Ask William Woods Men’s Soccer Coach Tommy Nienhaus what are his most memorable memories from 20 years as a soccer coach, and he won’t cite a game-winning goal, major upset or really anything about an actual game.
“The things that mean the most for me, are the wedding invitations I get from former players, the random thank you texts I get from guys I coached 8-9 years ago, watching my former players grow up to be successful young adults, seeing their baby pictures,” he said. “Those kinds of things are the most satisfying pay-off of a career in coaching.”
That’s not to say that Nienhaus hasn’t had some memorable on-field success in his coaching career. His teams at the University of Jamestown, an NAIA school in North Dakota, won 73 games in his eight years there as head coach. After taking over a losing WWU program in 2021, he posted a winning record for the Owls in 2023 and has them poised to make big strides in 2024 with an experienced returning squad.
But his focus on his players, and their success and growth as both people and soccer players, might help explain his appointment to the prestigious 30 under 30 Program Class of 2023-2024 Mentors, a program sponsored by the United Soccer Coaches organization. Launched in 2013, the 30 Under 30 program is a year-long education and mentorship opportunity in which head soccer coaches, assistant coaches and directors from every level of the game spend a year mentoring up-and-coming members of the coaching profession who are 30 years of age of younger.
Nienhaus is one of just 15 individuals from across the nation to be selected to serve as mentors by United Soccer Coaches for the coming year, and one of only five college head coaches.
“The 30 Under 30 program is pretty prestigious, and I am certainly honored to be selected for it,” said Nienhaus. “I was certainly pleasantly surprised to be selected. It’s a neat way to network with young coaches from around the country, and we always say – ‘old coaches don’t last forever’ – so this is way to help develop the future generation of coaches.”
The year-long program will mean Nienhaus will get to help grow the game he loves on a national level, interacting with young coaches from the club, high school, college and even professional level, a nice feather in the cap for not only himself but also William Woods Soccer.
“Tommy is a wonderful selection to mentor other young coaches throughout the game, so happy for him to be selected,” said Steve Wilson, Director of Athletics at WWU. “I’ve had the opportunity to watch Tommy grow the last year, and his dedication is impressive. We’ve only scratched the surface of where this program can go on his watch.”
One of the strange twists that ended up bringing Nienhaus, an Indianapolis, Indiana native to William Woods, may have included a brutal experience with illness. While head coach at Jamestown in late 2020, a nasty bout with COVID-19 put him in the hospital for six weeks. Too far from his extended family 15 hours away in Indiana for anyone to visit him in the hospital except his wife, it was then that the successful young coach and family which included a young daughter and son decided to look for an opportunity closer to home.
“The timing was right in so many ways to come to William Woods,” recalled Nienhaus. “My wife, who is a nurse, had just landed a job in an NICU at the Sisters of St. Mary’s Health Center (St. Louis). My daughter, who was getting ready to apply to colleges, already had an interest in William Woods through the strong American Sign Language program here. It was another NAIA school, which appealed to me, and I had other strong connections to the area, as my dad is from St. Louis.”
Nienhaus arrival in Fulton has certainly reversed the fortunes of Owls’ Men’s Soccer. After an inaugural 3-13 season in 2021, the Owls posted a 10-6-4 record in 2023. And with his young team of mostly freshmen and sophomores rapidly gaining experience, Nienhaus expects even more on-field success in ’24.
“Going into year four, I think we are finally ready to take that next big step,” he said. “We have proven we can compete with anybody, are bringing in another talented class of new recruits, and now the Fall of ’24 will see us have more juniors and seniors than the program has had in the past six or seven years. So now it’s just a matter of putting it together and getting some results.”
Don’t bet against Nienhaus, who is also currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Leadership at WWU, getting those results. The William Woods Men’s Soccer team is in good hands with him at the helm, whether it comes to winning, national recognition from other coaches, or the impact he has on his players.
“Every coach seeks to make that giant impact on a program, leaving big footprints, so to speak,” he said. “But it’s more like the fingerprints you leave. It’s the thousands of interactions you have with players that ten years down the line they remember, or some moment or lesson that they learned, that stays with them for years after they’re done with soccer. Those are the kind of things that make the players, and me as their coach, say ‘yeah, it was all worth it.’”