My all-time favorite Bob Nichols line was after a five-overtime loss in that classic March, 1978, MAC title showdown against Central Michigan at Centennial Hall.
Nichols wasn’t happy. The University of Toledo’s coach didn’t like losing, which might be why it didn’t happen too often. But I suspect he realized he’d been part of an indescribably great game — the score was 109-107 — matching wits and moves with Dick Parfitt, the CMU coach and a guy he respected.
Nick was always very deliberate translating his thoughts into words. He stood in his post-game news conference and stared at the floor awhile, then looked up and said, “It was a game that could have gone either way and very nearly did.”
Bob was a funny guy, sometimes when he didn’t mean to be.
Nichols died Saturday. He was 82 and looked like 62, and I figured he’d make it to 102. God had other ideas. His team must have needed a basketball coach. He picked the best.
Elsewhere on these pages you can read about all the victories, all the championships, the great NCAA tournament win, Nick besting Bob Knight, the halls of fame, etc. It’s a lot of numbers, a lot of honors, and truly impressive stuff.
The man, though, was never as easy to describe. I long thought he was a bit paranoid and mistrustful, especially of young reporters he thought had agendas. Then I figured despite the public nature of his job that he was a tad shy.
There was probably a little of all that, but later I realized that in a game that often begets sideline-prancing, vein-popping, self-promoting egos, Bob Nichols was, plain and simple, the most humble guy I’d ever met.
He’d coach his guys up, they’d play the game and shake hands, and then he’d coach ’em up for the next one. It was a game of hard work and execution. He was cerebral and innovative, but he never pretended to reinvent the wheel. He never demanded the spotlight.
Nick loved two things, his family and basketball. The timing of his death was unfair because of his passion for the Final Four, to which he and some of his kids and grandkids would travel annually. His former players, a big second family, would gather with their coach every summer for a day-long cookout.
He was a student of the game and talked with other coaches for years after his career ended. He may have attended more high school games than anybody around. He appreciated the women’s game every bit as much, maybe more, than the men’s game. He loved discipline and repetition and respected coaches and players who did things the right way.
And that brings us to the Bob Nichols story I most want to tell. In the late 1960s he suspended a player who wasn’t attending class. The player happened to be black. A few other players didn’t like it. There was a resulting controversy that had some trustees and higher-ups wondering if UT needed another coach. As the story goes, the athletic director-football coach, Frank Lauterbur, walked into a meeting and said, “If you fire Nick, then fire me.”
Lauterbur knew, and I learned much later, that it didn’t matter to Nichols if the player in question had been black, white, or purple. If you wanted to play, wanted to practice, you went to class. Period.
Nobody was fired, and Nichols continued to win big for years. But the long-lingering bad rap that he was not a good match for black athletes was blown out of proportion. Charlie Coles, the longtime MAC coach, a black man, and an admirer of Bob, said that was the most outrageous thing he’d ever heard.
In the last decade or so, I got to know Nichols much better than I’d ever known him while he was coaching. It took a lot of lunches, a lot of banter, a lot of listening and a lot of bonding before I finally brought up that subject.
Had it been tough on him?
“Yes,” he said, quietly.
Had it been unfair?
“I’d like to think so,” he said, just as quietly.
Given a mulligan would he have looked the other way and let it slide?
Nichols stopped in midbite and glared.
“Absolutely not,” he said, not at all quietly. “Don’t you know me by now?”
Yes, thankfully, I did.
And I am saddened. We were going to lunch after he got back from the Final Four. It was my turn to buy.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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