Timpanogos High School baseball coach Kim Nelson is tough but not callous.
He had surgery on March 8 to repair a torn labrum and rotator in his shoulder and asked his wife Leslie to wheelchair him out of the recovery room directly to Timpanogos’ season opener against Stansbury but she wheeled him home to bed. Nelson was on the DL for a total of one game.
He’s been the head coach longer than any baseball coach in Utah (34 seasons) but he’s still not too proud to admit when he’s wrong. He will apologize to players when he gets too fired up in the heat of the moment and in retrospect, feels like he was too hard on them.
Nelson is sensitive but not soft.
Leslie is the only person who understands the agony of what her husband goes through on a yearly basis when tryouts are over and the tough decisions must be made regarding which players will be cut. Despite all of the manly instinct he could summon to mask his emotions, his eyes would betray him and water up with tears.
Those who have played for Nelson wouldn’t call him soft. He’s an old-school competitor, who is all business during practice and that only expands like an umpire’s strike zone in a 15-0 game when the first pitch is thrown.
On Tuesday, Timpanogos had a junior varsity game canceled so Nelson decided to use the time to have an intra-squad game between his JV and sophomore teams. He acted as both umpire and coach and when the JV team struggled to get out of an inning by committing a series of errors that were followed by a botched run-down he turned to stare down those involved in the mistake and yelled, “You have got to be kidding me.”
Nelson is near-sighted when it comes to building a program but is far-sighted when it comes to giving his players something they will use after they receive their diploma.
Nelson has won seven state baseball championships and Timpanogos is the favorite to repeat as 4A state champs this year.
He has a series of drills his players repeat each practice throughout the year but long after those drills are forgotten, they will continue to put into practice other lessons they learned from their coach such as resisting the urge to give up when a game seems hopelessly lost. In a me-first climate that surrounds high school sports, another walk-off lesson learned is the importance of being a good teammate.
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Timpanogos has an overall record of 13-1 and is 4-0 in Region 7. Nelson has 571 career wins and can move into a tie for second place for career wins in Utah with former Spanish Fork coach Jim “Shoe” Nelson, who will be inducted into the Utah Sports Hall-of-Fame Foundation later this month.
Jon Hoover holds the record with 592. Nelson won’t be able to surpass Hoover this year but it will happen if he continues to coach. He is now 60 but isn’t tempted to retire.
“There have been times I’ve thought about it after I’ve talked to former coaches that have retired and I hear how great it is, but then I think about all of the reasons why I still do it,” Nelson said. “I have a very supportive wife and family. I like my job as a teacher and being part of Timpanogos High School. I still have a love for the game of baseball and for coaching.”
His success and longevity become more remarkable each year as the percentage of turnover among high school coaches continue to climb. The tremendous time commitment it takes to have the elite program in the state is grueling.
Consistently winning helps compensate for what amounts to mostly volunteer time that a coach must put in what has turned into a year-round sport but having fingers decorated with state championship rings doesn’t exempt a coach from criticism.
One of the years Nelson remembers as the best was also the worst. Timpanogos won a state championship but that didn’t satisfy some parents, who weren’t in the celebrating mood when the championship trophy was presented to the team.
“There were some parents who were upset with their son’s lack of playing time. But there was one set of parents, who were so classy. They had a son who had been a very good pitcher and could have started on most teams,” Nelson said. “His parents encouraged him to transfer to another school but he said he wanted to be with his teammates wanted me to be his coach. He chose to stay knowing that he wasn’t likely to play very much because we had two college-level pitchers that year.”
A few years later Nelson got a visit in his classroom from the mother of that boy. The woman was holding a letter and approached him in tears.
“I thought, oh boy, this can’t be good,” Nelson said. “She told me how grateful she was to have her son in my program and that the life lessons he learned about how to work hard and never give up while playing baseball had helped him in all areas of his life. I still have that letter and I’ll read it quite often to remind myself why I still coach.”
Each new season begins with fewer empty seats in the stands as those impacted by Nelson’s influence continue to arrive.
On Wednesday, Pleasant Grove and Lehi played in a Region 4 baseball game and Carl Ingersoll chatted with Mike Shoell after the game.
Ingersoll is best known for his time as the head basketball coach at American Fork and as an assistant coach for BYU. His sons (Jason and Jarod) are head baseball coaches at Lehi and American Fork. Shoell retired from coaching baseball last season after a successful runs at Lone Peak and Wasatch.
Somehow the conversation turned to coaching and Ingersoll said, “My sons got into coaching because of Kim Nelson.”
Shoell replied with a smile. “We all did.”