June 3, 2013

Director of Athletics Jim Nelson Announces His Retirement

 

Suffolk University Director of Athletics Jim Nelson has announced he will retire following the 2012-13 academic calendar year. After 47 years of service to the institution, Nelson will end his tenure at Suffolk University this upcoming summer as his final date has been set at August 2nd.

Nelson came to Suffolk University in 1966 as an assistant director of athletics and men's assistant basketball coach working for Suffolk's only other Athletic Director, Charles Law who began the athletics department in 1946.

In 1975 Nelson was named Director of Athletics, a position he has held proudly for the past 38 years.

From 1975 through 1995, Nelson was the Head Coach of the Men's Basketball team, taking Suffolk University to their first ever NCAA Division-III Championship Tournament during the 1975-76 season. Nelson led the Rams to two NCAA Tournament appearances as he won 210 games during his 20-year stint as head coach.

In 1995 Nelson put aside his coaching duties to focus on the administrative side of the athletics department.

Nelson has seen Suffolk Athletics grow as the Rams currently sponsor thirteen intercollegiate varsity sports programs as well as a host of intramural activities for the school's undergraduate and Law School students.

In 1999-2000 Suffolk became full-time members of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) on both the men's and women's side. In that span Suffolk has won 11 conference championships and has made eight NCAA Tournament appearances. Nelson has watched over Suffolk University as it has grown into one of the top athletic programs among NCAA Division-III schools in the New England region. In his years at Suffolk, 27 Rams' teams have made trips to Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Division-III New England Championship tournaments.

Nelson was tabbed as the GNAC's Executive of the Year in 2010. Longtime friend and colleague Joe Walsh who serves as Commissioner of the GNAC commended Nelson on his offerings to those associated within the conference. "It's wonderful to see what he's helped the Conference achieve in our 17 years. He's been a mentor to all of us, he's always provided sage advice, and has proven his dedication to sportsmanship and ethical conduct in everything he's done."

In 1991, Nelson, working with other University senior administrators, was most pleased in welcoming the Rams first on-campus home with the construction of the Ridgeway Building, located at 148 Cambridge Street. After a long-time partnership with the City of Cambridge whose local YMCA played host to the Rams for many years, Suffolk would now host basketball games and other athletic activities on their Beacon Hill campus.  The Regan Gymnasium which is located 30 feet underground beneath the Ridgeway Building has hosted Suffolk's Men's and Women's Basketball teams and the Women's Volleyball team since the building's opening. Despite a need for facilities for their other sport teams, Nelson has continued to work with surrounding cities and towns as well as the generosity of so many collegiate sister institutions to help provide a first-class environment for both games and practices for Suffolk's student-athletes. The Baseball team has called Quincy's Adams Field home since 2006, while Men's and Women's Soccer have used the newly renovated Dilboy Stadium in Somerville for the past six seasons. The Men's and Women's Tennis teams play their home matches on the campus of Buckingham, Browne & Nichols. Softball plays their home games in the North End at Popoulo Field, which overlooks the Charlestown Naval Yard and the USS Constitution, while the Hockey team also moved to the Boston's Historic North End during the past 2012-13 season to skate at the Steven Steriti Memorial Rink after a longtime partnership with Boston University and Walter Brown Arena.

While Suffolk is losing their longtime athletic director, the institution is also losing a longtime figurehead on campus. Known throughout the community for his energy, charisma and respect offered and absorbed, Nelson has touched many throughout his time on Beacon Hill. Jeff Stone, Suffolk's head athletic trainer since 2005 reflected on Nelson's relationships within the university and his own personal one, "Jim remembered me from the 70s, when I used to tape his players as a visiting team. He is a true Renaissance man, old school," says Stone, "Guys like him are hard to find. He has a cache of trust and a solid reputation. He's legendary—Suffolk's version of New Hampshire's 'Old Man in the Mountain'. It's a really big loss for all of us. "He's touched so many. On campus, he's helped administrators, the bursar's office, other faculty members, security, facilities and many other departments—he's universally admired," Stone says.

Head Baseball Coach Cary McConnell, who is entering his eighteenth season with Suffolk, is the longest tenured member on the athletics department staff after Nelson. "Coach Nelson is the Mayor of Suffolk," says McConnell who also serves as Associate Director of Athletics. "He knows everyone's name and when he stops to talk with you, he really cares about what's going on in your life."

Nelson has long been admired by the Suffolk University community. In 2001 he was awarded Suffolk's Lifetime Achievement Award, while in both 2002 and 2004 he was awarded Suffolk's Good Person of the Year. In 2007 Nelson was awarded with Suffolk's "Pink Tie" award for his work as part of the university's October Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For the past 11 years, Nelson has orchestrated the athletic department's role in raising awareness against the disease throughout campus. Nelson was also inducted into Suffolk's Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007, as part of the inaugural class. His leadership and lessons have also gone outside the realm of the athletics fields. Former Suffolk University President David Sargent once praised Nelson for his teachings outside of sports. "Nelson has been a teacher, coach and athletic director. He has seen it all when it comes to athletic achievement by student athletes, young men and women driven to success on the lauded athletic fields, in the rink and on the court. However, what separated Jim Nelson from many of his peers is the unique relationship he shares with his student athletes once the cheering stops. He is the perfect role model for young people living in a world where such figures hardly exist. He is constantly striving to develop young men and women into mature adults who can make the right decisions in life. He holds them to high standards and, in return, receives the respect he truly deserves."

Suffolk University Dean of Students Nancy Stoll applauded Nelson for his influence both internally and externally throughout the campus. "Jim has served on countless community task forces and neighborhood boards and takes great pride in representing Suffolk to community constituencies. Through his many professional contributions to GNAC, NCAA and ECAC task forces and committees, he has represented Suffolk well. Perhaps his greatest contributions have come through his personal impact on thousands of students.  He has been a mentor and a supporter to many who were struggling and, through his encouragement, students who otherwise would have dropped out, persisted and earned their degree.  He is a model for civility, discipline, commitment to community service and care for others.  His loyalty to Suffolk University is unparalleled."

Nelson's achievements stretch far beyond Suffolk University. In 2006 he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, and will be honored this upcoming summer with their "Icon Award." He was honored with the New England Basketball Coaches Association Doggie Julian Award in 1997 for his service dedicated to basketball within the region and in 2006 was honored nationally by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) with their service award.

Adam Nelson, Suffolk's current Men's Basketball coach since 2005-06 talked his relationship with his Athletic Director, who previously held the same coaching position at the school. "Coach (Jim) Nelson has been a great mentor and teacher of the game for me personally as a coach. I have learned so much over the past eight years from him. He has been a great mentor, colleague and reference point. As a basketball coach, I have asked for his advice on many occasions, and have become a better coach through his wisdom.  I always enjoy our post game conversations and I will definitely miss those next year." 

The Institute of International Sport honored Nelson in 2005 naming him a Sports Ethics Fellow, a recognition handed out to coaches, commissioners, professors and college administrators of schools nationwide affiliated with the National College Athletic Association (NCAA). "Jim Nelson embodies the spirit of collegiality we all hope to achieve," said Chuck Mitrano, Commissioner of the Empire 8 Athletic Conference (NY) and Chair of the 2005 Sports Ethics Fellows Selection Committee. "Few people would go the extra mile, whether it be mentoring a student-athlete or assisting an opponent." Among the anecdotes in Nelson's nomination for the award was the story of how he rescued a rival opponent, who on their way to play Suffolk had their bus break down. Nelson hopped in a 15-passenger van and went to the team's rescue delivering them to the match. Those types of character and sportsmanship are what Nelson instills in Suffolk's coaches and student-athletes. "I look for our coaches to set high standards in both competition and character, who would be unafraid in making discipline choices at the risk of victory. They should also be role models who teach our student-athletes life lessons, such as perseverance, commitment and teamwork," says Nelson. "While striving for athletic excellence, our student-athletes should realize that they are in uniform 24 hours a day. They should be proud of the institution they represent and be careful of their own personal behavior, as well as their teammates, whose actions will reflect on them.

"There is no truer gentleman in the world of collegiate athletics than Jim Nelson," says Jim Seavey who worked under Nelson as Sports Information Director at Suffolk University during the 2007-08 seasons. "He embodies all of the qualities that student-athletes should strive to emulate in competition and in the classroom, and the lessons that he has passed along to generations at Suffolk will forever be a part of their lives and his legacy."

Nelson has also served on several committees throughout the years. From 1995 through 1999 he served on the NCAA Division-III Men's Basketball Committee, the final two years in which he was the association's National Chairman. He has also served on several boards within the ECAC. He is currently a part of the ECAC Division-III Men's Basketball Tournament Committee as a Chairman, a position he has held since 1982. He has worked on the ECAC Member Officiating Fees Committee; the ECAC's Katherine Ley Award Committee and served as chairman from 1999-2001 on the Infractions and Eligibility Committee. For the past 21 years Nelson has also been part of the NABC Division-III Coaches Association as a Congressman.

In 2012, Nelson was recognized as the Northeast region's Division-III Athletic Director of the Year by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA).

Nelson was born and raised in Cambridge, a place in which he still holds many local roots. In 1960, Nelson was a Catholic League All-Star performer for North Cambridge Catholic High School, averaging 30.3 points per game. He scored 45 points in a victory over Division I powerhouse Cambridge Rindge Technical High School, a record that stood for 30 years. One year later, he led Huntington Prep to the New England Class A Prep School Championship, and was named Most Valuable Player for the tournament scoring 30 points in the victory over Worcester Academy. Nelson was inducted into North Cambridge Catholic High School's Hall of Fame in 1999, and was named the school's Alumnus of the Years six years prior to his enshrinement. He also serves as a Trustee Emeritus for the Cambridge Family YMCA and is a corporate board member for East Cambridge Savings Bank.

Nelson starred for the Boston College Eagles Men's Basketball team as he graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree. Nelson played for former Celtics' legend Bob Cousy while on Chestnut Hill. At BC, Nelson and the Eagles appeared in the first Rainbow Classic tournament held in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1965. As a senior, Nelson helped defeat the host University of Hawaii Rainbows, 120-74 as he put in 25 points in the contest.

Former Boston Celtics' senior director of operations Leo Papile recognized Nelson's talents on the court and how much they differed from Nelson's genial calm demeanor away from competition. "By the time he was 28, 29 or 30 he was maybe the most feared guy for a couple of years," said Papile. "He was Pistol Pete out there. His alter-ego was as nasty as the devil. Down the end of the game when the other team would start fouling, he'd close his eyes while he shot his free throws just to rub it in."

Nelson's playing days did not end at Boston College. He continued on in local gyms as a player/coach for the Cambridge YMCA team. In 1970 Nelson helped lead his team to a New England YMCA championship.

In 1972 Nelson took a brief sabbatical from Suffolk University to pursue a professional basketball career overseas in Europe. He and his wife Joan and their three, at that time, children travelled to Athens, Greece where he played for Ethnikos Piereaus (the port city of Athens) under the name of Dimitri Nestios (Jim from the Islands). Nelson's skills set and dribbling routine wowed his Greek teammates, and along with his newly anointed Greek name ensured him a valued and most memorable season of Greek League Basketball.

Nelson would spend one season playing overseas before coming back to Suffolk where he had an array of duties under Charlie Law. He served as Head Cross Country Coach for men and women, Director of Intramurals, Coordinator of a required Physical Education class for men at the Cambridge YMCA and assistant coach for both men's basketball and baseball. In 1980 Nelson reinstated ice hockey as a varsity sport to be sponsored by Suffolk University, while the department continued to grow in the following years with the additions of women's basketball (1980), men's soccer (1984), softball (1984), volleyball (1996) and their thirteenth team in 2007, women's soccer. Nelson also aligned Suffolk University as part of the Massachusetts Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women and the Metropolitan Women's Intercollegiate Athletic Council. In 1995, Rams teams on the women's side at Suffolk would join the GNAC, before becoming full-time members for both their Women's and Men's programs in the conference in 1999.

Even as time passed, Nelson's ties to international competition still remained strong. Two years ago, he travelled as an ambassador to Beijing, China with a group of eight City of Boston High School boys' basketball players to compete and tour the country. In 2007 he was presented the Philhellene Award for his lifetime contributions to Hellenism by the Greek Pontian Society Panagia Soumela. Nelson's "Greek" roots in Boston/Cambridge and Arlington area have remained strong and important with him throughout his career. The Greek culture has also been highlighted in Nelson's deep passion for the Olympic Games. Nelson has travelled globally as an ambassador for Suffolk University to many of the summer events and most recently travelled to Beijing, China for the 2008 summer games. While the Olympics are a topic often covered in Theory and Practice of Athletics, a class Nelson has taught on campus at Suffolk since 1977, he was able to help bring Suffolk and the Spirit of the Olympics to the forefront of this Athletic Showcase. In 2001, Nelson nominated former student-athlete John Gilpatrick to be a representative on the Olympic Torch Relay Team as part of their visit to Boston in anticipation for the upcoming Winter Olympics the following year. Gilpatrick, a former ice hockey player for Suffolk University suffered a quadriplegic injury during a contest in 1996. Gilpatrick's injury and miraculous recovery four years later Nelson still considers being the Low and High Point of his 47 year career. Gilpatrick received his baccalaureate degree from the university in 2000 and later went on to attend Law School at Suffolk. Gilpatrick's gratitude to the institution for their support of him and his family throughout his recovery process resulted in John donating back the Olympic Torch to be displayed on campus. Nelson was by his side throughout the course of his recovery. "He really is a second father to me," Gilpatrick would say in an interview years later. "I never expected him to do what he did. But that's just the thoughtful gentleman he is and that's why so very many people have such respect for him."

Throughout his 47 years at Suffolk University, Nelson was able to touch the lives of many and instill his values on student-athletes through several generations. "I like to see athletes develop to their full potential – both in terms of athletic ability and character development," says Nelson. "My goal is that every player can walk off from whatever athletic arena he or she is participating in and say "I gave all that I had, and I'm pleased to say I did."

Nelson and his wife Joan have five children; Kathleen, James, Erin, Christian and Daniel along with five grandchildren; Julia, Grace, James, Elodie and Ariette.

He still plans to continue ties with the school by offering his Theory and Practice of Athletics Course to Suffolk students and teaching them the eyes closed free-throw technique.

Suffolk University has set up the Coach James E. Nelson Endowed Scholarship. You can make your gift through our online giving form, or by contacting John Irvin, director of annual giving, at jirvin@suffolk.edu or 617.573.8445.

A celebration party marking Coach Nelson's retirement will be held at the Ridgeway Building Regan Gymnasium 148 Cambridge Street on Wednesday June 19 at 4:00pm.

To see photos of Nelson through his years at Suffolk and beyond, click here.

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