On a late March morning, longtime Johns Hopkins head men's basketball coach Bill Nelson sat in his office and awaited the arrival of a recruit.
Unfortunately, that recruit won't get to play for Nelson. After 31 years at Johns Hopkins, Nelson has announced his retirement from the university, effective June 30. But the coach who built the Blue Jays men's basketball program into a national contender will leave a legacy of athletic and academic excellence.
"It's about all of the people you meet, not just the players," Nelson said. "I've been blessed to have some amazing men come through here, but it's also about the assistant coaches I've worked with and the staff here at Hopkins."
During his 37 years as a collegiate head coach, Nelson compiled a 606-365 record. He became the 18th coach in NCAA Division III history to reach the career 600-win mark Jan. 18, when his visiting Blue Jays edged Washington College, 75-71.
The 73-year old Nelson began his collegiate coaching career at Rochester Institute of Technology. He was an assistant at RIT before becoming the school's head coach prior to the 1980-81 campaign. Nelson left RIT in 1983 to take the head coaching position at Nazareth College, where he coached former NBA head coach and current broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy.
But Nelson enjoyed his greatest coaching success at Johns Hopkins. When he took the job prior to the 1986-87 season, Nelson inherited a program that had posted six winning records in 61 years. During the next 31 seasons, Nelson guided the Blue Jays to a 501-312 mark, 25 winning seasons, three Centennial Conference titles and 10 trips to the NCAA Division III Tournament. His 1989-90 and 2014-15 squads reached the NCAA Sweet 16. Nelson was twice named the Centennial Conference and National Association of Basketball Coaches' Mid-Atlantic Coach of the Year.
That's an impressive resume for a person who didn't envision a career in coaching after graduating from SUNY-Brockport in 1965.
"I always wanted to be a gym teacher," said Nelson, who taught physical education for two years at the elementary school level. "I loved my gym teachers and coaches in high school, and I wanted to follow that path."
But Nelson eventually moved from elementary school to high school, and then into collegiate coaching. At Johns Hopkins, Nelson's players thrived under his tutelage. Nelson coached George Bugarinovic, who earned the Jostens Trophy as the best all-around Division III basketball student-athlete in the nation following the 2014-15 campaign. Nelson's players earned Academic All-America honors seven times, including two-time selection Tim McCarty (2011, 2012). Nelson also produced 71 all-conference players during his tenure.
While Nelson coached his share of All-Americans, he also enjoyed working with players who weren't heavily recruited.
"I get the most satisfaction out of seeing what the players accomplish after they leave Hopkins," said Nelson, who resides in Ellicott City, Md. "But I love looking back on the guys who were not highly sought-after, and who, on their own merits, worked extra hard to develop into really good basketball players."
Nelson's players excelled in the classroom, too. Johns Hopkins produced seven CoSIDA Academic All-Americans and five NCAA postgraduate scholars during the Nelson years. Bugarinovic, who is now studying at Harvard Medical School, was the most recent recipient.
Enfield was one of Nelson's most accomplished student-athletes. Enfield, who played at Johns Hopkins from 1987-91, was the leading scorer in Johns Hopkins history. Enfield was also a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-American and received an NCAA postgraduate scholarship.
Enfield eventually followed his mentor into the coaching profession. Now the head coach at the University of Southern California, Enfield led an underdog Florida Gulf Coast program to a berth in the NCAA Sweet 16 during the 2012-13 campaign and guided the USC Trojans to NCAA Tournament berths during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.
"When you met Coach Nelson, you were quick to realize that he was a genuine person who really cared about his players," said Enfield, who was a part of Nelson's first full recruiting class. "We believed in his vision. Academics always came first. Some of the players had to leave early or came late to practice, but he was always accommodating to our class schedules."
The Nelson coaching tree also includes his younger daughter. Katie Nelson played college basketball at the University of Massachusetts and broke into the coaching profession with the WNBA's Washington Mystics, Navy and New Hampshire before spending seven years as an assistant to Johns Hopkins head women's basketball coach Nancy Funk. She is now the head women's basketball coach at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
Nelson and Funk both arrived at Johns Hopkins in 1986 and spent more than three decades on the sidelines at Johns Hopkins' Goldfarb Gym.
"Bill is the quintessential gentleman, an outstanding coach and an even better person," said Funk, who has guided the Blue Jay women's program to a 537-264 record during her Hopkins tenure. "Bill stayed here and thrived here because Hopkins was a great fit for him, personally and professionally. He leaves behind a legacy of hard work and success that I believe will be felt for generations to come at Hopkins. He impacted so many lives in such a positive way, and his kindness and concern for his student-athletes always showed."
While Nelson has developed longtime friendships with Funk and Enfield, he has also served as a mentor and sounding board to the newer members of the school's athletic department.
"What is most remarkable about Bill is the role model and mentor that he has been to other coaches on our staff," said Alanna Shanahan, Johns Hopkins' director of athletics since July 2016. "He is so meaningful to our department. He's very sincere and authentic in how he relates to people. Bill is a great listener who is very thoughtful. He doesn't rush to be heard."
Nelson has kept in touch with many of his former players with whom he shared life lessons.
"We've kept in contact, and I just saw him in Phoenix [at the NCAA Final Four]," Enfield said. "I saw how fairly he treated his players, and how he motivated them to reach their potential."
Following his retirement, Nelson will be free to spend more time with his family, who he credited for his happiness in the college basketball world.
"The loyalty and the support of my wife Margaret and my children, Laura and Katie, made it a lot easier for me," said Nelson, whose final Johns Hopkins team finished with a 16-10 record. "Your home life can make or break your profession, and their support allowed me to do this for a lot of years."
Issue 232: April 2017