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Associated Alumni

Remembering Don Nelson

Don Nelson always saw the best in people. That’s what his friends and colleagues remember most.

A long-time UNB coach, Nelson passed away on Nov. 20 in Fredericton at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy of respect, dedication and mentorship.

Nelson was a mainstay for the UNB Fredericton men’s football and basketball teams. Joining the university in 1956, his passion for sports and dedication to UNB never wavered. Don first coached both football and basketball, before focusing on the latter. He spent 32 years as a UNB varsity head coach.

Phil Wright coached alongside Don for 12 years and took over the head coach position once Nelson retired. The two were close for decades; Nelson mentored Wright as a coach and parent, and Wright performed the eulogy at Nelson’s memorial service.

“Don taught more than basketball,” says Wright. “He taught life values to the athletes, the students in the faculty of kinesiology, and to his fellow coaches – myself included. Without fail, they all had the utmost respect for him as a coach and a mentor.”

Nelson was tremendously organized and put his focus on the welfare of the athletes. As an easygoing person, he went above and beyond to ensure the students and players under his watch were treated fairly and with respect.

“Coach Nelson’s enormous contribution to UNB athletics is something that continues to be felt across our entire program,” says John Richard (BPE'96), director of athletics at UNB Fredericton.

A legacy of leadership

Throughout his career at UNB, Nelson had a number of highlights and received many accolades. During the 1966-67 season, the men’s basketball team won the Atlantic championship and advanced to the nationals. He also coached the men’s football team to two Maritime titles. Nelson received the Basketball New Brunswick service award for coaching in 1982 and was recognized by the National Association of Basketball Coaches of Canada in 1984.

Since 1995, UNB has offered a scholarship in Nelson’s name. The Don Nelson Leadership Award is given each year to a member of the men’s basketball team. Nelson also began the summer sport camp program at UNB, which has grown into an important and fun opportunity for youth in New Brunswick.

In his retirement, he spent every fall watching the men’s and women’s basketball teams play, and as a proud honorary member of the UNB Alumni Association, Nelson attended every university activity he could.

Nelson was named to the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. In his time as a coach, he was a role model for hundreds of students, student-athletes and colleagues alike. Nelson admired every player who stepped on the court or field, which was reflected in his coaching style. His humbleness, genuine personality, and thoughtful speech made him a beloved and influential sporting figure in New Brunswick.

“Such a true gentleman who had a special gift of seeing the best in people, Don’s legacy remains incredibly strong within out Varsity Reds teams,” says Richard.

Wright agrees. “There aren’t too many individuals who coached at one institution for 32 years. He set a standard for the way you run a program and how you treat individuals. He leaves behind a legacy of leadership."

Back to Alumni News Direct - January 2017