Penn State football team celebrates Big Ten Championship
Days after enjoying the spoils of retirement — a visit to Steak ‘n Shake near his hometown in West Lafayette, Indiana — former Penn State Associate Athletic Director for Strategic Communications Jeff Nelson discussed his nearly 26 years with the university and where he hopes to see the Nittany Lions go in the future.
The 2017 Lester Jordan Award winner served as Penn State football’s primary communications director for more than two decades, then was elevated to associate athletic director in 2015 before he retired July 31. He still has plans to work full time elsewhere, but said “it was the right time” to leave the university.
The following Q&A was edited for length, clarity and accuracy.
Q: What do you consider to be your greatest success stories?
A: I was a member of the Academic All-America committee for 29 years. I was a national coordinator for many of those years, so it was always great that Penn State, annually, always had a number of candidates for Academic All-American considerations. You have to have a 3.3 cumulative GPA and, obviously, do well in athletics and community service. That was always something that I had a lot of pride about — the amount of Academic All-Americans that we had during my tenure. I think Penn State has 205 all-time, which is the fifth-highest total in Division I.
Q: What stands out to you about how Penn State athletics has evolved over the past 25 years?
A: There’s a couple things. When I first got here, that was Penn State’s first season playing Big Ten football — 1993. Most of our teams already started Big Ten play two years before that. We started women’s soccer as a varsity’s sport in 1994. I got in on the ground floor. Because I grew up around the Big Ten, I’ve been around the Big Ten conference my entire life. That was really kind of a drawing point for me to come here.
The other thing, in terms of our profession, that’s changed so much is the technology. When I first started — I was at Holy Cross before I came here — we weren’t even using a fax machine. If you had a news release, you typed your news release on the typewriter. You finish the release, look at it, get your Wite-Out out if you needed to and you correct it.
Now, we can have 400 media email addresses in this Listserv, hit send and boom.
And, of course, social media is totally different. It’s great because it really enables us to get the message out in a timely manner. And from our perspective, when we have breaking news, we want to try and be the first ones to get the news out rather than the media. From that perspective, it’s been really positive.
Q: What are your some of your favorite teams to look back on?
A: The 1994 football team was just amazing. That was my first full year. That was one of the greatest offenses in college football history. Still holds the Big Ten record for points per game in conference games (48.1 ppg). Five first-team All-Americans on offense. That team was just incredible. They ended up with three of the top-10 picks in the 1995 NFL Draft. Ki-Jana Carter went No. 1, Kerry Collins went No. 5 and Kyle Brady went No. 9. They had so many scoring drives under two minutes.
It was the second game of the year and we’re playing USC — a great program that perennially is going to the Rose Bowl and winning national championships. We were ahead 35-0 at halftime over USC. Won the game easily.
Another game that will always stick out for me that year was the Ohio State game. Penn State was No. 1 in the polls going into that game in late October. We absolutely annihilate Ohio State, 63-14. That same day, Nebraska, who was No. 3, beat No. 2 Colorado. Nebraska jumped over Penn State in The Associated Press poll. Penn State was still No. 1 in the coaches poll.
The next week, we go to Indiana. We’re ahead 35-14 with two minuets left in the game, so defensive starters have been pulled. Indiana scores two touchdowns and gets a two-point conversion in the last two minutes of the game, so Penn State ends up winning 35-29. So people who didn’t see the game and only saw the final score, said, “Oh, they must’ve really struggled against Indiana.” Penn State dropped to No. 2 in the coaches poll after the game. Nebraska held on the rest of the year.
We were tied in to the Rose Bowl, which was great, but it meant we couldn’t play Nebraska for the national championship. The fact that Penn State and Nebraska could not play that year was one of the games that was the impetus towards getting us to the Bowl Championship Series, which started in 1998. It was tough.
Q: Which athlete is the most memorable?
A: A guy who I was really happy for was Sam Ficken. Second game of the 2012 season, we go down to Virginia and Sam missed four field goals and one PAT in a 17-16 loss. I remember I made sure I found him after the game and we walked off the field with him because I didn’t feel it was appropriate for any media to come up and try to talk to him as we were walking off the field. It was devastating for him.
You saw the improvement in him later that year, in 2013 and 2014. Then, in his final game against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, we got to overtime. He kicked the game-tying field goal. Then Boston College scored and missed the extra point. We score, Sam Ficken kicks the extra point and we win the game. He’s running down the field and his teammates mob him. To me, that was a great moment. There were fans that really got after him. He was a great young man.
Q: Which personalities will you miss?
A: Cael Sanderson has an unbelievably great, dry sense of humor. He was a blast when he was on those Coaches Caravans. He would come off as really low-key, but he would make the crowd roar when he would go in and talk. I know that it’s not his favorite thing to do, but he’s really good at it.
Both he and women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose have really great, dry sense of humors. They’re kind of different than some other people.
Q: What were some of your biggest challenges?
A: The biggest challenges were things that came up off the field, where you’ve got either a coach or a staff member or a student-athlete that’s been accused, or did, something they shouldn’t have done. Just trying to make sure that you get all the right people together and have the conversation — what’s the who, what, why and where? How? We need the basics first.
Then what are all the possible repercussions and ramifications? What’s our initial response? And what’s the plan moving forward — is this coach or student going to be suspended? Are they removed from the team?
Obviously, there were times where something would happen and it would get reported in the media and then folks were contacting me for a response or a statement. People find things out and it’s like, “You just found out about this three minutes ago. What’s your reaction?” We might need more than three minutes.
At the end of the day, we’re gonna do what’s best for that particular student, coach, program or Penn State. That’s my No. 1 priority. That’s probably the most challenging situation that we would have.
Q: Do you believe Penn State athletics is in a better spot now because of those challenges?
A: Yeah. I think the university is definitely in a better spot. No question about it. Now, people can look at Penn State as being a national leader in terms of compliance and training standpoint.
Q: What is your hope for the future of Penn State athletics?
A: I think the future is very, very bright. I think Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour is doing a tremendous job. She’s put together an excellent team. Our head coaches are outstanding.
I have no doubt in my mind that football coach James Franklin is going to lead Penn State to a national championship. No doubt. It’s going to happen. He’s had a plan. The way that they’ve built relationships with high school recruits, their families and high school coaches over the last five years — there’s no doubt. It’s going to happen, which will be awesome.
My biggest regret of retiring when I did is because I think men’s basketball is going to have a fantastic season. Coach Patrick Chambers and his staff have been building for this kind of season. It’s going to be really exciting.
I think women’s basketball coach Carolyn Kieger was an unbelievable hire. Tremendous hire. It’s not going to take very long for her and her staff to get the Lady Lions to compete for Big Ten championships and advancing in the NCAA tournament. It’s going to happen.
Men’s hockey — they’ve broken through by getting to the NCAA tournament. The next step for them is getting to the Frozen Four and winning a national championship. I have no doubt that coach Guy Gadowsky and his guys are going to get that done.
The future is extremely bright. I see a lot of really exciting things happening this year and down the road.