The Times West Virginian

March 20, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- Darris Nichols has respect for Beilein

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — When Wofford basketball coach Mike Young learned his Terriers had been awarded a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament and drew No. 2 seed Michigan, he did not have to think very long which of his assistant coaches he would assign the scout.

Not with Darris Nichols on his staff.

There are very few coaches in America who know Michigan coach John Beilein any better than Nichols, who spent three years playing for him at West Virginia University, two years sitting on the bench learning the unique Beilein system of basketball and then a third year as a starting guard who blossomed into a post-season hero.

That, of course, was a far better time than today’s Mountaineers are going through, having been eliminated from the NIT on Tuesday night by Georgetown, the same tournament in which Nichols threw in one of the most famous baskets in WVU history.

Playing in the semifinals of the 2007 NIT against Mississippi State and down two points, Nichols hit a 3-point shot from the corner with 2.1 seconds to play to propel the Mountaineers into the final against Clemson, a game they would win for their second NIT championship.

It sent them off on a run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs the following year under Bob Huggins, Beilein having exited for Michigan following the NIT crown, and then to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament in 2010. By then Nichols had begun a professional playing career overseas that would end prematurely and send him off into coaching.

As noted, Nichols certainly learned a great deal about Beilein and his coaching methods, but there are others throughout the country who also have fallen like leaves from the Beilein coaching tree, among them Jeff Neubauer, a former assistant who is in the NCAAs at Eastern Kentucky; Joe Mazzulla, an assistant at Fairmont State; and the coach who knows him best of all, his son, Patrick Beilein at West Virginia Wesleyan.

“He’s unique in the way he plays and the way he does things with his programs,” Nichols told the Detroit Free Press this week. “People talk about you as a Beilein guy — and that’s a good thing for me when they say that.

“The reason why most of his guys are into coaching is he had such an impact on us, and we want to do the same thing.”

Beilein does have a unique method of coaching, not only with his offense that was built of 3-point shots and back cuts, and a defense that was a 1-3-1 mostly at West Virginia but which evolved into something far more athletic once he was able to get the athletes he recruited at Michigan, but in his way of dealing with his players.

“Last year he changed a lot of what he had done at West Virginia,” Nichols said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “You have a Trey Burke on your team you can do a bunch of stuff. This year he got back to running more two guard and the stuff he did at West Virginia. There are a lot of similarities.”

Beilein wasn’t one who heaped praise upon them so much as he heaped basketball upon them.

Every day was a lesson. Every day they learned something … about the game, their opponents, themselves.

They became attached, maybe Nichols more than anyone other than Patrick.

In a way, Beilein and Nichols had their own father-and-son relationship.

Beilein was coaching at Richmond in the early 2000s, and Nichols was a young high school player in his hometown of Radford, Va., which just also happens to be the hometown of Wofford head coach Mike Young.

Beilein fell in love with the kid. He was quiet, modest, unassuming, but gifted not only in the way he played the game but the way he lived the game.

When Beilein finally got his big coaching break and was hired at West Virginia, quite by accident, mind you, he was replacing Dan Dakich. Dakich had been brought in to replace longtime head coach Gale Catlett, who had retired after a dreadful season that ended in controversy over Jonathan Hargett.

Eight days into being head coach, complete with a huge introductory gathering of fans and dignitaries at the Coliseum, Dakich walked out on the job, claiming he had uncovered all kinds of violations including money being paid Hargett to play at WVU.

An investigation claimed to have found no NCAA violations in the Hargett matter, even though Dakich does not back down from his claim and Hargett, while in jail for drug possession and sales, claimed to have received payment from someone, but matters seemed secure enough for Beilein to take the job.

Two years later Nichols followed him to West Virginia.

“I used to get handwritten letters from him a few times a week,” Nichols said. “I felt he just wanted me more than other programs.”

The relationship only grew while Nichols was at WVU until Beilein left before Nichols’ senior season, which bothered him.

“It really did,” Nichols admitted. “We’d lost the Joe Herber, Mike Gansey, Kevin Pittsnogle, Pat Beileins, and people counted us out and we went on to win the NIT. We had a lot of momentum going in my senior year and him leaving was unexpected. That’s what was upsetting.

“At the time, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know the business of coaching, and I took it personal.”

While he kept in touch with Pat Beilein, he had no relationship with John as he went off and began his playing career and then his coaching career.

Then, when WVU reached the Final Four in Indianapolis, Nichols was there and received a phone call from Pat Beilein.

“My dad wants to get together for dinner with a bunch of us,” Pat said

“That’s going to be awkward,” Nichols said, but knowing Pat would be there with Rob Summers and Mike Gansey, he decided to go along.

“Once we got back together it was nice. It was kind of closure. It was behind me after that,” he said.

And now he stays in touch with both Beileins, whom he respects as coaches.

And Beilein respects Nichols, saying at his press conference upon learning Wofford was the opponent:

“An additional thing is Darris Nichols, one of the assistant coaches, is one of the smartest, brightest point guards I have ever had. Now I wish he really didn’t understand our offense at all, but he knows everything about us, so we have a challenge with a guy on the other bench who knows a lot of what we do.”

It will be interesting to see how it plays out today.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.