On Tuesday morning, before his decision to retire after 31 seasons as Johns Hopkins men’s basketball coach became public, Bill Nelson sent a letter to university officials and staff thanking them for their support and partnership.
“When I sent the staff a letter this morning, I was serious about this: I will miss getting up in the morning and going to work and being around a special bunch of people all day long,” he said. “When most people went home at night, my day improved because I got to go to the gym and work with some of the most amazing young men you could ever imagine. It was always a great day.”
Nelson, who had a 501-312 career record with the Blue Jays, will step down June 30 — eight days after his 74th birthday. During his tenure with Johns Hopkins, Nelson guided the program to 25 winning seasons, three Centennial Conference titles and 10 NCAA Division III tournament appearances. He became the school’s all-time winningest coach Nov. 23, 1991, just two games into his sixth year.
But thoughts about retirement have lingered with Nelson for the past few years. He acknowledged that he was close to hanging up the whistle after the 2015-16 season, but agreed to shelve the notion when three graduating players — guards Nikhil Panu and Austin Vasiliadis and forward Sam Gordon — opted to return for their final year of eligibility.
“It’s the first time I had graduate students on our team, and it made me feel good to know that they thought enough of the program and their fellow teammates to come back and play with them for one more season,” he said. “That changed my mind immediately, and I gave it one more shot.”
In what would be Nelson’s final season at Johns Hopkins, the 2016-17 team went 16-10 overall and 12-6 in the Centennial Conference before falling as the No. 4 seed to Ursinus in the first round of the league tournament Feb. 22.
“We had a really good team this year,” he said. “Nobody gets to where they want to be [except for the national champion], but we had a great group of kids, and I’m glad I made that decision.”
But Nelson said the time has come for him to step aside.
“I think the timing is right,” he said. “We have a good nucleus coming back. Recruiting has been more difficult the last few years. If it wasn’t for the grad students that came back this year on the team, we wouldn’t have had that much depth, and I think the team needs new dynamic leadership from somebody that’s going to go out and beat the bushes a little more than I did. I really think that it’s a win-win for everybody. I really think they’re going to have an outstanding group of candidates for the position, and I would be shocked if the next coach doesn’t raise the program up to another level.”
Nelson was named Centennial Conference Coach of the Year twice, but he takes greater pride in the 71 all-conference players, three conference Players of the Year and two All-Americans that he tutored.
Nelson coached two players who have blazed their own path. At Nazareth, where he spent three years, he shaped a player named Jeff Van Gundy, who proceeded to coach the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets in the NBA and is currently an NBA analyst for ESPN.
With the Blue Jays, Nelson coached Andy Enfield, who helped Florida Gulf Coast become the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen of the Division I NCAA tournament in 2013 and is now the coach at Southern California.
In 37 years as a head coach, Nelson had a career record of 606-365 for a .624 winning percentage. He ranks 17th in NCAA Division III history in career wins.
“To be easily the most identifiable person in a program that is nearly 100 years old says as much about the person that is Bill Nelson as it does about the success he enjoyed as our head men’s basketball coach,” athletic director Alanna Shanahan said in a release. “Yes, he built a program that produced victories and championships, but he also built a family of Blue Jay basketball players who continue to be a vibrant part of the program and University long after they’ve graduated. We have been fortunate to have Bill Nelson as our men’s basketball coach and we are truly thankful to him for a career of service to Johns Hopkins University.”
The institution will begin a national search for the program’s 16th head coach.
Nelson acknowledged that he will never completely get rid of the itch to coach and is looking forward to watching the NCAA Division I tournament this week. (“March Madness, even right now, gets you fired up,” he quipped.) But Nelson said he has no regrets about retiring.
“I am very happy with my decision,” he said. “I’m kind of relieved right now. I’m so proud of the kids that we’ve had over the last 31 years. I’m completely satisfied with the decision. I’m leaving with a smile on my face.”