Preparing to host Burnsville in the Class 6A State Tournament on Friday, Coach Nelson took time out from his busy schedule to talk about the season, building a successful program, and keys to coaching success.
The Skippers are now 7-2 overall, ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press Class 6A state rankings, and heading into a second round state playoff game against Burnsville on Friday at home. Did you feel at the start of this season that this could be a team that reached a high level of success?
Coach Nelson: I knew there was potential with the athletic talent, but I wasn't sure if they had that X-factor needed to reach a high level of success in a season. I wasn't sure if these guys had it or not. We really needed a culture change buy-in from all the players to make it happen.
The Tonka football program uses the hashtag INAM in social media, what does that mean?
Coach Nelson: INAM means "It's Not About Me." We (coaching staff) visited Tulsa Union High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this past May and INAM was printed everywhere. We talked about it and thought using it could really mean something to the team. It's all about the team effort. Again, we really needed the team to buy-in on INAM and they have 100%. We even retired the #1 jersey this year because there should be no number one.
How key has senior leadership been to the success of this year's team?
Coach Nelson: It's been huge. It's a great group of guys. This team is incredibly close and supportive of one another. Teams like this don't come along very often. These guys have a strong connection, a strong bond. It's that X-factor thing. They are setting a great example for the younger players.
It seems like the offense has a good balance between running and passing. How important is that balance in the team's attack?
Coach Nelson: Very important. We definitely try to balance it out. We can run the ball well, but we have some great receivers in seniors Gus Steiger, Matt Haas, Nate Shoemaker and Powers Warren who are capable of making some great catches. Garrett Olson is a great QB with the ability to complete those passes.
The defense has given up 14 points or less in five games this season and held three opponents to 7 points or less. How do you assess the overall play of your defense?
Coach Nelson: With the exception of the Maple Grove game, we have been consistent. One thing we can change is to start out stronger. We need to get a good start on defense early in the game. But consistency is the key.
You were inducted into the Anoka Hall of Fame this year, joining your father, brother and sister who were already in it. What lessons did you learn as a high school football player playing for your father Stan that you try to instill in your current players?
Coach Nelson: My dad was a great coach and a great man. He genuinely cared for all of his players, regardless of their ability. And he was fair to everyone. I could see he had a great impact on the kids he coached. When I told my dad I wanted to be a coach some day he tried to steer me away from it, saying, "Why don't you be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that?" But having learned from him what kind of an impact a coach can have on kids, I knew it was something I wanted to do. It can be life-changing. It goes beyond the playing field. Eventually he could see that I have the same passion as he did.
How do you value the experience of having coached your son at Minnetonka and then coaching with him on the Skippers football staff?
Coach Nelson: Coaching my son Jesse to the championship in 2004 was like a Hollywood movie script – a dream come true. It just doesn't get much better than that. And I coached my son-in-law Josh (Stephan) at Blaine. Now I coach side by side with both of them here and that is truly special.
You won a state football championship when you coached at Blaine and you won the state championship at Minnetonka in 2004. Are there any similarities between this year's team and the Skippers team you coached in 2004?
Coach Nelson: Yes, both teams have that special bond – that magical "It Factor" that is hard to describe. They both have a strong love for the game, genuine love for each other, and some great talent.
The state championship will be played at US Bank Stadium this year. Have you been in the new stadium yet?
Coach Nelson: No, I haven't! I hope to this year. I've only seen it from the outside and on TV. It would be pretty cool to be one of the inaugural high school state tournament teams to play on that turf. I think the players all have that in the back of their minds, too. But we know we need to stay grounded and focused on what we need to do to win the next game.
This is your 15th year as head football coach at Minnetonka and 39th season overall. You are now going for your 250th career victory this Friday. What would reaching that milestone this season mean to you?
Coach Nelson: Well, I would have to say that I have been incredibly blessed to be at two great schools. That in itself is a major milestone. But victory number 250 would be really special because it means we are in the State Tournament. So hopefully we can come away with a victory this Friday against Burnsville!