(‘3 Guys Before the Game’ podcast Episode No. 211)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Bob Huggins’ first point guard at West Virginia is poised to become a college basketball head coach. It appears a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
After a four-year playing career at WVU in which his statistics didn’t tell the entire story of his effectiveness, Nichols’ brief professional playing career ended after just one season in Hungary.
“I was like every kid that plays basketball now, I thought I was going to be in the NBA,” Nichols said. “Like most of us, it doesn’t happen that way. I tried to figure out, what do I want to do after the ball stops bouncing? I always wanted to help kids. But I wanted to stay involved in basketball. I put the two together and you get coaching. That’s how I got here.”
Entering Huggins’ fourth season as WVU’s head coach, a graduate assistant coaching position became available and Nichols accepted the opportunity.
“Huggins said, ‘If you want to get into coaching, it is yours’. But I didn’t know anything about coaching at the college level.
“You see these coaches when you are a player, they are playing on the computer, they come down and work us out, go recruiting and it is a great life. I didn’t know what all went into it.”
Coming to Morgantown
Nichols grew up in Radford, Va. and was surrounded by some of his future WVU coaches. Richmond head coach John Beilein recruited Nichols since his freshman season. Bill Lilly was on staff at Radford University.
“I felt comfortable with (Beilein). It wasn’t necessarily the style of play or anything like that. I had been to West Virginia multiple times. We had an AAU tournament up there.
“We actually won it on the Coliseum floor. And the thing I remember about that was just how many Mountaineer fans were there to support me.”
Nichols played in 35 games during his freshman season at WVU, averaging 16 minutes and 3 points per game. On an experienced roster, Nichols patiently waited for his opportunity to become a focal point. Many players now might consider a transfer but Nichols stayed with the program and played a valuable role.
“Too many times we blame the kids, it is more the adults. The adults allow it. When I say adults, it could be the college coaches and what we are selling. And it could change once they get there. It could be the kids’ parents or their mentors. It usually comes down to the adults around them.”
In 2005, the Mountaineers played their way to the NCAA Elite Eight, narrowly missing a spot in the Final Four. Nichols says on that team, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
“We weren’t extremely talented. You saw us in the layup line and we may have had three or four dudes that could dunk. We had warmups where we had to tie rubber bands around the sleeves. We were a mess. If you saw us, there was no way this team would win. But we were just so close and that’s why we were really good that year. It just takes developing team chemistry to go on a run like that. That’s what we did.”
As a sophomore, Nichols was again relegated to a reserve role. But he dished out 51 assists against just 13 turnovers in 33 games as the Mountaineers advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.
With the graduations of Kevin Pittsnogle, Mike Gansey, J.D. Collins and Johannes Herber, Nichols stepped into the starting point guard spot in his junior season. He averaged 10.9 points and had 165 assists, which is the eighth-best single-season total in program history. The Mountaineers missed out on the NCAA Tournament and Nichols admitted the team wasn’t excited to compete in the NIT until they reached the semifinal rounds in New York City.
“Once we got to Madison Square Garden, we were like, ‘We’re in this. We might be able to win it’. We got excited.
“The speculation about Beilein going to Michigan, me as a player, I never heard that. For me to hear that, somebody would have to tell me that or I would have to be watching the TV and see it come across the ESPN ticker or something like that. Nowadays, it would have been all over Twitter and all these social avenues.”
Beilein departed for Michigan shortly after WVU claimed the NIT title and Huggins inherited a senior point guard for the 2007-2008 season. Nichols led the Mountaineers back to the big dance that year, advancing to the regional semifinals.
Only Da’Sean Butler, Joe Mazzulla and Jevon Carter have played more games in a Mountaineer uniform than Nichols (141). Nichols’ calm, consistent demeanor became his trademark throughout his college career.
“What people see on the outside is not what is going on on the inside. I am fiery on the inside. But a lot of times when people see your demeanor on the court, they think that is what’s going on on the inside. We tell our guys all the time that you can play with emotion, but don’t be emotional.
“Bill Lilly told me this in recruiting, ‘If you go to West Virginia and you win and you do everything right, those people will remember you forever’. He’s right. A few years after I graduated, I went to a football game and I was stopped every six feet with people who just wanted to talk and hang out. What Bill Lilly said was true. That’s the love that I got.”
Sixth season in ‘The Swamp’
Nichols is entering his tenth season as a college assistant coach and his sixth at Florida. The Gators were one win shy of their fifth consecutive 20-win season when the pandemic halted their season. Nichols says recruiting is his preferred part of the profession.
“Since I got my degree in sociology, I like to study different families and get to know different people. That’s the part I enjoy.”
When Nichols’ players track down video of his WVU playing days, Nichols says the non-HD video stands out more to them than his actual highlights.
“They have to research it if they want to find out. But when the guys see the highlights, they aren’t really concerned about the highlights. They say, ‘Why was your camera so blurry?’ It makes me feel older because they are looking at the wrong thing.”
The 34-year-old Nichols is hopeful that a head coaching opportunity comes his way. And he already has coaching plans and philosophies on paper.
“I am just learning everyday. I am trying to put myself in a situation of how I would be as a head coach and putting myself in different situations to be prepared for that opportunity.
“I have it written down. But I change it and tweak depending on which school it is. Some schools, you can’t recruit the same way you could at another school. With the COVID situation, it has been a good time to work on that stuff and for me to get better individually.”