College sports: Nygaard leaves lasting legacy, telling tales of Bulldogs' triumphs in the game and classroom
Minnesota Duluth's sports information director for 37 years works his final day Friday. He's been laid off after bearing witness to 19 national championships and six Hobey Baker Memorial Awards.
When Minnesota Duluth sports information director Bob Nygaard found out he was losing his job a month ago, he had little time to brace for it, and certainly didn’t see it coming.
“It came out of left field,” he said.
That’s the quintessential answer from someone who has lived his entire life around sports.
Nygaard, the longest-tenured member of the Minnesota Duluth athletic department at 37 years, will work his last day Friday as his position is being eliminated, something UMD said is the result of cuts announced in December to balance the budget.
Nygaard was informed he was losing his job April 2, with the news breaking the next day.
“As tough as it was to sleep that first night, the next day, I was so overwhelmed and humbled by the amount of e-mails, texts, calls and even Twitter comments, that the next night I slept like a baby,” he said.
Nygaard, 60, admitted this isn’t how he planned it. He joked that he didn’t want his legacy at UMD to be that of the longest-tenured employee ever to be laid off.
“I didn’t think the day would be coming now, but I said to people all along that there’s things you can’t control,” Nygaard said. “You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now."
While Nygaard might not be a household name to most UMD fans, he is well known in sports media circles and within the department. Probably nobody in the history of UMD athletics has known more athletes, many of whom he has stayed in touch with over the years.
Bob Nygaard is a @CoSIDAnews Hall of Famer and one of the best people in college hockey and athletics. His professionalism and dedication to UMD is beyond reproach.
Look forward to UMD’s plan to promote its programs and student-athletes if the position is truly eliminated. https://t.co/Ay8lMgdguN
Bob Nygaard is a @CoSIDAnews Hall of Famer and one of the best people in college hockey and athletics. His professionalism and dedication to UMD is beyond reproach.
Nygaard was instrumental in the Bulldogs creating the “Shjon Podein Community Service Award,” given annually since 2003 to the UMD student-athlete who wasn’t just a leader on the field or in the classroom, but also in the community through volunteering and other humanitarian efforts.
Nygaard always presented the award, talking about how every year UMD honored an outstanding athlete and outstanding student. This award went to an outstanding person.
Podein, the former UMD and NHL hockey player, said the award could have just as easily been named after Nygaard.
“Honestly, I can’t believe it’s his last day. It’s still a little bit of a shock to me,” Podein said in a phone interview Wednesday. “He’s an institution there.
“I met Bob, I swear to goodness, it was Day 1. He was just the most congenial, nicest guy, willing to help me with anything. He just made me feel welcome. You talk about being a Bulldog. That just describes Bob in a nutshell. He’s lived and breathed it.”
Nygaard and his wife, Kim Keil, have three children, Morgan, Megan and Nolan, and live in Rice Lake.
Nygaard isn’t one to dwell on negatives and recalled how the day after he learned he was losing his job he brought a framed print of the UMD hockey team, a donation, to a friend with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig's Disease).
“The feeling sorry for Bob Nygaard was very short-lived,” he said. “You look for positives.”
Nygaard said he’s not going anywhere and will be a frequent visitor at UMD sporting events. He plans on spending more time with family and could see eventually working with kids.
“For the first time since high school, I’m going to be just a fan, and I’m looking forward to it,” Nygaard said. “With all of this outpouring, it’s almost like they’re reading my eulogy. Guys, I’m not dying. I’m going to be around.”
Bob Nygaard is UMD athletics and this is an obviously absurd decision by the school. If not for social distancing, l would hug Bob right now. All best wishes.
Bob Nygaard is UMD athletics and this is an obviously absurd decision by the school. If not for social distancing, l would hug Bob right now. All best wishes.— Kevin Pates (@patesonskates) April 3, 2020
Nygaard grew up in Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood, the son of Romayne and Don Nygaard, his father being the 1949 Minnesota state cross-country ski champion who later excelled at UMD and trained for the 1956 Winter Olympics.
Neighborhood kids would often congregate at the Nygaard house, which was near the softball field on Woodland Avenue, on Anoka Street. It was an idyllic upbringing, right out of the “Peanuts” cartoon or the “Sandlot” movie.
Longtime UMD women’s soccer coach Greg Cane grew up with the Nygaard children.
“The Nygaard household was the opposite of my household,” Cane said, laughing. “It was very structured, very organized, dad was a banker, mom was a housewife. They had the five or six kids, whatever it was, it ran like a military outfit.”
The Nygaards were the closest to the ballfields and hockey rink where the neighborhood children would play, so their home was a place where they would take a break or meet up.
“Bob was an organizer, he was definitely an organizer,” Cane said. “He was into the finer points of whatever we were doing. It had to look right, it had to be organized. Whereas we’d just show up and play ball. No, Bob, he knew who should be playing on what team. He was on top of it.”
Nygaard apparently inherited the distance gene from his father and was the city mile champion in ninth grade, almost breaking five minutes, but he never pursued it. He played football, hockey and tennis in high school, but baseball (and softball, sports he would later officiate and coach for years) was his sport.
Cane fondly recalled how the old Woodland ballfield had a little announcer’s booth up above home plate where kids would sit. Nygaard was always there.
“He’d call, ‘Batting next for the Cardinals, whatever, whatever,’” Cane said. “That was his thing. He was super into the PR aspect of it, always, even from that age. Or we’d be playing in the sandlot up at the field, just together, and you’d hear him barking from the bench or from first base, ‘Now batting from Faribault Street, seventh-grader Greg Cane, .276 average.’ He was that guy. He always had something.”
On to sports info
So though it was no surprise to the people who knew him that Nygaard got into sports information, it was certainly a surprise to him how he ended up here.
After graduating from Duluth East in 1978, Nygaard enrolled at UMD and began working for the student newspaper, the Statesman. It was there where he heard about sports information from future News Tribune sports editor Chris Miller, now at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“I had never heard of it,” Nygaard said of sports information.
Nygaard spent two years working in the UMD sports information office as a student assistant before transferring to Wisconsin-Eau Claire and graduating with a journalism degree in 1983 (UMD didn’t offer the degree at the time).
“I applied for a job as assistant sports editor at the International Falls paper and got turned down,” Nygaard said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a little bit of a rough ride.’”
Nygaard was working in the Eau Claire sports information office that summer when he got a call from UMD sports information director Dukes Knutson. Nygaard had kept in touch with the Bulldogs by working their holiday tournaments while on Christmas break.
“I was thinking, ‘What would Dukes be calling me about?’” Nygaard said. “And he said they had been doing some restructuring and was wondering if I had graduated or anything, and I said I graduated last May. He said, ‘Well, it looks like we’re going to have an assistant position open. What do you think?’ I said, ‘I’m in.’”
Nygaard worked a little longer in Eau Claire before he was back in Duluth. The first game he worked with the Bulldogs was a Wisconsin-Superior football game.
“And I’ve been there ever since,” he said.
Nygaard was only on the job about three months when Knutson moved to assistant athletic director after AD Ralph Romano died, and Nygaard was also promoted.
“Here I was, 23 years old, and I was the head SID,” Nygaard said. “For all that to happen, you talk about fate. For Dukes to pick up the phone and call me that day and for me even to answer. Maybe he had some No. 2 on the list he was going to go to, but that’s what got the ball rolling.”
On a sunny afternoon in early April, Nygaard took a call from a News Tribune reporter who wanted to discuss the 2020 Hobey Baker Memorial Award announcement, which had been pushed back from a manageable Friday evening to ESPN’s late-night Saturday "SportsCenter."
Earlier that day, UMD junior defenseman Scott Perunovich was named to the Hobey Hat Trick — which are the top three finishers — and was the favorite to win the award. Nygaard was also informed that morning he was losing his job at the end of the month.
He chose not to divulge that last tidbit of information, but instead went to work with the reporter on how to best handle the now late-night announcement. That came as no surprise to the two Bulldogs men’s hockey coaches who have worked with Nygaard through seven NCAA Frozen Fours, three national championships and now six Hobey Baker winners over the previous 37 seasons.
“He was always really pleasant to work with. He was always positive to me,” said former Bulldogs hockey coach Mike Sertich, who worked with Nygaard for 17 seasons from 1983-2000. “He and I had a great relationship. I saw him grow into his position as I was growing into mine. We shared that common bond. The thing I liked the most about him was his pleasant personality and his positive attitude. Those two things stood out to me a lot. I commend him for that.”
Sertich also commends Nygaard for those early Hobey Baker winners, starting with Tom Kurvers in 1984 and Bill Watson in 1985. The award was only in its fourth and fifth year when UMD became the first of just two schools to ever win the award in back-to-back seasons.
Promotional campaigns have long been an integral part of the Hobey Baker voting process, but that was especially true in the mid-80s when there was no internet or nationally televised games. The WCHA had also just recently lost schools like Michigan and Michigan State to the brand-new CCHA, further diminishing the visibility of a little school like Minnesota Duluth.
What did help was the WCHA’s scheduling agreement with another new conference at the time, Hockey East. Sertich said Nygaard made sure that when UMD traveled to Boston and New Hampshire, the broadcasters and writers knew everything they needed to know about the Bulldogs' players.
“In many respects, I think he was equally as important as the player in getting recognition for the Hobey Baker — first of all the nominees and then secondly, the award itself,” Sertich said. “Up until that time, I don't know that other schools were doing what he did. He promoted those kids in the program and I think that was huge.
“He not only was characterizing the kids in all their attributes, but he got those points across, especially to the voting public out East and I think that was really critical.”
Would like to point out common thread to all of UMD's Hobey Baker Award recipients - Scott Perunovich (2020), Jack Connolly (2012), Junior Lessard (2004), Chris Marinuci (1994), Bill Watson (1985) & Tom Kurvers (1984) - has been SID Bob Nygaard. Not a coincidence. Congrats Nygs!
Would like to point out common thread to all of UMD's Hobey Baker Award recipients - Scott Perunovich (2020), Jack Connolly (2012), Junior Lessard (2004), Chris Marinuci (1994), Bill Watson (1985) & Tom Kurvers (1984) - has been SID Bob Nygaard. Not a coincidence. Congrats Nygs!— Paul Allan (@PaulAllan5) April 12, 2020
By the time Scott Sandelin took over as head coach in 2000, UMD had three Hobey Baker winners with Chris Marinucci’s win in 1994. Junior Lessard won in 2004, Jack Connolly in 2012 and Perunovich became the sixth on April 11. No other school has more than four.
Sandelin said it’s been great the last 20 years to work with someone who has been in the business as long as Nygaard, and someone who has built all those relationships in college athletics.
“We’ve always had a great relationship. He supported our program. He was very helpful to me and our program,” Sandelin said. “There’s a lot of things he did that I didn’t even know about as far as promoting our players. I give him a lot of credit for that. It’s a big part of it.”
What a career
Nygaard was only about six months into the job when the UMD men’s hockey team won that first Hobey Baker and advanced to its first NCAA Division I title game in March 1984. Economically-strapped Duluth embracing the Bulldogs, Nygaard said, was like nothing he has ever seen.
“I was thinking this was pretty cool,” Nygaard said. “Then before you know it, you’re here and think, well, Duluth is a good place to hang out, and now 37 years later, I’m still here, but that’s how I got my start.”
Since then, Nygaard has seen the industry undergo a metamorphosis with the advent of the internet and smartphones. In the early days, Nygaard was still mailing out releases and calling in scores and stats to the local newspaper and television stations. The emergence of the fax machine was a big deal. Now, it’s video and online production, social media and more outlets to distribute information, more “pieces of the pie” as Nygaard describes it. The grind, the 24/7 news cycle, the need for instant news, increased, and some of that he won’t miss.
In the meantime, he was also in charge of gameday operations.
“The beauty of Bob Nygaard was the fact he let us do our job,” said longtime UMD football and hockey timekeeper, and goal judge, Craig Smith. “He didn’t get too excited unless he had to. Quiet leadership as far as we were concerned.”
Nygaard, who was inducted into the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Hall of Fame in 2015, has been there for all of UMD’s 19 national championships, including 10 team and nine individual titles.
Nygaard's top three UMD sports moments are:
- UMD’s first men’s hockey national championship in 2011.
- UMD’s upset victory at Grand Valley State in the 2008 Division II football playoffs that put the Bulldogs, and the NSIC, on the national football map.
- The UMD women’s hockey team’s third straight national championship in 2003 before a packed house in Duluth, which was huge for women’s hockey.
At UMD sporting events, he was often the face of Bulldogs sports to the visiting media, a projection of the university itself.
“Bob is very well liked and had everything organized for those guys,” Smith said. “When you’re an outside guy and you rolled into town, all your questions were answered.”
Nygaard was proud he was able to do more with less. He said of those 37 years, he only had full-time assistants — something he said every Division I hockey school has — for two of them. He took it as a compliment when his visiting peers would ask, “How do you do it?”
Nygaard got by on student help, lots of it. Nygaard has employed more than 600 students during the last 37 years, and while some stayed in the business, like USA Hockey director of communications Dave Fischer, most did not, like Dr. Steph Carlson, radiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Wow. Shocking news out of UMD today. Bob Nygaard was a ESSENTIAL role in that office for almost 40 years and had life lasting impacts on countless students... I really hope they are able to still offer that real world experience to students in years to come. #budgetcuts https://t.co/iJN0t3NqOc
Wow. Shocking news out of UMD today. Bob Nygaard was a ESSENTIAL role in that office for almost 40 years and had life lasting impacts on countless students... I really hope they are able to still offer that real world experience to students in years to come. #budgetcuts https://t.co/iJN0t3NqOc— Natalie Grant (@naniigrant) April 3, 2020
Every two or three years, a new one would roll in, and occasionally, Nygaard got a freshman he could groom for four years.
“I’m grateful for them, and it seemed like every time somebody was done, somebody would pop in randomly and say, ‘Do you need anybody?’ ‘Absolutely,’” Nygaard said. “All those people who came along were pennies from heaven. To put out a product like we did, with professionalism, is something I’m very proud of.”
Nygaard is also proud of his impact in helping ingrain the meaning of “community” into the Bulldogs’ three-C athletic mission along with "classroom" and "competition." Hence the reason for the Shjon Podein Community Service Award, and UMD’s team impact awards.
That will be Nygaard’s legacy and what he will be remembered for, as a nice guy who made a difference.
“I always tell people, no matter how hard you work at football, you’re not going to be Isaac Odim (UMD football’s all-time leading rusher and scholar),” Nygaard said. “And no matter how hard I worked at school, I was never going to be Isaac Odim, but ... there’s no special skill involved to getting involved in your community. Everyone has the same opportunity, and that’s why it’s so neat to see how we’ve embraced it and made it almost part of the culture.”