No doubting Nichols' success at Montini
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Montini's coach Jason Nichols celebrates his win over Hillcrest in the girls 4A basketball finals in Normal on Saturday.
Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer
Jason Nichols had doubts.
The thought of it sounds crazy watching him and his Montini team these days, but this is now and that was then.
Then was May 2003. A month removed from being let go by Trinity, Nichols got a call from Don Riley about an opening at Montini.
In Lombard? At a school that hadn't won so much as a regional in nine years?
Nichols' memories of Montini consisted of going there as a kid for summer baseball when he was a catcher at Lyons Twp., and "it was a horse pasture."
Now he was in his car, getting ready to meet with Riley. An interview at another school was already lined up. For a moment Nichols almost considered driving away.
"And then I walked in and saw the gym and the field house," Nichols said, "and said to myself, 'Western suburbs, this could be really good.'"
Nichols never made that other school's interview.
"I loved Don Riley and I called him right away and I said, 'I want this job,'" Nichols remembered.
It's funny how life's forks in the road work out.
First year at Montini Nichols and the Broncos went 24-5, losing to Timothy Christian in a regional final. Montini hasn't lost a regional or sectional game since, finally breaking through and going to state in 2008 and then winning it all in 2010.
Two more state titles have followed. Now Montini is at the precipice of doing what no girls basketball program has ever done — winning four in a row.
A March trip to Redbird Arena seems preordained these days at Montini, but Nichols never wants his girls to take that success for granted. He rattles off to them the names of great teams that should have played at Redbird but never made it.
"Coach tells us every single day that there are some great players that never get to do this," said Montini junior Kateri Stone. "We're thankful for this opportunity."
"When you sit down and have a moment to yourself, you do kind of pinch yourself when you think about it," Nichols said. "I want my girls to understand that we're very fortunate, and it's not by accident. They work hard, they buy in and they invest. This is important to them."
It's important to coach, too.
Nichols never did play basketball at Lyons — "just wasn't good enough," he said, spouting off a litany of LT greats from his high school days. He tried wrestling when he was a kid, "but I stunk" and caught for LT's baseball team — "I was good at that."
But his favorite sport, his first love was basketball. He lived the sport. All-nighters as a teenager were spent playing at St. Francis Xavier Church on Ogden.
"I was the guy that would go hooping all the time. I loved it," Nichols said. "My big butt could spot up and shoot all day. If you asked me to do anything else, forget about it."
Like guys like Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, Nichols didn't need to play at a high level to have success coaching. Like a sponge, he absorbed what he observed from other coaches.
While he was at Naperville Central, where he helped coach baseball years ago, he picked up four inbounds plays from Redhawks boys coach Pete Kramer. He runs a couple inbounds plays this year that he said he "stole" from legendary St. Anthony's coach Bob Hurley.
"The best coaches are the ones who steal. I was just a better thief than everybody else," Nichols said with a laugh, adding with a more serious tone, "You take stuff from other people and you learn."
Nichols is probably best known for how relentlessly he harps on his kids. He is never satisfied, always pushing for more. Stone concedes it isn't easy playing for him.
"He definitely pushes you mentally and physically," she said. "But that's what's helped me grow as a player. He's not going to be easy on you no matter who you are. At the same time off the court he has your back, he's fun to be with."
Whether Montini is up 30 late in a game this weekend or tied, whether starters are still on the floor or the 13th girl is, you can expect Nichols to be on his kids, working the referees.
Opposing fans might not like it, but this is a tiger who's not changing his stripes.
That kind of attention to detail, that endless pursuit of perfection is one reason why Montini is in the position it is this weekend.
"If I quit coaching I'm cheating my kids," Nichols reasoned. "If they do 10 things wrong and I only point out six or seven I'm doing them a disservice. I'm only the way I am because I care about those kids, and they realize that. I let them jab me a little, and that allows me to be tough on them.
"It takes a special kind of kid to deal with my garbage, but at the end of the day I love those kids."
Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96
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