MCKENZIE, Tenn. - He told his third and fourth grade teacher Peggy McCulley, he wanted to grow up and play in the NBA. Even though that dream never materialized his love for basketball never wavered. Instead of playing, he turned his attention to coaching.
He got his start in the coaching ranks early when he started his career at Yorkville Middle during his sophomore year at Bethel College. After one season, he moved on to serve as an assistant coach at Gibson County High School under the direction of his mentor, Coach Scott Bowlin. From Gibson County High School, he spent the next five seasons as an assistant for Bethel under the direction of another mentor Larry Eddings. During those years he was a key component in the two consecutive trips to the NAIA Division II National tournament during the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
Whether it be playing or coaching this is his favorite time of the year. It's March and that meant growing up following his beloved Memphis Tigers in their annual run into March Madness. Now as a head coach, it means taking his Bethel Lady Wildcats to the NAIA National Tournament.
The Lady Wildcats received an at-large bid and will face Vanguard in the Naismith Bracket of the 2018 NAIA Division I Women's Basketball National Championship, presented by "Wells Fargo" in Billings, Montana. Bethel is the No. 7 seed while Vanguard is the No. 2 seed in the bracket. The championship runs March 14 through March 20. The two will tangle Thursday night in the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark with tip-off slated for 10:45 CST.
The Lady Cats will make their sixth straight and ninth all-time appearance in the national tournament. The Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight three seasons ago in the Championship, before falling to eventual runner-up Campbellsville. It was Bethel's second straight Elite Eight appearance. They fell to Freed-Hardeman the previous season. Two years ago Bethel, a No. 1 seed bowed out in round one after a 56-51 loss to Cumberland University. Last season the Lady Wildcats lost in the Sweet Sixteen to eventual runner –up Lewis Clark State. The Lady Cats are 7-8 all-time in the national tournament.
Coach Chris Nelson is in his 12th season as the head coach of the Bethel Lady Wildcats. He has a career mark of 260 -131 which ranks him 17th among active wins in the NAIA. His teams have hit at least one three-pointer in each of his 390 games. He has led the program to nine national tournament appearances which include two Elite Eights and three Sweet Sixteen appearances. He is the all-time wins leader in Lady Wildcat history. His 2014-15 squad finished with the best record in program history at 32-4. For the second straight year Bethel worked their way into an Elite Eight finish. The Lady Cats had a 24 -game winning streak during the year, which is the longest in program history. They ran the table in the SSAC regular season with a perfect 18 game winning mark capturing the SSAC title.
His teams have been dominate in one of the toughest leagues in the nation. They are 76-15 in regular season action in Bethel's five years in the Southern States Athletic Conference. They own a 42-2 home record during that span against league opponents. His teams are 91-13 in Crisp Arena.
Ironically, Coach Nelson will be matching wits with one of his best coaching friends in Vanguard's Russ Davis. Vanguard is making their 20th appearance in in the championship. There are five teams in the field that have 20 or more tournament appearances: Campbellsville, Wayland Baptist, Oklahoma City, Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.), and Vanguard. The Lions won the title in 2008 in Jackson's Oman Arena. They have 13 Sweet 16 appearances and have made it to the Elite 8 twelve times. The Lions have five Final Four appearances.
Nelson was among several elite national coaches taking part in the 2017 National Exposure Basketball Coaches Clinic at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Other coaches include Holly Warlick (Tennessee) Jeff Walz (Louisville) Matt Insell (Ole Miss) Rick Insell (MTSU) Melissa McFerrin (Memphis) and others.
Bethel Director of Sports Media Relations and radio broadcaster Dave McCulley said, "No one respects the history of the game as much as Chris. I have worked with many coaches during my career and he is as passionate as anyone I have ever been associated with. He loves what he does and his success has and remains impressive. His recruiting of local and national players has also been consistent and impressive." McCulley added, "I love his style. He has the charisma all the great coaches have. He is one of the best to interview and does a remarkable job in promoting and marketing the Lady Wildcat brand. His quotes such as, 'Put the hay in the barn', and time to 'Land the plane', remain some of my favorites."
He was and continues to be influenced in life by his biggest fans. He was a fixture working with his grandmother Miss Judy at Trenton's famed Cotton Cafe. Along with her, his mother Angie continue to be major impacts in his life. His other biggest fan is his wife Jennifer, who is a teacher and coach at McKenzie Middle School. They reside in McKenzie. Jennifer, along with Tyler Tate, Cayla Sheets and Derrick Hubble make up his outstanding coaching staff.
Coach Nelson commented on his squad and what it means to his program to return to the tournament. "This time of year is always the best. We never take the opportunity to compete in the national tournament for granted and it is always special. For one, we get to continue to be around our team for a couple more weeks and enjoy what our ladies have worked so hard for all year. We have a nice challenge in our bracket but we are accustom to a tough schedule as we have played all # 1 seeds in each bracket and other teams throughout the tournament. We can't wait to get out to Montana and compete for a national championship."
Good Luck to Coach Nelson and the Lady Wildcats. Congrats on another great season. Continue to live the dream Coach Nelson and, "Land the plane and put the hay in the barn."
Coach Nelson has his Lady Cats back in the Big Dance