It almost ended before it ever began for Scott Nielsen. Remember that NCAA record 26-game consecutive win mark he earned as a BYU pitcher some 20 years ago? Once upon a time, it almost vaporized.

There are lessons in his story for coaches, athletes and maybe fans.

Nielsen has a certain air about him. He's a natural born leader. In a clubhouse, teammates gravitate to him.

Nielsen, 45, is now vice president of finance for Stephen R. Covey and Associates. Nobody touched his NCAA mark until 16 days ago when a pitcher named Kyle Sleeth at Wake Forest lost to No. 3 Florida State and tied the mark. News of Sleeth's feat appeared in USA Today, and one of Nielsen's co-workers brought the article into the office to show Nielsen his name and record.

Saturday at Larry H. Miller Field, Nielsen took time to explain the record, how much of it was great breaks and how he almost didn't make it. It was part of the 20-year reunion of that No. 1-ranked BYU baseball team in Provo.

He also praised the value of bonding with teammates. "Those relationships are special and last forever. If we could find a way to instill that in the corporate world, we'd have something," Nielsen said.

Nielsen's streak started as a freshman when he won one game in 1978. He then left for an LDS mission to Argentina. When he came back in November 1981, there was a scholarship crunch and coach Gary Pullins was looking to trim his roster. Nielsen was on the bubble. He struggled and didn't have command of his pitches.

"It was hard coming back," Nielsen said.

Somebody take note here. Missions are service, sacrifice and blessings, not sports training camps.

Said Nielsen: "In terms of what was needed mentally and physically, I really struggled when I returned. A mission does great things for maturity and handling the ups and downs of baseball because it's that kind of game.

"But as far as playing, there's a softness a mission brings to you that doesn't translate to playing college baseball when you just get home." Pullins was ready to have the big talk and deliver the news when team leader Scott DeLong came along and begged Pullins to be patient.

"Nielsen's got it, he just needs a break," DeLong pleaded.

"DeLong couldn't have been talking from a pitching perspective," Pullins said. "He saw something in him — a great person, a leader and someone who would work." Bobby Noel, just hired as pitching coach, stepped in as an advocate to keep Nielsen, but the sophomore would have to redshirt and improve.

"I saw he had movement with his ball, with velocity; he could do something if he could work on control. But even more, he was a tremendous person, the kind we like to have around," Noel said.

Nielsen used the next year to work and prepare. The softness subsided. He found his competitive juices, developed an edge, and he got the control.

In 1982 Nielsen posted an 11-0 record and stood 12-0 dating back to the end of his freshman season. In 1983 he won 14 straight games before losing to Fresno State in the Western Regionals in Tempe. Before that loss he'd notched the national collegiate record of 26 wins.

Nielsen had an inkling it would stand for some time.

"It's a tough one. So many things can happen. And you've got to have luck. I was lucky to have guys like Wally Joyner and Cory Snyder on my team where any close game could be won because offensively they could go out and get it done.

"I was lucky Pullins decided to give me a scholarship and coach Noel was patient." Today Nielsen and his wife, Pam, have four boys, and Scott can easily sell the lesson to never give up. The oldest, Dustin, plays JC ball in San Diego.

Tyler pitches and plays outfield for Skyline High School.

"Think of what it took for all that to happen the way it did," Nielsen said.

Nielsen went on to play parts of three seasons for the New York Yankees from 1986 through 1989 with a 1987 stop in Chicago for the White Sox.

Nielsen calls it luck. His coaches call it hard work. They're both right.

What you take from the Nielsen story, Pullins explains, "is, as a coach, you should listen to others; as a budding athlete like Scott, sometimes you have to meet up with the right opportunities to make it happen. Scott Nielsen did that."


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com