Ex-ref Nichols comes to Selma

Published 12:21 am Sunday, October 18, 2009

SELMA — Henry O. “Hank” Nichols stepped away last year from a job he had loved for 42 years, and he doesn’t miss it.

“To be honest, no,” said Nichols, a basketball official for 20 years and the NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating for 22 years. “It was fun, gratifying, satisfying.”

Nichols — who graduated from Villanova and still lives in Pennsylvania — will be in Selma to speak to the Selma Quarterback Club at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Carl C. Morgan Convention Center. Guest tickets are $25 each, said Quarterback Club president Beau Boyd.

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“The bigger, the better,” Boyd said.

Nichols had a storied career as a referee, officiating in a record six NCAA men’s championship games, 10 Division I Final Four games and three National Invitation Tournament finals.

Although officiating was his life’s work, he didn’t see his role as important as other people saw it.

“It always seemed that people put more credence and emphasis on the officiating,” Nichols said. “None of that seemed that special. I refereed with the same love that I had for the game.”

When Nichols took over as NCAA coordinator, he was empowered to standardize as much as possible how each official interpreted a basketball game. The task seemed insurmountable, but Nichols was surprised.

“It looked like it was going to be hard,” he said. “But it wasn’t as hard to get everyone on the same page as it was to stick to it.”

Nichols is a native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he lettered in baseball, football and basketball at Bishop Duffy High School. He went to Villanova on a baseball scholarship, where he was team captain and NCAA tournament MVP as a senior.

After serving as a Marine Corps first lieutenant after graduation, he played three years in the Cincinnati Reds farm system. He returned to Bishop Duffy to coach baseball and basketball, then coached varsity basketball at DeSales High School in Lockport, N.Y.

Nichols said basketball officials must have certain qualities to be effective.

“They have to be good at what they do,” he said. “They must have some background in the game and an understanding of how it’s played. And they should get that from someone.”

Nichols became an official like his father, and he also called games with his brother Bob in the mid-1960s.

“He also must have the talent to understand the game,” Nichols continued. “He has to have the courage to do the right thing. He has to be athletic; not a sprinter, but he has to be able to run up and down the court. And he must have the desire to change things for the betterment of the sport.”

As for coaches, Nichols said former Auburn coach Cliff Ellis is “one of the best guys” in his knowledge of the game. Ellis is now coach at Coastal Carolina University.

“He was the type of coach who when he said something about a call, you almost started to second-guess yourself,” Nichols said.

He said when he first became the NCAA coordinator, longtime established college basketball coaches dominated the game.

“They controlled the team, they controlled the coliseum, they controlled the officials,” he said. “They had control over everything.

“Years ago they could zero officials to get them out of the leagues,” Nichols said. “Now that isn’t the case.”

Nichols said he is “not quite in the middle of my book” about his experiences.

About officiating UCLA coach John Wooden’s last game for the 1975 NCAA championship. Or when Jim Valvano asked him, “Can you give me a technical for what I am thinking?” Or how Dean Smith remembered a call Nichols made 20 years earlier, and still thought he missed it.

Nichols’ honors are extensive, including being named by Referee Magazine in 1996 as one of the 20 most influential people in the previous 20 years; one of the 52 most influential people in sports officiating history; a 2003 nominee to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame; and the 2005 winner of the Cliff Wells Appreciation Award from the National Association of Basketball Coaches.