The setting of Bob Nichols’ final coaching lessons was a food court, not a basketball court.
Friends and former players of the University of Toledo basketball coaching icon joined him Wednesdays at Westfield Franklin Park mall to drink coffee and to absorb wisdom from the winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history.
Mr. Nichols died Saturday at Toledo Hospital two days after he collapsed walking at Wildwood Preserve Metropark. He was 82.
Mr. Nichols, who won five MAC titles in 22 years as head coach of his alma mater, is survived by his wife, Barbara, their six children, and a lineage of players he molded into successful athletes and luminaries in their communities. Five of his players are medical doctors, and several others are coaches.
“He had high expectations for us as players in what we did on the court, what we did in the classroom, and how we conducted ourselves as human beings,” said Sylvania Schools Superintendent Brad Rieger, who played for Mr. Nichols from 1979 to 1983, a golden era for Rockets basketball. “We noticed that when we were playing, but we grew to appreciate that aspect of him as we got older and matured. In my conversations with him over the past couple years, he said his greatest reward was our accomplishments after we graduated and what we did with our professional lives and our personal lives.”
Mr. Rieger attended Mr. Nichols’ coffee socials, as did former Toledo basketball standout Steve Mix, current Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk, and nonathlete types who enjoyed Mr. Nichols’ companionship.
“I’d enjoy going there and listening to him tell stories,” said Mr. Kowalczyk, who after coming to Toledo three years ago ordered a life-size photo of Mr. Nichols printed on a wall inside the locker room. “He was very, very good to me since my arrival, and I am so grateful for him and his friendship and what he’s done for our program.”
Mr. Nichols, a native of Jackson, Mich., led Toledo to its last NCAA tournament appearance in 1980. He posted a 377-211 record from 1965-87 and three times was named MAC coach of the year. Five of his athletes attained MAC player of the year.
Mr. Nichols remained a fan of the sport until the end, keeping tabs on the exploits of his former players and their children. He traveled to Adrian, Mich., in February to see Mr. Mix’s Trine University women’s team take on Adrian. He followed Tim Reiser’s teams at Springfield and most recently at Ottawa Hills, where Mr. Reiser is now an assistant.
“He kept in touch with all of his former players and was accessible as he got older,” said Mr. Reiser, who played at Toledo from 1980 to 1984.
Mr. Nichols even drove to Findlay recently to see a game between the hometown Oilers and Ferris State, where Drew Lehman, the son of Jay Lehman, Toledo hall-of-fame point guard, is a sophomore guard.
“Coach Nichols was good at all phases,” said Mr. Lehman, a member of the Rockets radio broadcast team. “Practices were his strength and I think they were what he enjoyed most. He liked working with individual players and making players better and having us ready for games.
Mr. Nichols lettered three seasons as a player (1951-53) at Toledo, working part-time as coach and teacher at Nazareth Hall Military Academy near Grand Rapids, Ohio. After stints in the Army and as a radio advertising salesman he was hired in 1956 as head coach at Toledo Central Catholic, where he was 111-39 in seven seasons. Mr. Nichols transitioned to college coaching in 1963, accepting a job at Bowling Green State University as an assistant. A year later he returned to his alma mater to assist Eddie Melvin in his final two seasons at Toledo before he was named Mr. Melvin’s successor.
The Rockets won a MAC championship in Mr. Nichols’ second season, posting their best winning percentage ever (23-2, .920). It was his first of six 20-win seasons, the other five coming in a row from 1976-77 to 1980-81.
“To me that was the most talented team that’s ever been at the University of Toledo,” Mr. Mix said. “We opened against Notre Dame and they were supposed to have a tremendous recruiting class, and we smoked them. We beat Marquette [which later that year began an 81-game home win streak]. It was one of those years you couldn’t do anything wrong. Coach Nichols was pushing all the right buttons.”
Teams coached by Mr. Nichols regularly took down nationally acclaimed opponents. The most notable upset was either against Big Ten champion Iowa in the opening round of the 1979 NCAA tournament, or over defending national champion Indiana to christen Savage Hall in 1976. The Hoosiers had won 33 in a row.
Mr. Nichols was inducted into Toledo’s Hall of Fame in 1994 and into the MAC Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2008 the renovated court at Savage Arena was named in his honor. His 197 MAC wins are second in league history to his friend Charlie Coles, who retired at Miami last year with 219. Mr. Nichols surprised Mr. Coles last year at a ceremony at a RedHawks game, showing up to present his longtime admirer a plaque commemorating the feat.
“When I started coaching I made sure that I knew him because I knew he was one of the best coaches in the country,” said Mr. Coles, a senior at Miami during Mr. Nichols’ first year as Toledo’s head coach. “I made it my business to find out what his thoughts were. A lot of people told me Bob was really, really private and he’d be hard to get to know. For some reason, he always let me in.”
Bigger schools such as Wisconsin wooed Mr. Nichols, who resisted the appeal of bright lights and lucrative pay to maintain Toledo’s presence among the elite midmajor programs in the country. He was dismissed in 1987 after a second-straight losing season, his only two sub .500 records in 28 seasons as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
“I think he thought, ‘I’m a Toledo man, and this is a great job here,’ ” Mr. Coles said. “The only thing Bob thought about was his family and basketball.”
He thought about those things until the end. Mr. Nichols planned to travel this weekend to Atlanta for the Final Four — a yearly ritual — with nine or 10 of his children and grandchildren. His children, sons Bob, Jr., and Jim, and daughters Nancy, Sally Jo, Jane (Wiciak), and Mary Pat Weston were with their father at the time of his death.
Visitation is scheduled from 2 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Walker Funeral Home. Details of a service have not been determined.
“I think we’re still all in shock, but we are coach’s children and he taught us well and prepared us for life,” Ms. Wiciak said. “We will do nothing short of showing him that what he taught us we learned.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.