Talk to Bob Nichols about his 22-year career as basketball coach at the University of Toledo and he starts dropping names left and right.
Bob Conroy, the recruiter extraordinaire, and master strategist Jim McDonald were his left and right-hand men, his trusted assistants for so many of those glorious seasons. And the players well, we don't have the space to list the names. More than 70 of them earned degrees and Nichols points out that they are now doctors, lawyers, engineers, business executives, teachers, coaches, college athletic directors, even a university president.
"That's pretty good, isn't it?" Nichols says with a twinkle in his eye.
Indeed it is.
But there's a problem. All of those names won't fit on a banner. So when they drop the newest streamer from the rafters of Savage Hall during a ceremony tomorrow night, only one name will be on it. And it's the right one.
Talk about your belated honors! Nichols, the winningest coach in UT and Mid-American Conference history, last graced the Rocket bench on Feb. 28, 1987. A couple days later, he was fired or retired or non-renewed or whatever word you want to use. It amounted to the same thing. In retrospect, that may have been the ultimate in March madness.
The guy compiles 20 straight winning seasons, captures title after title, opens a new arena with a stunning victory over Bob Knight and reigning NCAA champion Indiana, sets attendance records, guides UT to its greatest win ever in the NCAA tournament, plays by the rules, demands that his players attend class, sees that most of them are fitted for caps and gowns, and then has a couple losing seasons and is shown the door. Thanks for the memories.
Nichols knew, and knows, that his last two seasons weren't up to standard. That's because he set the standard. Who better to fix it? But he was never given the chance.
Now, some 20 years later, he'll be warmly embraced at center court. Those five MAC championships and three NCAA berths look pretty good to a school that hasn't been there since. The nice thing is that Nichols' return embrace will be just as warm.
"Leaving the job hurt a whole bunch, but time has helped and I moved on," he said, taking a bite of oatmeal. (The Blade was buying breakfast yesterday and the menu was extensive. Nichols never even opened it. He ordered hot oatmeal, some berries on the side, a slice of toast, and a cup of coffee. He's a cheap date. He also looks and moves like a man at least two decades younger than his 77 years. I'm guessing one has to do with the other.)
After Nick was shown the door by UT, it took a while before he walked back through it. One of his successors, an unabashed Nichols admirer named Larry Gipson, reached out to him and he reached back because he saw a bit of himself - firm principles, sound fundamentals, defensive discipline - in the younger coach. So he'd sneak into the gym for practices and the occasional game, keeping a low profile up in one corner. After a former player, Stan Joplin, was named Toledo's coach, Nichols became a season ticket holder. That doesn't mean it's easy to find him in a crowd. He never exactly embraced the attention when he was coaching; he certainly doesn't go seeking it out now.
Last winter, though, the Rockets retired a uniform number for the first time, honoring UT's best-ever men's player, Steve Mix, with a banner. Perhaps school officials noticed that the warmest, most prolonged applause of the evening came when Mix invited his old coach to join him on the court.
This time, it's Nick's turn in the center of attention, as it should be.
"I'm certainly honored and humbled that they're doing this," he said. "The University of Toledo has been very good to me. Way back, they gave me a scholarship, which enabled me to get my undergraduate degree and that certainly enhanced my life. As a coach, I wanted it to enhance other lives.
"There's a world of difference between winning games and wanting to have a good basketball program. We made sure, or tried to, that the scholarships we gave out were used wisely and culminated in players earning degrees. We had highly-skilled players, many of whom I still have very good relationships with, so, yes, we were able to do that and win some games, too."
Exactly 376 of them, if you're keeping score at home.
Finally, UT is saying thanks. The banner will hang for as long as there is an arena. When the ceremony is over, nobody will be showing Bob Nichols the door.
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