Last Friday, I attended the funeral services for my college
basketball coach, Bob Nichols, who died Saturday, March 30, after collapsing on
his daily walk. It made for a tough
Easter weekend for this guy, who played and coached for "Nick", as he was often
referred to. College is a time when one
should learn something about themselves to guide them into the future of the
"real world". I was extremely fortunate
to have been guided during my college years by one of the best teachers I have
ever had, who just happened to be a college basketball coach.
Coach Nichols remains the winningest coach in the history of
the Mid-American Conference in terms of most wins ever by a head men's
basketball coach. I believe that is the
most important measurement of coaches in that league versus win percentage,
although Coach Nichols' win percentage is also in the top five in the history
of that league. The careers of head
coaches in the MAC usually travel on two pathways. They either win and get out by moving up to a
school at one of the major DI conferences, or it is so difficult to maintain
success in the MAC that they eventually get fired and thus the days of a coach
in the MAC lasting their whole careers at one school are few and far
between. Coach Nichols lasted 22 years
as the head coach at the University of Toledo.
There were some lean years at the end, but for 20 straight years his
teams posted winning records and there were some memorable seasons and memorable
players along the way. Those are the
stats, but there is much more to his legacy than that.
His teams were known to be well disciplined and well
coached, and they were. Most of the
coaching fraternity, as well as the media, often thought of him as a defensive minded
coach. He certainly demanded good
defense from his teams, and for the most part, all of his teams were very
fundamentally sound man-to-man defensive teams.
As time went and his personnel changed, he did play more zone defense,
but he was primarily a man-to-man defensive coach. However, I always felt he never got enough
credit for being a great offensive coach.
I thought he was an offensive genius.
Perhaps it was his ability to teach offense that separated him from most
coaches. His teams were always very good
passing teams, which is a skill in small demand these days with the plethora of
ball screens set on every possession. We
started the first practice every year working on the simple skill of passing,
and had a passing drill in every practice we had. He taught offensive concepts more than just
offensive plays, and his best teams were really a lot of fun to watch because
of their offensive prowess.
Coach always stressed working toward being "good in all
phases of the game". I recall a sign he
put up in our locker room. "You can
shoot too much, you can dribble too much, and you can pass too much, but you
can never rebound too much". We worked
hard on blocking out and rebounding. In
recruiting, he was always looking for those guys that had a knack for going after
rebounds no matter where the ball came off the rim. He really understood the importance of having
possession of the ball. He was
constantly telling his players, "do the little things well fellas", and "know
your limitations", two concepts that are great lessons for daily life.
Although his teams were well schooled in all phases of the
game, there was more to Coach Nichols' coaching than just understanding and
teaching the game. He REALLY understood
athletics. He loved all sports. Most of all he wanted his players to be
successful in life. He was always
relating our development as players or as a team to life situations. I know he was very proud of his former
players and the successes they had professionally and their contributions to
society. Again, in today's sports world,
money has become the driving cause of decision making all too often, and the
personal development of kids has been de-valued. Coach Nichols was tough and demanding, but
his primary motivation was that he cared about you enough to want you to become
the best you could be, and he wanted our teams to be the best that they could
So why was he so successful?
There were a lot of reasons, but I think it was primarily because he was
an excellent teacher. Again, big money has
caused us to lose sight of the fact that the best coaches are the ones who are
the best teachers. Coach Nichols could
flat-out teach! Good teaching requires
patience. If his players listened to him
and gave great effort to accomplishing what he wanted, they became good college
basketball players. It may not happen in
year one, or year two, but he would stick with players and get something out of
them when most coaches would give up on them.
I'm thankful to have played for a coach like this. He would work individually with players on
different things before and after practice to make them better at one
particular thing. He could evaluate
talent in recruiting with the best of them and understand the importance of
having good talent, but it was his ability to develop players that made him
better than most. That's where the hard
work comes in for coaches.
Coaches preach a lot about wanting their players and teams
to be tough. Toughness is a word you
hear from lots of coaches. Nobody was
any tougher than Nick. He demonstrated toughness
in the sense of sticking with his beliefs and principles, toughness in
maintaining emotional control, and toughness in demonstrating patience. These seem to be in short supply these days,
as television has glorified coaches prancing up and down the sidelines and
yelling at players and translating that into toughness. Nick was not a man of many words. But when he spoke it always had a
purpose. He could easily get your
attention with that stare of his. And he
was tough enough to give some guys every chance to succeed on his teams when
other coaches would never have. Coach
Nichols was fair in his decision making.
That takes toughness too.
As is the case with most great teachers, you appreciate the
things he/she taught you long after you played for or were taught by them. That was certainly the case with Coach
Nichols. Many players who struggled at
times playing for him came to respect him much more later in life. Once he retired, Coach Nichols took time to
find out about his former players and stay in touch with them. With the stress and pressure of coaching off
of him, Coach was much more relaxed and all of us really enjoyed being around
him. He loved telling stories and we
loved listening. He hosted reunions of
his former players in the summer at his daughter Jane's house. While we all enjoyed telling the same stories
time and time again with more and more embellishment every time, I think all of
us enjoyed the most seeing how much pleasure these gatherings brought to Coach
I mentioned earlier that he stay involved in our lives. For those former players in the Toledo area,
I know he would go watch their children play sports and he really enjoyed
that. Since I lived two and a half hours
away and was busy raising a family and running a college athletic department,
the times I could spend with Coach were few and far between. Whenever our teams played in Ohio, I had the
opportunity to meet Coach for dinner to visit and enjoyed these times
immensely. About three times a year I
would receive a 5 x 7 manila envelope from Coach. There would be a handwritten letter (I don't
think Coach ever adapted to the computer age J)
and it would often be a series of small note papers piled together that you had
to put together like a puzzle. In the
envelope were always a stack of newspaper clippings. All of them had things underlined or notes
written in the margins. Sometimes just
one word was next to an article and you had to decipher what he meant. Having played and coached for him, I always
understood what he meant, but I always wondered if others could figure things
out, decipher the "code" that he would use with all of his abbreviations. I know he sent articles to lots of
people. It was his way of staying in
touch and telling you he cared. I know I
always enjoyed getting that envelope and seeing what Coach had to say.
At the luncheon after his funeral, we had the opportunity to
pay our respects by sharing a story or two about Coach Nichols. Our trainer when I played, Mark Schriener,
made a tremendous point when he shared his thoughts on Nick. He talked about how all great leaders
surround themselves with good people and the best talent they could, and cared
about every person in the organization, whether he was the manager or the best
player. Coach Nichols had some great
coaches on his staff and almost all of them were there at his funeral. Jim McDonald, who I was also fortunate to
have played for and to have as a role model, and who took me under his wing the
year I was a graduate assistant coach, was Coach's top assistant during some of
the best Toledo teams ever in the 70's and early 80's. He went on to have a highly successful career
as head coach at Kent State. Bob Conroy,
who is deceased, recruited a lot of the best players to have ever played for
Nick. Greg Kampe, who has gone on to a
highly successful career at Oakland, was a graduate assistant and then full
time coach for Nick, and changed his plans for the Final Four to be there. Stan Joplin, who went on to be an assistant
for Tom Izzo at Michigan State, and who later became the most successful head
coach at Toledo since Coach Nichols and is now doing great work at the high
school level, also played and coached as an assistant for Nick and it was great
to see him there. A lot of his former
great players attended his funeral from his famous 1966-67 MAC champion team
through his last years as head coach.
Guys like Steve Mix, Bob Miller, John Rudley and Calvin Lawshe from his
early teams were there. From the early
70's were UT greats Tom Kozelko, Mike Larsen, and Jim Kindle. The late Jim Brown's wife and sons were
there. Jeff Seemann, who I had the good
fortune to be mentored by when I was a freshman and he was a senior and my
roommate on road trips, was there with his wife Nadine and his father, Dan
Seemann, who helped mentor a lot of UT athletes. My teammate and best man at my wedding Jay
Lehman was there with his wife Jan and son Cory. Jay lives and works in Toledo with Coach's
daughter Jane. He stayed the closest to
Nick of all of us and I know how much Nick enjoyed watching Jay's sons
play. Lots of guys from the 80's were
there. Jay Gast, Tim Reiser, Jim Lange,
Bob Borcherdt, Blake Burnham, and Mark German.
Brad Rieger, who I had the good fortune to room on the road trips with
when I was a senior and he was a freshman, gave a wonderful tribute to Coach
Nichols at the Mass on behalf of all of the players and did a great job of
leading the program at the luncheon afterward.
I have probably missed some players who were there and I apologize for
that. I know the family appreciated all
of them for being there.
Coach Nichols also had the respect of his peers and two of
the greatest coaches ever in college basketball were at his funeral to pay
their respects. Darell Hedric, one of
the many great coaches from Miami (O) University's famous "Cradle of Coaches"
was there. He and Nick "had a lot of
great battles" as he put it through many years of coaching against one another
in the MAC. Don Donoher, the legendary
coach from the University of Dayton, was also there with his wife. Coach Donoher and Nick had a special
relationship because Coach Donoher attended high school and had a great playing
career at Toledo Central Catholic, where Coach Nichols began his coaching
career. I believe both of them are in
Central Catholic's Hall of Fame and rightly so.
I know how much all of us former players really appreciated their
presence. All of these men conducted
themselves and their programs with dignity and respect. They won big, and they won the right
way. They were and are great role models
and examples for the young men they coached.
It seems that is something that is in short supply today.
Coach wasn't perfect, none of us are. He had his faults and shortcomings as we all
do. But he always knew his limitations
and made the most of his God-given talents.
He will be missed. I will miss
him. I am where I am today because he
took a chance on me and gave me a scholarship.
Later he hired me as his assistant coach, which gave me my start 31
years ago in a career in college athletics, for which I will always be
grateful. Somewhere up there I know he's
re-uniting and telling stories with old friends such as my father-in-law George
Bush, Frank Gilhooley, Cal Christensen, Gene Hickey, and George Lindeman. Rest in peace Coach.