Final call for a refs' ref Supervisor Hank Nichols heads off, but not quietly

Posted: January 12, 2008

While the rest of the crowd at Villanova's Pavilion mostly focused on the younger men on the basketball court, Hank Nichols sat at the edge of the student section, seven rows up, offering no-nonsense commentary as he kept his eyes on the referees.

Great call! He grabbed the rim. It affected the shot.

There was nothing subtle about that one. It was a ride job.

That was a walk! He moved both feet before he took off. He's so fast, though. Easily missed.

The officials working last weekend's Big East men's basketball game between Villanova and Pittsburgh know all about the man critiquing their calls.

"They know that if they come to Villanova, there's a chance I'll be at the game - and they know where I sit," said Nichols, the NCAA's national coordinator of men's basketball officiating, who lives in St. Davids.

After 22 years in charge of the guys with the whistles, Nichols is retiring after this season. He's 70 years old and doesn't want his last words to be, "Call the fouls! The players will adjust."

This is the end of an important era, since Nichols' impact on the college game has been tangible. He wrote much of the language on officiating guidelines, and when he took the job in 1986, his mission was to wipe out the regional officiating biases that afflicted the college game. Before he officially took over, he refereed two games in every league in Division I.

"Everybody was so entrenched in their own thing," Nichols said over breakfast the morning after the Villanova-Pitt game. "In the Big Ten back then, it was no blood, no foul. You had to kill somebody to get a foul. In the Pac-10, you couldn't breathe on anybody. . . . And there was no overriding authority, other than the rule book."

As he talked during the ball game, Nichols hit on the subtleties of officiating, how important it is to watch the play away from the ball, to keep movement flowing. But he also made it a lot of it sound so simple: "Two hands on a guy is always a foul. If a guy puts a hand on him and leaves it there, that's hand-checking. . . . The ball comes to rest in a guy's hand and he continues to dribble, that's palming. It has nothing to do with where the ball is in your hand."

Before every season of his tenure, Nichols gave clinics around the country. Attendance is mandatory for Division I officials. He makes a point of saying exactly the same thing at all of the clinics. "Here's what we're doing. Here's how we want you to do it. Here's the mechanics."

He's never been shy about offering officials his critiques. If he's at a game, he'll go to them afterward and go over the game. He was in Munich once for an international basketball meeting and a Notre Dame game popped up on his hotel TV in the middle of the night. He watched the game, and left a message for the Big East's supervisor of officials.

"A referee makes like three straight god-awful calls - a guy's vertical, a guy jumps into him, he puts the guy who jumps into him on the line, like three plays in a row," Nichols said. "I called the supervisor from Munich, Germany. I said, 'I want you to call him and tell him I saw that game and he better straighten out his verticality. He's looking at the wrong place.' This was six or seven years ago. I did that because this guy was getting a lot of good games and I didn't want him to be screwing up the games. He's a good ref."

He has the clout to back up his critiques, since he ultimately chooses the 96 officials selected to work the NCAA tournament, and which ones move on as the field narrows.

Nichols himself officiated 10 Final Fours, six national championship games, and two Olympics. His first NCAA title game was John Wooden's last game as UCLA's coach. (Nichols issued a technical to a UCLA player.) All along, he loved working Big Five games at the Palestra, and is the only referee in the Big Five Hall of Fame.

"Every call you made got booed by somebody," Nichols said, referring to the split cheering sections.

An ex-Marine with a doctorate from Duke in educational administration - he retired in 2002 from his full-time job as head of Villanova's department of education and human services - Nichols knew how to deal with coaches. A favorite line of his: "I owe you one, but I'll never pay up."

Nichols laughs about former Maryland legend Lefty Driesell, who was usually easy to deal with, he said, but once sent a tape complaining about 10 Nichols calls after the Terps were upset by Wake Forest. Nichols watched the tape with the Atlantic Coast Conference supervisor, who called Driesell with Nichols still there and told him nine of the calls were right and one might have been questionable. The supervisor got off the phone and told Nichols, "Lefty said he didn't [care] what you did on that film, you missed them Saturday night.' "

Asked about the hard coaches to deal with, Nichols immediately thought of former North Carolina State coach Norm Sloan.

"God bless his soul, he was tough on everybody," Nichols said. "We used to have a running battle all the time. You teed him a lot. Not just me. Everybody did. He was always aggressive and he was a hard guy to work for because he'd always get his crowd going at N.C. State, bad. Finally we got to the point, we quit calling technicals and we just screamed at him. We screamed and swore at him and told him to stop. That worked better than teeing him up."

Nichols said former Temple coach John Chaney was actually easy to deal with except for the occasional memorable eruption. Nichols said Chaney was one of two coaches who called him when his own wife died 10 years ago. (Former Auburn coach Cliff Ellis, now at Coastal Carolina, was the other.)

When the infamous Temple-St. Joseph's goon-gate incident erupted in February 2005, Nichols said that was just one of too many incidents involving post players. For the only time in his tenure, he said, he had to call a special conference call with league supervisors and lay down the law.

"The game was too rough; the posts were killing each other, they were having wrestling matches all of a sudden," Nichols said. "It just was crazy, the way it broke out, over a two-week period."

When Nichols took over as coordinator of officials, he told his father about the job.

"They'll pay you for that?" his dad said.

Nichols nodded.

"Son, you take that job," Nichols remembers his father saying. "You'll have a job for life. You'll never straighten that mess out."

In his own playing days, baseball was Nichols' main sport. That was his scholarship at Villanova, although he also started on 'Nova's freshman basketball team. After graduation, he went into the Cincinnati Reds' farm system, played one season in the New York-Penn League, did a two-year stint in the Marines, then went back to minor-league baseball, playing in the Western Carolina League for two more years. He also managed the team his last season.

"I took care of the field, drove the bus, batted where I wanted to," Nichols said. "I actually had the best year that I had. The farm director came to me and said, 'You did a great job of working with these kids. We want you to come back and manage, but we don't need you to play.' I had just led the league in runs batted in and hit .330. I was 27. There were only 16 teams; 27 was old then. I told the guy, 'If I can't go to bat five times every night, I'm not just going to drive the bus and baby-sit these kids.' "

He went back to Villanova and got his master's, taught and coached near his hometown of Niagara Falls, N.Y. After he got his doctorate, he joined Villanova's faculty.

He'd already started officiating. Give and take with coaches was always part of the job, although Nichols argues that this season's emphasis on "bench decorum" for coaches is crucial for the sport, not just to make it an easier night for referees. Despite any popular perception, officials rarely are intimidated by coaches, Nichols said.

"Most of our guys, what happens is, their concentration is diluted, and their officiating is not as good," Nichols said. "Guys are going to the basket and this guy is in my ear, and I'm looking - they don't realize what a disservice they do to the game by that distraction. It's up to them to win the game and fight for what they can, and it's all well and good, but it's not good for the game. It's never been good for the game."

When Nichols critiques plays each year for an instructional video, he doesn't care what school the offending player happens to be from. Georgetown got quite upset one year, he said, when a palming dissertation highlighted the work of a Hoyas freshman named Allen Iverson. Georgetown was worried that officials would target Iverson the following season.

"They missed the whole point," Nichols said.

This season, Nichols said, "I'm probably working as hard or harder to keep things going. I'm not mailing it in. I have a stake in this season and this [NCAA] tournament."

At the Pavilion, Pitt-Villanova wasn't ever a beautiful game, but at halftime, the main objects of his attention were doing fine by Nichols.

"I don't want to jinx these guys, but they really refereed a great first half," Nichols said as he sat in the stands.

Then he added: "Of course, there is a philosophy that you get paid for the second half."

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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