Servant of the sport: DSU track and field, cross country head coach Nekuda strives to make athlete’s dreams a reality
Mike Nekuda is 29 years old and has only been coaching at Dickinson State since he was 25. In his short tenure, he has accomplished impressive feats.
He completed his third year as Dickinson State’s head cross country coach in the fall and recently started his first season as head track and field coach. Nonetheless, he has already coached 11 NAIA all-Americans and one national champion — sophomore Dante Carter — and helped last year’s men’s track and field team finish No. 5 in the NAIA.
Despite the titles and accomplishments, Nekuda isn’t in his field because he wants to beat teams and win meets. To him, it’s about being a servant to his athletes and helping make their dreams a reality.
As a young, fresh-out-of-college assistant coach for Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., Nekuda naturally wanted to beat his opponents and take home titles. But at some point, he said his philosophies changed and he realized it’s all about the runners.
“I tell people I’m done running now. So when I look at Dante Carter — who’s always in here sitting across from me — my dreams are his dreams,” Nekuda said, in an interview in his office. “I dream about him winning national titles and graduating from college and doing these different things because that’s what fueled me now. My dreams are my athlete’s dreams.
“If you look at it that way, you’re in check. Because it’s about building your resume and me me me me, you’re not there for the right reason. It’s got to be there for them.”
Nekuda is the type of coach who strives to build relationships with his athletes and make sure they can come to him for anything. In turn, he has gained respect and friendships with his athletes, as well as from his peers.
The road to coaching
During his running days, Nekuda said two coaches heavily influenced the type of coach he is today.
His high school cross country coach, and former University of Jamestown head coach, Josh Roberts was only 24 when Nekuda ran under him. Roberts’ youth, enthusiasm and passion for the sport and his job played major roles in Nekuda wanting to become a coach. While competing in cross country and track at Black Hills State in Spearfish, S.D., from 2003-08, Nekuda became close friends with fellow runner, and soon to be coaching partner, Trent Mack.
“Mike and I spent many hours and evenings when we used to be roommates just talking about training and philosophies, and I think that’s where a lot of our foundations of coaching have evolved through those experiences and conversations,” Mack said.
Mack, the current cross country head coach at Ashland (Ohio) University, and Nekuda’s partnership grew through countless hours of talking about coaching and training philosophies and eventually brought him aboard as an assistant coach at Dakota State a year and a half before Nekuda came to DSU.
Nekuda said the greatest advice he got from Mack was to question everything, think outside the box and not rely just on experiences from running track in order to be successful.
“You need to learn more than what you did just competing,” Nekuda said. “That’s really important too — going out and competing hard and knowing certain situations and things like that. But I believe there’s a lot more to it than just being really good and doing things when you were an athlete. There’s a lot more stuff that revolves around it.”
Though his young career is just getting started, Nekuda has worked with talented runners and watched them go on to achieve greatness. As proud as he is of the outright talent, Nekuda gets more out of mentoring average runners and turning them into all-Americans.
Nekuda considers senior middle distance runner Dustin Sandbak’s progression since his freshman year one of his greatest achievements as a coach.
In high school, Sandbak was an average runner — at best — and had a poor freshman season. After Nekuda came to DSU during Sandbak’s sophomore year, Sandbak bought into his training and program, and substantially dropped his time in the 800 meters and eventually picked up two all-American honors.
“I went up to him and said, if you do everything I ask you to, I don’t know how good you’re going to get because you’re not the greatest right now. But if you do everything you will get a lot, lot better. Just trust me and do it. From that day until now, he’s done everything I’ve asked him to do and it’s kind of cool because it makes sense.”
Sandbak added: “He’s kind of been a great coach, not just in the Xs and Os in running per say, just in life and stuff and has kind of helped me since day one with my studies. And if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have my academic all-American either.”
So far, so good
Nekuda took over as DSU’s head track and field coach after Pete Stanton resigned and became the university’s head football coach.
So far, the Blue Hawk men’s team is off to a good start in their indoor season and, in just two meets, has qualified seven for the NAIA national meet.
All appears to be going well, but there was some initial skepticism by the sprinters since Nekuda primarily worked with middle-distance runners.
“To start off with, everyone was a little skeptical with coach Nekuda coming over to the sprinting side, because he is a great coach with distance, cross country, but no one knew how he’d be with the sprinters,” junior Breyan Miller said. “The very first day at practice, he proves us all wrong and gave us a practice that all killed us. We’re all lying on the floor dying and, since then, he’s pushed us to levels that we haven’t been at.”
As an assistant for the track team, Nekuda knew every runner’s name but wasn’t always able to get to know them. Now as their head coach, he is able to work with the sprinters and hurdlers more closely, and try to do what he does best — build strong relationships with his athletes.
Nekuda said he learns something new every day, and it is fun to try and work in the different areas to earn each athlete’s respect.
Mack said Nekuda doesn’t have to try hard.
“I truly think he excels in, and where a lot of his success comes from, the connection between himself and the athletes,” Mack said. “I think understanding how every athlete is motivated differently and understanding these student-athletes deal with more than the sport itself and there’s a lot going on in their daily lives.”
Whether it’s guiding Carter to another national title or helping guide Miller through school in hopes of becoming a dentist, Nekuda’s dedication to his athletes and their dreams are what drive him.
“I am passionate about what I do and people can see that and I think it can take you a long ways because I’m not bluffing it,” Nekuda said. “I’m here for a reason. I want to make people better and I care about what we’re doing.”