's events - a formal dinner prior to, and recognition during halftime of, the Austin vs. Owatonna boys basketball game in AHS Packer Gym on Jan. 25 and a more casual luncheon the next day.
Nelson and his family are looking forward to making the trip.
"It's a great place to visit and this is a great excuse to go home," he said. "It brings all of those great memories back and it lets you have retrospect of what it was and, really, to appreciate it and to appreciate the support of your family. When you're honored like this, it makes you realize how much support you had."
Nelson went on to play collegiately for two seasons at Ball State and helped the Cardinals to the NCAA Final Four in 1985. He began his coaching career with a myriad of assistant positions before becoming the head coach at Texas Tech (1995-2002) and then the University of San Francisco (2003-06).
Since taking over the Lobo volleyball program in 2007, Nelson has compiled a 112-68 record. He's led UNM to four 20-win seasons and five winning seasons. The Lobos have made two trips to the NCAA Tournament (2009 and 2010) with Nelson. In 2010, he was named Coach of the Year by the Mountain West.
In his 18 seasons as a Division I head coach, Nelson has led his teams to the NCAA Tournament eight times (Texas Tech - 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001; San Francisco - 2003; New Mexico - 2009, 2010).
For a complete listing of Nelson's volleyball career and accomplishments, click here.