Alex Strouf and Kelly Fenton
The Denmark News
DENMARK – Tom Neuman is coming home.
After spending more than a decade down in warm, sunny Texas, the Wautoma native is returning to the breathe-and-your-lungs-will-freeze Upper Midwest.
And he couldn’t be happier.
Neuman, who spent the past 13 seasons as an assistant football coach at Newman Smith High School (Carrollton, Tex.), is heading back to Wisconsin to take over the Denmark High School football program. He replaces Chris Haese, who just concluded his seventh season at the Viking helm.
“I’m very excited,” Neuman said. “I’m chomping at the bit. I can’t wait to get back up here. It’s been a great 15 years, but it’s also been challenging to stay connected (to his Wisconsin roots).”
Neuman’s charge is to try and turn around a program that hasn’t enjoyed sustained success since a run of winning seasons from 2004 through 2008. Since that time, the Vikings have posted just one winning season, in 2014, when they went 6-5 and won a first-round playoff game. The past three seasons have produced just eight victories, and only two last year.
His hire is the product of a certain amount of serendipity, none more so than the fact he and the Denmark principal have a history together. Oran Nehls was a senior on UW-River Falls football team when Neuman was also a member as a freshman. The duo barely knew one another in college, but do respect each other as former teammates. Another element of fate was timing. Neuman’s daughter, who is going away to college, greenlighted her father’s decision to seek a job back home at just the time Denmark High School posted the position at the Wisconsin Coaches Association website.
And now, Neuman will be trading in all that bumper-to-bumper traffic, all those cloverleafs and cement, all those strip malls, all that relentless heat for the open space, lakes, and trees he loves. And, more importantly, for all those members of his family — parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins — who still live in Northeastern Wisconsin.
“He wanted to get back to Wisconsin in the worst way,” Nehls said. “He just thought, ‘This is it,’ and he was ready to take the next step.”
Not An Easy Decision
The heads of four football teams from the Denmark School District, along with varsity girl’s basketball coach Kory Fredrickson and Denmark athletic director Bill Miller had a role in selecting Neuman, who was among 23 applicants for the job that was posted almost immediately following Haese’s resignation in October. The committee narrowed it down to two candidates, who were both interviewed by District Administrator Tony Klaubauf.
“It’s a nice problem to have with so many good candidates,” said Nehls. “Tom felt this was a good fit and we felt it was a good fit as well. We were impressed with his background, his mannerisms and the references from other football coaches and principals he worked under.
“They all said the same thing: He’s all about the kids and the program and wherever he’s been he’s been successful.”
Nehls admitted that Neuman’s time in Texas was also an irresistible feature of his resume. While no one is trying to replicate Texas high school football at Denmark, Nehls said, the state’s dedication to the sport, especially at the high school level, is undeniable. As is the excitement that fall Friday nights in the Lone Star state brings.
“You think about Friday Night Lights,” Nehls said, referencing the movie and long-running TV show that depicted the slavish devotion of a Texas town to its local team. “But he also coached at the college level, and we felt like that was a real edge, too.”
Paul Ressa, the Newman Smith head coach since 2007, insisted it would become pretty clear pretty quickly what a gem Denmark is getting in Neuman. It seems it’s already clear to Nehls, who says one of the most impressive things about the new head coach is how respected he was as a teacher at Newman Smith, where Neuman taught U.S. Government, Economics and A.P. Psychology, among others.
“He was a great teacher down there, from the advanced kids to the kids that were a little more challenged,” Nehls said. “And I feel if you’re a good teacher, you’re a good coach and if you’re a good coach, you’re a good teacher.”
Ressa maintains that Neuman is, first and foremost, a teacher of kids, not just of subjects. And while Nehls says he sees Neuman not so much as a rah-rah guy but rather as more down to earth, Ressa says not to be fooled by that.
“He is a motivator,” he said. “There’s no question about it. He will be excited. He’s a guy who can light a fuse and get after it. He will work for those kids’ respect and he will earn it. The kids will see what kind of coach they have.”
The hiring of Neuman was a perfect fit for the team, the school, and Neuman himself.
Denmark’s football team has had a tough couple of years. Starting fresh at the top with a defensive-minded coach may be just what the program needs.
It also doesn’t hurt that Neuman, who has spent the last two springs as the head track and field coach at Newman Smith, will take over the program at Denmark. Nehls has served the last two springs as head coach of the program and had been seeking his replacement. Neuman will assume duties in March.
“We’d posted that job two years ago and since he was the head track coach down there he’s wanting to take that over too,” said Nehls.
Neuman is excited to begin working with Denmark’s student-athletes, especially the two-sport track and football players.
“Down here, we really encourage our athletes to participate in more than one sport,” he said. “Track is kind of a perfect fit to work on speed and conditioning. In Texas, it’s never football offseason. You definitely always want your guys in shape.”
Finally, Neuman, being a Wisconsin native, loves returning to the small-town vibe.
“When I was in Denmark over the holiday, I drove around Denmark and it reminded me a lot of my hometown,” Neuman said.
“I just look forward to getting back up to Wisconsin, the state I was born and raised, and look forward to do some hunting and fishing.”
Neuman, who has never been a head football coach before, will draw from almost two decades of experience as an assistant. He knows how important his new role is, but also respects the coaches that will be around him.
“I understand how important assistant coaches are,” said Neuman. “The dependability of assistant coaches is a top priority for me, to take care of them.”
Neuman’s coaching career began at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 1993, following a stint as a player. He stayed at River Falls as an assistant coach through his graduation in 1995. In 2000, Neuman joined the coaching staff at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where he served as the assistant football coach with specific responsibilities for the defensive line and special teams. In his first year, he oversaw a special teams unit that produced six blocked punts, a Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) high that year.
In his final season with Oshkosh, the Titans’ defensive front allowed only 114 yards a game, 3.1 yards a carry and recorded 17 sacks.
From there, Neuman took a one-way flight to northeast Texas, where he served as an assistant head coach since 2005 at Newman Smith. In 2011, he took over as the defensive coordinator for the Trojans.
It’s no wonder, given all the various roles he filled at the school that Paul Ressa, his boss at Newman Smith, speaks so wistfully about losing him.
“First of all, it’s a pleasure to see him moving on to be a head coach,” Ressa said. “He deserves it. As far as him leaving, it’s going to leave a huge hole. He’s the lone staff holdover from when I took over in 2007 and we’ve just always clicked. We have the same passion and the same ideologies.”
Defensive-Minded, But Open-Minded
It’s no secret a majority of Neuman’s career was spent as a defensive guy, including his collegiate playing career for River Falls.
However, the defensive-minded Neuman is already in search of an offensive-minded counterpart.
“That’s something I’ve learned is you have to have balance,” said Neuman. “I’m definitely going to look for a real strong offensive mind.”
Determined is one way to describe Neuman’s mindset as he heads into a new era.
“Just looking at our roster, I compared our returning letterman and returning players to other teams in our conference,” said Neuman. “If you go by height and weight, we match up with anybody in the conference.”
The Vikings lost a lot to graduation, including most of the offensive line and defensive backfield.
But there is a nucleus to build around, including a returning quarterback, both top running backs and their top two receivers.
As the fall approaches, Neuman is focused on setting a positive atmosphere, and says he wants to make himself available to fellow coaches, players and parents.
“From the youth league to varsity, I want to get to know everyone and I want them to get to know me,” he insists. “I want to make sure everybody is seeing my face and they know who I am.”
Nehls says he has no doubts the committee reached the right decision. That has as much to do with the way he deals with kids as it does with his knowledge of the game.
“Tom’s philosophy is more about putting kids in the right place so they’ll be successful,” he said. “He’s not going to try to force the kids into a certain system. He’s going to look at what he has for personnel and build around that. What everyone says about Tom is, he is able to get to kids, and he knows what it means to run a program.
“And that requires flexibility.”
And so, the Neuman reign begins in just seven months. It’ll probably seem longer to Neuman. He’s obviously eager. And he’s more than ready.
“I’ve always known I wanted to be a head coach in Wisconsin,” he said. “And it feels like the time is right. I’ve always wanted to be that top dog.”