"Rise of the Warrior" by Mark Esch
Minnetonka Public Schools has named Mark Esch as Head Coach of the Varsity Football Team at Minnetonka High School. Esch replaces legendary coach Dave Nelson, who is retiring after an amazing 42 years coaching football, 18 of them at Minnetonka.
Esch brings 20 years of high school and college coaching experience to this role. Last season, he served as running backs coach on the Minnetonka Football Team and he taught physical education part time at Minnetonka High School. Esch previously held the position of head football coach at Mankato West High School for 11 seasons, where he led his team to win the 4A Class State Championship in 2008 and the 5A State Championship in 2014. His teams participated in the State Semi-finals six times. In 2008, he was named Class 4A Coach of the Year.
“Coach Esch is a transformational coach who focuses on building a positive culture and strong relationship with students, staff and the community. His mission is to help athletes win on and off the field,” said MHS Activities Director Ted Schultz. “Coach Esch brings a wealth of experience, vision and purpose to Minnetonka Football. He is the right coach to continue the great traditions of the past and lead us forward into a new era.”
Esch has also served as offensive coordinator at Prior Lake High School and offensive line coach and strength coach at Austin High School. Prior to that, he was as an assistant coach at the University of South Dakota and University of Wisconsin- La Crosse.
“I consider it an honor and a privilege to be the next head coach at Minnetonka High School,” said Esch. “This program has an already strong foundation. I am looking forward to working with the student-athletes, staff and community to take the program to the next level.”
Esch has taught health and physical education in high schools in Minnesota for the past 19 years. He has also held track and field coaching and assistant coaching roles for the past 20 years. Recently, he authored the book Rise of the Warriors, a book about coaching leadership. Esch was a YMCA Community Board Member for three years and has served in many community mentoring roles.
Esch earned a master of arts in exercise science from University of South Dakota and a bachelor of science in health and physical education from the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse.
A brief player meeting will be held today (Tuesday Feb 11th) after school at 2:45pm in the forum. Coach Esch will attend the Touchdown Club meeting on Monday Feb 17th. A parent social will be planned for a meet and greet at a later date.
Over the years, Coach Nelson has carved out a lasting legacy, not only on the field, but as a mentor and role model for students. In 2014, he was inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. His successful and impactful coaching career has spanned 42 years.
“It has been a privilege to lead the football program at Minnetonka High School for the past 18 years,” said Coach Nelson. “I would like to thank our coaches, administration, support staff, youth coaches, parents, and especially our players for making Minnetonka such a special place.”
Prior to joining Minnetonka, Coach Nelson spent 18 years as Blaine’s head coach where he won a state title in 1988. In 2004, he led the Skippers to the first state title in program history, capturing the Class 5A crown with a 23-14 win over rival Wayzata. Additionally, the Skippers won Classic Lake Conference Championships in 2004, 2006 and 2009 and made it to the Class 6A State Playoffs in 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2018. His 2017 team played in the 6A State Championship. Coach Nelson’s 267 career wins rank him among the winningest high school coaches in Minnesota state history.
Ted Schultz, Director of Athletics and Activities at MHS said, “It has been an absolute honor to work with Dave Nelson. Not only is he a hall of fame coach, but he is a hall of fame person. He is one of the best to ever walk the sidelines in the State of Minnesota. Coach, thanks for investing in the Minnetonka Community and building better men through the game of football.”
Coach Nelson says none of his accomplishments would have come to fruition without the influence of his father, Stan, who coached at Anoka for 26 years and was inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1983. Watching—and later playing for—his dad convinced Nelson early on that coaching and teaching was what he wanted to do, something he shared with his father when he was just an eighth-grader.
“I looked at his life and it seemed like he was always happy,” Coach Nelson said of his father. “I saw the influence he had on others and I said to myself that I wanted to try to do that as well. He wanted me to be a dentist.”
Throughout his career, he’s helped to shape the lives of each kid who came through his doors, teaching them the value of hard work, earning what comes to them, and doing everything with class and integrity because, according to Coach Nelson, “at the end of the day it’s your character that matters most.”
To that end, he started the “Men of Character” program at Minnetonka High School several years ago, and it continues today. He was also a leader for students who participated in the Tonka Leadership Challenge, a program he ran for five years, in which he provided guidance to live life with care, respect and commitment toward others. Additionally, he has collaborated with Student Support Services to organize the annual “We Are One” football camp that matches children with special needs with MHS football players for a fun, inclusive event, focused on community.
“High school students are at a very critical age in life,” Coach Nelson said. “Trying to develop them as young men is really important. It has to be about more than just winning football games. Hopefully, they’ll look back on every season and know they became better young men for their experience.”
Coach Nelson is also very involved with the Minnesota Football Coaches Association and serves as the Assistant Executive Director. He is proud of his involvement with Tackle Cancer, a Minnesota Football Coaches Association initiative that has raised more than $2M for the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund over the past eight years. He has not only had a positive effect on his players, but on the Minnetonka football community as a whole. When he first came to Minnetonka, the Skippers had won just nine of 37 games in the previous four seasons. He was committed to changing the culture of the program.
“We wanted to make Friday nights in Minnetonka special and to make them a community event,” Coach Nelson said. “We wanted to make our players part of something special.”
Accomplishing his original vision and watching the Skippers football program grow into what it is today—one that has won five section championships and a state title during his tenure—Coach Nelson said has been one of the most rewarding parts of his career. That also includes improved facilities that rank among the best in the state and a revitalized youth football program that has resulted in more kids playing the sport than ever before.
Dave and his wife Maureen have three children (Sarah, Ashley, and Jesse) and 10 grandchildren—all Skippers!