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Professor invited into Basketball Hall of Fame

By John Pickhaver
On April 18, 2012

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Former NBA All-Star Reggie Miller will soon be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. Miller will join an exclusive group of basketball legends such as Michael "Air" Jordan and Julius "Dr. J" Erving in the mecca of all basketball halls of fame. 

Another inductee, however, is a little bit closer to home than the former Indiana Pacer and will also be among basketball's greatest legends. Henry "Hank" Nichols, '58 A&S, and a long-time University faculty member, will take center court with Miller and five other individuals in this September's ceremony in Springfield, Mass.

Nichols, a native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., was a standout baseball star in his undergraduate years at the University.  

Serving as team captain in his senior season, Nichols played catcher and helped lead the team in a successful run in the NCAA tournament, earning the team's most valuable player award.  

Upon graduating from the University, Nichols served in the Marine Corps and played three seasons of minor league baseball with the Cincinnati Reds organization. 

Later, Nichols obtained a master's degree in education at the University and a doctorate in educational administration from Duke University before once again returning to the University as a professor in the education and human services department, a department. Later, he became the department chair for an astounding 26 years.

While these accomplishments certainly are impressive, they are not your typical prerequisites to gain entry into basketball's hallowed hall of fame. That is because, on top of all his baseball success, his service to his country and his achievements in academia, Nichols was one of the most preeminent college basketball referees in the history of the game. 

During his tenure in the NCAA, Nichols officiated in 13 Atlantic Coast Conference Championships and 10 NCAA Final Fours, including six national championship games. Beyond the NCAA, Nichols also officiated in two Summer Olympic Games.  

He worked full time as a professor at the University throughout all of it.

The Wednesday before this year's Final Four, Nichols received a call on the ninth hole at Horsham Valley Golf Club informing him of the great news. 

"As soon I got off the phone, I hit my next shot about 50 yards over the green," Nichols says. "The adrenaline was flowing." Nichols celebrated with his friend on the fairway and then called his four kids with the news. 

During his days at the University, before the baseball season, Nichols also played on the freshman basketball team, which led him to his first referee gig. As a college freshman, Nichols called CYO doubleheaders for $5 every Wednesday night, using the money to pay his way to his then-girlfriend's high school prom.

Never did Nichols think his days calling games in the tiny gyms of local suburban Philadelphia parishes would launch a career that would ultimately lead to the hall of fame. 

"The only thing I was thinking about during those games was trying to keep everybody from killing me," Nichols says.  "I was just 19 years old and didn't really know what I was doing." 

The more games Nichols officiated the better he became. Back home, he passed the referee certification test and the rest was history.  

Nichols went on to become a big-time college basketball official and was a part of some of the sport's most thrilling games in front of thousands of wild and enthusiastic fans. 

"You have to fight the crowd in your mind," Nichols says. "But once you get some experience and you survive some calls that they didn't like, you go home and say 'You know what? I did the right thing, and I'm still alive.'" 

As his career progressed, the crowd was no longer an issue. 

"You realize that they are booing the striped shirt," Nichols says, "They are not booing you as a person." 

Rev. John Stack, O.S.A., vice president for Student Life, and a longtime friend of the talented referee, knows that Nichols would be the first to say it was never the spotlight he was looking for in the high-stakes games. 

"[Nichols] realized that he wasn't the show," Stack says. "He had a great way about him how he handled coaches, how he was fair and kept control of the game but was reasonable. When he blew that whistle he wasn't going to take any nonsense." 

Both off the court and back on the Main Line, Stack says, Nichols was just as respected.

"He was always a rock solid fellow and an easy-going likable guy who contributed a lot to Villanova," Stack says.  "It is a real honor for Villanova to have him inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not just for myself but I think Villanovans who know him feel really proud of him achieving this."

Upon retiring from officiating at age 48, Nichols was named the NCAA's first coordinator of officials, a position he held for 22 years. 

"I decided that I couldn't referee forever anyway, and this would be a good way to stay with the game for a long period of time and give something back to it and have an impact," he says. 

 For instance, prior to his appointment, the non-conference opponents often brought their own referees in what was known as a split crew. Nichols did away with this and unified the rules of the game and officiating styles on a national level. 

"Watching the progress of everybody coming together as far as how they were refereeing the game and dealing with rules and trying to make the game better was very rewarding," Nichols says. 

Nichols is no stranger to the hall of fame business.  

He is a member of the Philadelphia Athletic Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, the Villanova Athletic Hall of Fame and he is the only referee in the Philadelphia Big 5 Hall of Fame. 

But as Nichols points out, the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame is the "grand-daddy" of them all.  

"It is a real mishmash of feelings and emotions," he says of his reaction to the honor. 

Using words such "terrific" and "humbling," Nichols says that he never expected to be selected to be another referee in the Hall of Fame.  

Nichols will be just the 14th referee to be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, which includes nearly 300 individuals. 

Nichols will be the second University member to be enshrined in basketball's most prestigious hall of fame.  

The other was former national collegiate player of the year, "Pitchin' Paul" Arizin, '50.  

Arizin went on to become an NBA star and is recognized by the league as one of the 50 greatest players of all time.  

"To put my name next to his, it was just-I cannot describe how I felt. I just said, 'Wow that's really something else,'" Nichols says. 

Despite all of his successes and numerous hall of fame inductions, Nichols says that the University is as important to him as any other part of his professional life. 

"The  Augustinians, the education I got and the people I met...Villanova being Villanova was the best thing that ever happened to me besides my marriage and four kids," Nichols says. According to him, Villanova will always remain near and dear to his heart. 

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