In Their Words is a regular feature of The Blade's sports section on Sundays. Sports writer Dave Hackenberg recently spoke with former University of Toledo basketball coach Bob Nichols.
He sits off to the side now, midway up in Savage Hall, drawing little or no attention, as he prefers, and watches one of his former players coach the Rocket men's basketball team.
Were Bob Nichols and Stan Joplin to swap seats, though, it would be an effortless trip back in time. Nichols, now 75, hasn't aged a day from when he sat quietly on the bench, surrounded by two trusted lieutenants, and presided over the heyday of Toledo basketball.
Over 22 seasons, from 1965-87, Nichols led the Rockets to 376 wins - the most by far of any Mid-American Conference coach - five league titles, five postseason tournaments, and several of the school's most memorable victories. Toledo did not finish with a losing record during any of Nichols' first 20 seasons.
The Jackson, Mich., native came to UT first as a student and played on coach Jerry Bush's teams that compiled a 58-25 mark from 1950-51 through 1952-53. He was a starter during his junior and senior seasons and simultaneously worked part-time as a teacher and coach at Nazareth Hall Military Academy near Grand Rapids.
After stints in the U.S. Army and as a radio advertising salesman, Nichols was hired as basketball coach in 1956 at Central Catholic High School.
Lost, perhaps, in his success at the college level is that he was one of the City League's most accomplished coaches with a 111-39 record in seven seasons. His second year produced Central's first unbeaten regular season - 18-0 - and he later led the Irish to 23-2 and 22-2 seasons.
Nichols moved to the college ranks in 1963 when new Bowling Green coach Warren "Porky" Scholler hired him as an assistant. A year later Nichols returned to his alma mater to assist Eddie Melvin in his final season at Toledo before being named Melvin's successor.
The Rockets won a MAC championship, posting their best winning percentage ever (23-2, .920), in Nichols' second season. But the late 1970s produced his and UT's best stretch. After 11 years in the old Field House, where crowds of 4,500, with some fans hanging from the rafters, were a regular game-night occurrence, the Rockets christened a new arena, at first called Centennial Hall, with a 59-57 win over defending national champion Indiana, on Dec. 1, 1976.
It began a five-season stretch that saw the Rockets go 108-36 and capture three MAC titles before home crowds that averaged nearly 8,000 per game. At the end of the 1978-79 season, Joplin hit a long jump shot at the buzzer as UT stunned Iowa in the NCAA tournament.
For all his success, there was a cloud over Nichols after a disciplinary action in the late 1960s was unjustly turned into a racial incident by some UT players and students. And, after the 1986-87 season, following back-to-back records of 12-17 and 11-17, a relatively new president and an athletic administration in transition bowed to some powerful trustees and boosters, unceremoniously dumping the winningest coach in school history.
Nichols and his wife, Barbara, have been married for 52 years and have six children - sons Bob and Jim; daughters Nancy, Sally, Jane Wiciak and Mary Pat Weston.
"WAS I TREATED unfairly at the end? That's tough for me to answer. The slippage we had was my fault and my responsibility, but I think I could have weathered the storm and returned to the good, old, winning ways. I did lose my focus during that two-year span. I'd rather not say any more because it's a personal thing, but I believe I could have recovered from that."
"WE REGULARLY got academic reports. One of them [in 1968] indicated a player was not attending classes. I asked the young man to go to class and, if not, he would be removed from the basketball team. And that's what happened and why. It blew up [as a racially motivated decision]. Sure, it hurt badly. We had some difficulty recruiting black players after that, but we were able to make it because the [black] players we did get were awfully good. Players like Harvey Knuckles, Larry Cole, Ken Montague, Jim Brown, Jim "Soapy" Miller and, of course, Stan all made key contributions to our program. But it was an adverse situation to say the least."
"WILLIAM CARLSON was the president then. He stood tall for me and had a lot to do with me getting through that period. Glen Driscoll (1972-85) followed him. [Duke coach] Mike Krzyzewski gave a speech in Toledo recently where he told about his mother telling him to be sure he got on the right bus, and how that meant being with the right people. With Carlson and Driscoll, with [assistant coaches] Bob Conroy and Jim McDonald, with a secretary like Haru Thompson, who was at UT for 40-some years and was definitely the MVP of the athletic department, and with all the good players we had through the years, I know I got on the right bus. I don't know how a guy could be luckier than I was."
"YOU HAVE TO have good players. Then you have to work with them in practice to get better and to be prepared. You find good kids who accept what you tell them. If our players were prepared we felt we could compete with anybody. We prepared to the point of perfection. I guess that's why I sat there [during games] and wasn't very animated. We coached in practice, and on the night of the game we let them play."
"BOB CONROY was with me from the start. He was very likable. I hired him for recruiting purposes and he was great at it. Jim McDonald came two years later and had so much to do with our defensive preparation, especially the one-on-one defense that was a key to our success. He was a wonderful tactician and teacher. They were both from New York City and both played basketball at BG for Harold Anderson. We were all very different fellows, but we meshed well together. No one person gets the credit. It was a program."
"MY SECOND YEAR, we opened against Notre Dame. Bill Backensto was our senior captain, Will Babione was a junior and Steve Mix, John Rudley and John Brisker all started together as sophomores. We beat them badly [98-80] and won our first 14 games. Mix was so mentally tough and if he got [the defender] on his back he'd dictate the game. We got to the NCAA tournament in Lexington [Ky.] and we were practicing and Adolph Rupp walked out onto the court and asked me, 'Where in the hell did you get these guys?' They were so well built and so physically talented."
"IF YOU HAVE a good program, it's tough for a freshman to crack the lineup. But Dick Miller [1977-80] could deliver a haymaker punch and was a key man during our run of [three straight] MAC title teams. Jim Swaney could shoot the lights out and run like a deer and he improved so dramatically as his career continued.
"The other thing was, we had tremendous ball-handling guards. In three straight [incoming] classes we had Stan Joplin, a wonderful shooter in Tim Selgo, and Jay Lehman, who was the very best of all. You think it wasn't fun coaching those three guys? In the NCAA win over Iowa, Stan made the shot, but Jay made the play by getting out of a double team at the other end. He passed to Miller and Miller passed to Joplin."
"I'M PROUD OF so many things the teams and players I had at Central Catholic, the MAC victory record, the championships. But I'm most proud of the fact that a lot of young men had a lot of fun playing basketball and that I was responsible for bringing them all together at the University of Toledo. You know, five medical doctors played for us. And so many others have become successful. I'm just as proud when I see them today as I was coaching them."
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.