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David M. Nelson papers

Identifier: MSS 0328

Scope and Content Note

The David M. Nelson Papers extend over 42 linear feet of material and span the years 1936 to 1991, with the bulk of the papers dating from 1951 to 1991. The collection is composed of correspondence, scrapbooks, photographs, clippings, minutes, manuals, programs, magazines, books, media guides, annual reports, articles, dockets, posters, pamphlets, a diary, motion pictures, video cassettes, drafts (preliminary versions), speeches, surveys, diagrams, certificates, interviews, bulletins, notes, newsletters, proceedings, resumes, and a logbook.

These papers document Nelson’s high school and collegiate experience, his service in the U.S. Naval Air Corps during World War II, his coaching and administrative career, and his extensive service to the National Collegiate Athletic Association and related organizations. Nelson’s publications, speaking engagements, honors and awards, as well as the various resources which he collected are also inventoried in these papers.

Although some material related to Nelson’s coaching and administrative career at the University of Delaware are present, most of these documents are available in the University of Delaware Archives (Record Group 172).

Scrapbooks, assembled by Mrs. Shirley Nelson, begin the story of David Nelson’s career, with a visual record of his scholastic achievements at Northwestern High School in Detroit, Michigan, and his collegiate activities at the University of Michigan. Mrs. Nelson, who knew David Nelson from childhood and shared his enthusiasm for sports, continued to collect clippings, letters, programs, and ephemeral material for the scrapbooks through 1977. Consequently, the scrapbooks contain invaluable information about her husband’s naval service, his early coaching career, and over twenty-five years of his service at the University of Delaware. The contents of each of these eighteen scrapbooks are described in the folder notes.

Nelson’s graduate work is represented in his papers by a copy of his Master’s thesis, “A Study of the Factors Influencing the Success and Failure of Football Rushing Plays.” Steven Johnson suggests that this was Nelson’s first innovative contribution to the game of football. By analyzing a series of games in great detail, he developed principles of blocking, which effectively eliminated the need for players to memorize specific blocking assignments for each play. Nelson’s post-graduate paper, “The Educational Values of Football Today,” also present in Series I, suggests his early philosophy of athletics and education.

David Nelson’s distinguished military service during World War II is recorded in the second series of his papers. Clippings, letters, a flight log, a diary, and a photograph negative depicting Nelson in uniform, document the forty-one months (1942–1945) Nelson served in the U. S. Naval Air Corps.

Nelson’s diary, kept between 1943 and 1945, describes his reconnaissance flights; reports daily activities, damages, and casualties on the U.S.S. Yorktown and other U.S. ships; mentions his participation in bombing raids over Tokyo and air support for ground troops at Iwo Jima (1945) and Okinawa; as well as noting the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the end of the war.

In addition to the scrapbooks, Nelson’s coaching and administrative accomplishments at Hillsdale College (1946–1948), Harvard University (1948–1949), and the University of Maine-Orono (1949–1951), are illustrated through a small group of letters, programs, press kits, and photographs.

The administrative and coaching legacy which David Nelson left at the University of Delaware in correspondence, reports, programs, minutes of meetings, and a variety of others resources is located in Series IV. Beginning in 1951, when Nelson came to the University of Delaware as Head Football Coach and Athletic Director, and continuing through his tenure as the Dean of the College of Physical Education and Recreation, the documents reflect Nelson’s coaching techniques, his administrative acumen, and his dedication to achieving a strong intercollegiate athletic program, while emphasizing academic standards.

Material in Series IV, such as Nelson’s football coaching notebooks and bound volumes of minutes and reports, will complement the records found in the University Archives.

Series V records David Nelson’s thirty-five year tenure on the National Collegiate Athletic Association Football Rules Committee and his service as the committee’s Secretary-Editor. This series also chronicles his work with several other NCAA- related committees or organizations, such as the Collegiate Commissioners Association, the Division II Football Committee, the Joint Commission on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, the NCAA Television Committee, and the Yankee Conference.

Nelson’s contributions to the game of football and intercollegiate athletics become clear when examining the bulletins, clinic manuals and programs, correspondence, films, minutes, photographs, reports, posters, publications, and a group of subject files found in Series V. Because of the amount and scope of the material in this series, a detailed description of the contents is provided at the beginning of the Series V (pages 28-31).

Nelson actively participated in a number of other professional organizations, including the American Association of Higher Education, the American Football Coaches Association, the Football Writers Association, and the National Federation of State High School Associations. These affiliations, which represent only some of the organizations in which Nelson took part, are documented in Series VI.

Whether participating as a liaison from the Rules Committee, as in the case of the National Federation of State High School, or simply as a member, the correspondence, reports, clinic manuals, and other material suggest that Nelson’s contributions to these groups were substantial and appreciated.

David Nelson was a prolific writer, authoring books, syndicated columns, and articles on football rules and plays. Exploring his drafts and notes one discovers Nelson constantly rewriting, striving to improve his work. In addition to the drafts, Series VII supplies correspondence, contracts, and volumes of Nelson’s articles and columns, particularly his syndicated “Breaking the Rules” and “Official Football.”

Most of the book-related material concerns a second edition of Football Principles and Play, which was never published, or Nelson’s final work, The Anatomy of a Game.

Coach Nelson was a popular public speaker, as illustrated by the opportunities accorded him. In fact, Nelson wrote in his 1990 vita that he had given over 500 presentations to a variety of alumni, educational, health, medical, military, sports, and service organizations. Series VIII provides an extensive body of Nelson’s presentations, particularly seven notebooks, which contain notes for many of Nelson’s presentations between 1949 and 1984.

In addition to these notebooks, individual speeches, notes, correspondence, and programs, are also present, further illustrating Nelson’s well-written and frequently amusing presentations. Nelson was particularly entertaining when he presided as the master of ceremonies for sports banquets or celebrations for his associates or coaching friends.

Series IX consists of an extensive file of personal correspondence maintained by Nelson. Arranged chronologically from 1951 to 1991, this file of letters to Nelson, and his responses, cover some of the same topics as in the NCAA correspondence file. However, correspondence of a more personal nature from fans or his coaching colleagues, as well as correspondence recruiting Nelson for coaching positions, is also present.

A folder of correspondence from sports writer Ivan Kaye, biographical information about Nelson, and a notebook of correspondence collected by David Nelson complete Series IX. See the series note on pages 59-60 for more information on the personal correspondence file.

David M. Nelson was recognized for his contributions to intercollegiate athletics and particularly college football through numerous honors and awards, including the prestigious Amos Alonzo Stagg Award, The National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Distinguished American Award, and induction into the National Football College Hall of Fame. Documentation for these and other awards is provided through letters of congratulations, clippings, photographs, schedules, programs, press releases, and Nelson’s acceptance speeches found in Series X.

Several series identify resources collected by David Nelson to support his writing, coaching, administrative functions, and professional affiliations. These series are the following: XI. Magazines, XII. Books, XIII. Clippings, XIV. Subject file, XVI. E.E. Wieman’s football coaching notebooks, and XVII. Bound volumes of clippings, magazines, minutes, dockets, annual reports, proceedings, clinic manuals, photocopied articles, etc.

Noteworthy are the coaching notebooks utilized by E. E. Wieman during his football coaching career and some of the rare books and magazines on football. Among the books and magazines are copies of Modern Football by Fritz Crisler, Understand Football by Grantland Rice and John Heisman, Walter Camp’s Book of College Sports, a Souvenir Football Program of Harvard - Yale Game (1926), and the 1937 through 1941 issues of Illustrated Football Annual. A complete list of books and magazines is available in the series.

The collection contains a substantial number of audiovisual materials, including 16MM films and video cassettes. David Nelson appeared in some and helped prepare the script for others. These films are described in the appropriate series to which they pertain. See Appendix A for a complete list of the audiovisual material in the Nelson Papers.

Photographs of David Nelson, other coaches, football officials, and football games or equipment occur throughout the collection. To assist in locating these items a list of photographs has been compiled as Appendix B.

This description of David Nelson’s Papers highlights only some of the major contents. Researchers exploring the history of football or topics related to intercollegiate athletics will be rewarded by a search of the series and folder notes.


  • Creation: 1936–1991
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1951–1991


Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce is required from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections, University of Delaware Library,

Biographical Note

Renowned football rules authority and former University of Delaware coach and administrator, David Moir Nelson was born April 29, 1920, in Detroit, Michigan. From 1935 to 1938 Nelson attended Northwestern High School in Detroit, where he was a three-sport athlete, playing basketball, baseball, and football.

In 1938, Nelson accomplished a boyhood goal by enrolling at the University of Michigan. An outstanding student and athlete, the 5’-7” and 155-pound Nelson played halfback in the same Michigan backfield as tailback Tom Harmon, quarterback Forest Evashevski, and fullback Bob Westfall. Coached by the legendary Fritz Crisler, Nelson led the team in rushing during his senior year, averaging 6.3 yards per carry.

Following his graduation from Michigan with a Bachelor of Science in 1942, David Nelson served as a lieutenant in the U. S. Naval Air Corps during World War II, providing photograph intelligence in the Aleutian Islands and later aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown. While on the Yorktown he participated in bombing raids over Tokyo and provided air support for ground troops at Iwo Jima (1945) and Okinawa. Awarded three battle stars for his service, Nelson was called “The Admiral” by his shipmates, a nickname which was to stick throughout his life.

After completing his military service, Nelson returned to the University of Michigan as an Assistant Baseball Coach and a graduate student, receiving a Master of Science degree in 1946.

Nelson’s career as an intercollegiate football coach began at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, where he served from 1946–1948 as the Head Football Coach and as the Director of the Department of Physical Education. During his brief tenure Nelson rebuilt the athletic program and secured funding for the renovation of the fieldhouse. Hillsdale College honored Nelson’s achievements in 1991 by awarding him an honorary Doctor of Physical Education degree.

After two successful seasons at Hillsdale, Nelson became an Assistant Football Coach at Harvard University in 1948. Under Head Football Coach Art Valpey, Nelson was responsible for the backfield.

Experiencing a desire to return to being a head football coach, Nelson left Harvard in 1949 to become the Head Football Coach and Assistant Professor of Physical Education at the University of Maine-Orono. While at Maine, Nelson began to develop the Winged-T (or Wing-T) football formation.

The development and perfection of the Winged-T formation continued during Nelson’s coaching career at the University of Delaware. In 1951, Coach Nelson accepted the dual position of Director of Physical Education and Athletics and Head Football Coach at the University. As Head Football Coach at the University of Delaware Nelson established a gridiron dynasty, which won three Lambert Cups and the UPI National Small College Championship in 1963. When he retired from coaching in 1966, his overall coaching record was 105-48-6, with a record of 84-42-2 at the University of Delaware.

Nelson’s Winged-T formation was adopted by a number of prominent football coaches, including Nelson’s former Michigan teammate, Forest Evashevski, who coached his University of Iowa team to Rose Bowl victories in 1957 and 1959 using the formation. Others who used the formation with success were Paul Dietzel at Louisiana State University, Frank Broyles at the University of Arkansas, Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame, Jim Owens at the University of Washington, and Eddie Robinson of Grambling State University.

At the University of Delaware, Nelson served in a number of academic and administrative roles, several of which overlapped. In addition to coaching from 1951–1966, Nelson was Associate Professor of Physical Education (1951–1970); Professor of Physical Education (1970–1990); Professor Emeritus (1990–1991); Director of Physical Education and Athletics and Recreation (1951–1984); Dean, College of Physical Education, Athletics and Recreation (1981–1990); and Special Assistant to the President (1989–1990).

During Nelson’s forty years at the University of Delaware, the athletic program was strengthened and expanded (particularly the women’s athletic program) and a 75-acre intercollegiate athletics complex was created. The complex, which included a new stadium, the Delaware Field House, Carpenter Intramural Sports Building, two Ice Arenas, and baseball and track facilities, has been described as one of the best physical education and athletic facilities in the East. Nelson was instrumental in enlisting the support of R. R. M. Carpenter, Jr. for these extensive projects.

David Nelson’s service and accomplishments extend beyond the University of Delaware and football coaching. Nelson served on numerous NCAA committees, such as the Television Committee, the Division II Football Selection Committee, as well as leading the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference as its President in 1959 and 1970. He was also active in the American Football Coaches Association, the Football Writers Association, and the Yankee Conference, for which he was named the full-time Commissioner in 1989.

Above all else, Nelson was a nationally recognized expert on intercollegiate football rules, serving on the National Collegiate Athletic Association Football Rules Committee for 35 years and as the committee’s Secretary-Editor from 1962 until his death in 1991. His term as Secretary-Editor was the longest tenure in Rules Committee history.

As Secretary-Editor, Nelson recorded and distributed the Rules Committee’s minutes, edited the football rules books and technical manuals published by the NCAA, and served on the Rules subcommittees responsible for equipment and sports injuries and safety. He was also the committee’s liaison with the National Association of Collegiate Commissioners, the American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame, and other organizations using NCAA football rules.

Nelson’s duties required him to comment on the rules to the national media and to conduct sessions at football clinics, during which he explained annual rule changes and points of emphasis. Such clinics were conducted throughout the United States and overseas. Furthermore, he maintained an extensive correspondence with individual coaches and officials on particular rule changes or implications, as well as offering his interpretation of the application of the rules to particular game situations.

In addition to Nelson’s writing and editing for the Rules Committee, he was a gifted author of gridiron textbooks and newspaper commentaries on football and athletics. Beginning with Scoring Power with the Winged-T Offense (1957), which Nelson co-authored with Forest Evashevski, Nelson wrote a number of books exploring the Winged-T formation, the game of football, and the rules governing football play. Some of these titles include The Modern Winged-T Playbook (with Evashevski, 1961), Football: Principles and Plays (1962), Championship Football by 12 Great Coaches (1962), Dave Nelson Selects 99 Best Plays for High School Football (1966), Dave Nelson Selects the Best of Defensive Football for High Schools (1967), and Illustrated Football Rules (1976).

David Nelson’s final book, The Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules, and the Men Who Made the Game, is the first football history to chronicle year-by-year how playing rules developed the game. The Anatomy of a Game was published posthumously in 1994 by the University of Delaware Press.

Nelson’s writing extended to articles, syndicated columns, and book reviews. His articles appeared in Scholastic Coach, Football Today, Referee, Look Magazine, Athletic Journal, NCAA News, and The New York Times. “Breaking the Rules” and “Official Football,” his two syndicated columns appeared in newspapers throughout the country in the 1960s and 1970s.

Nelson also wrote scripts for and narrated several football-related films, including Monday Morning Quarterback, A Matter of Attitude, Best Plays of 1963, and Football Code, as well as collaborated on numerous NCAA films, which were related to football rules. In addition, between 1968 and 1972, he provided analysis and color commentary for weekly college football games for ABC Sports.

Nelson’s stature among his peers is illustrated by the numerous awards and honors accorded him, including the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Distinguished American Award (1984), the University of Michigan Medal of Honor (1986), induction as a coach into the National Football Hall of Fame (1987) and the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame (1978), the American Football Coaches Association Amos Alonzo Stagg Award (1988), and the Ben Oosterbann Award (1989).

David Nelson died on November 30, 1991, in Newark, Delaware, survived by his wife Shirley Risburg Nelson and three children.


Johnson, Steven G. David M. Nelson: Football Player, Football Coach, Football Rules Editor. Newark, DE: University of Delaware thesis, June 1991.

Biographical information is also derived from resumes, correspondence, press releases, and articles in the collection and from the University of Delaware Archives.


42 linear foot (38 boxes)


The David M. Nelson papers document the military, athletic, coaching, and administrative careers of twentieth century American football rules authority and former University of Delaware coach and administrator, David Moir Nelson.


The David M. Nelson Papers are arranged in seventeen series. The first four series follow Nelson’s life chronologically from a student at Northwestern High School, through his career as a coach and administrator at the University of Delaware. Those series are titled: Series I. High School and University Scholar and Athlete, Series II. U.S. Naval Air Corps Service, Series III. Early Career as a Coach and Athletic Administrator, and Series IV. University of Delaware.

The next group of series reflect some of David Nelson’s professional activities and accomplishments, particularly his service to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Series include: Series V. National Collegiate Athletic Association, Series VI. Other Professional Affiliations, Series VII. Professional Writing, Series VIII. Speeches, Series IX. Personal Correspondence, Series X. Honors and Awards.

The final series consist of resources collected by Nelson (or, in the case of the scrapbooks, by Mrs. Nelson), many of which provide further information about Nelson’s professional interests, his affiliations, about Nelson himself, or examples of his writing. Series include: Series XI. Magazines, Series XII. Books, Series XIII. Clippings, Series XIV. Subject File, Series XV. Scrapbooks, Series XVI. E.E. Wieman’s Football Coaching Notebooks, Series XVII. Bound volumes of clippings, magazines, minutes, dockets, annual reports, proceedings, clinic manuals, photocopied articles.

Some of the series have detailed subseries. These subseries are enumerated in a series list which follows this arrangement note. Because of the breadth of resources in Series V. National Collegiate Athletic Association and Series IX. Personal Correspondence, extensive series notes have been prepared for the contents list (see pages 28-31 and 59-60).

The arrangement within most series and subseries is reverse chronological order (which reflects the filing system maintained by Nelson); but occasionally the arrangement is alphabetical by title (in the case of books or films) or by subject (in the case of subject files). Each series note indicates the arrangement within that series.

It should be noted that descriptions for some of the material, such as the scrapbooks, audiovisual material, and bound volumes are provided in the folder notes for the various series to which the contents of a scrapbook, film, or bound volume of material relates. For example, a bound volume of articles written by David Nelson will be described in the series for professional writing, while a scrapbook with clippings about Nelson’s Michigan football career will be described in the subseries detailing his college days.

Some material, because of format or size, has been removed from its original location and shelved in separate boxes, in the map case or at the end of the collection. These removals have been noted and the new location indicated.


Gift of David M. Nelson and Mrs. Shirley Nelson.

Shelving Summary

  1. Boxes 1-36: Shelved in SPEC MSS record center cartons
  2. Box 37: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (18 inches)
  3. Box 38: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (32 inches)
  4. Scrapbooks 2-18: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes
  5. Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversiz


Processed by Anita A. Wellner, 1995–1996. Encoded by Natalie Baur, March 2010. Further encoding by Lauren Connolly, April 2016, and Tiffany Saulter, May 2016.

Finding aid for David M. Nelson papers
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
2010 March 09
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Repository

181 South College Avenue
Newark DE 19717-5267 USA