A 6'10",230-pound grain silo of a guy is standing in Dean Nicholson's office at CentralWashington University, in Ellensburg. The silo tells the Wildcat basketballcoach that he has played for the University of Arizona. He tells him he hasgone to the University of Nevada, Reno. He tells him he has played for PhillipsUniversity in Oklahoma. Now he has moved to Ellensburg and wants to play forCWU.
NAIA rules statethat the silo will have to sit out this season, but Nicholson encourages him topractice with the team until he's eligible again. "He's a good kid,"Nicholson later confides. "He really is a cut above average,characterwise."
"Average,characterwise" on CWU's basketball team means something a little differentthan it does at most schools. Nicholson is a small-college Jerry Tarkanian, achampion of the dispossessed, renowned for recycling problem players. "Deantakes kids at the end of the line," says Don Zech, basketball coach at theUniversity of Puget Sound. "If they don't play there, they don'tplay."
Nicholson makesthem play. In 24½ seasons at CWU, the 61-year-old coach has achieved a record,as of mid-February, of 539-202 and has taken the Wildcats to the NAIAtournament in Kansas City a record 20 times. Five of his teams have made it tothe Final Four, and one—the 1969-70 squad—played in the championship game,losing to Kentucky State 79-71. Only three of Nicholson's teams have failed towin at least 20 games, and one of those forfeited 19 of its 26 victories and atrip to the nationals after it was discovered that CWU had a player who, thougheligible by NCAA rules, was ineligible by NAIA standards—a little-knowndichotomy that has since been changed. Nicholson builds his teams with retreadsbecause he can't compete for blue-chippers. His recruiting budget is $300, andhe has no scholarships to offer. "Nicholson's track record is whatattracted me," says former CWU forward Rodnie Taylor, an alumnus of theuniversities of Oregon and Idaho. "I knew that if I put out, I would beseen at the national level."
March 7, 1988
Ellensburg, whichsits in the eastern Cascade Range about 110 miles east of Seattle, doesn't looklike a place anyone would go to showcase his talents. It's so small (pop.11,000) that when Nicholson Pavilion (named for Dean's father, Leo) is soldout, nearly half the town is at the game. Nicholsons have been coaching theresince 1929, when Leo took over at CWU. In 33 seasons, Leo was 505-281.Together, the Nicholsons have won more college basketball games than any otherfather-son coaching combo—more than Hank and Moe Iba (910), or even Ray, Tomand Joey Myers (879).
Leo was a brisk,bluff, no-nonsense guy, who made underfed players report to his house forbreakfast. Dean is a little less vocal, a little more patient than his father.During his entire career at CWU the younger Nicholson has been called for onlytwo technical fouls. "I don't think you can do your job if you're ravingand ranting and you concentrate exclusively on calls," he says. Besides,Nicholson wants to set an example. "We work really hard on developingpoise," he says. "If you can keep sawing wood while everything isfalling apart, you're going to be a success."
Dave Benedict wasa 24-year-old junior college wise guy nobody wanted when Nicholson picked himup in 1966. Benedict cursed, spat on the court and booted balls into therafters. "Dean took a pretty offensive guy and taught him defense,"says Benedict, who earned two All-America citations and a teaching degree."He takes in headcases like myself, teaches them to play team ball and setsthem loose on the public," says the Gig Harbor High health and physicalfitness teacher. "He's a miracle worker, a living saint." Nicholsoneven listens to excuses when a player skips practice. "It's not the end ofthe world," he says. "Maybe the player and I will talk a little bit. Ifhe's having problems, I might suggest he take a day off. A couple, if he needsit. I don't agree with that old coaching standby of treating everybody thesame. A kid who doesn't have a dad or a family may need a little moreunderstanding, love and affection than one who comes from a 'super'background."
Leo, who died in1967, came from a broken home. He was raised in pool halls by his father, asometime barber and full-time hustler. "Dad could run the table when hecouldn't even reach it," says Dean. "I'm sure he had a lot ofopportunities to go the other way."
At Yakima High,Leo played on the basketball team with future U.S. Supreme Court JusticeWilliam O. Douglas. Leo earned a law degree from the University of Washington,but sidestepped the courtroom for the hard courts of Bothell (Wash.) High. Inthe four years Leo was the Cougars' coach, his team went 91-9 and won the 1927state title.
Leo's Wildcats wonso often that their fans became jaded. In 1933 the student newspaper, theCampus Crier, lamented that "the word champion means practically nothing tostudents and townspeople since winning had 'become a habit' under aNicholson-coached team."
Players rememberthe elder Nicholson diagramming plays on the icy windshield with his fingerwhile driving his 1938 Oldsmobile over perilous mountain passes. Dean, who alsodrives his players to games, but in a van, says a certain automotive expertiseis necessary to coach basketball in the Great Northwest. "When you're inBend, Oregon, and it's eight below zero, the carburetor is frozen and all thegas stations are closed, a zone press doesn't help you one lick."
Dean startedhanging out with the team as a toddler. Later he developed a lethal set shotfrom 20 feet and a tricky step-around move from 15 feet that bordered on doubledribbling. A two-time all-stater at Ellensburg High, Dean enlisted in the Navyas a seaman in 1944. "The only action I saw was the battle of Fayette,Missouri," he quips. When he got out, he worked his way back home. "Ifelt I was a good enough player to take the heat off my father," Dean says.He wound up scoring 1,377 points—still fifth on CWU's alltime list—and leadingthe Wildcats to their first NAIA tournament berth.
Dean startedcoaching at Puyallup High and had a 188-100 record in 14 years beforesucceeding his old man at CWU in 1964. He was 38. "I didn't come to Centralby design," he says. He had sought other college coaching jobs, but eitherthe money wasn't good enough or he wasn't. "I'm not very good at sellingmyself," he acknowledges. "If I had advice for a young coach trying tomove up, I'd say he ought to pay attention to that part."
Nicholson thinks acoach needs three things to be successful: an understanding wife, a loyal dogand a seven-foot center. "I've got two out of three," he says, "sothat ain't bad." His wife's name is Charlene, his cocker spaniel is Tuffy,and he's still looking for the center.
The Nicholsondynasty looks as though it will end with Dean. His sons, Joel and Gary,attended CWU, but neither played basketball there. Joel just received hisdoctorate in business administration from Florida State, and Gary works forChevron oil in California. But Nicholson does have an extended coaching family.More than 50 of his former charges are now coaching at the college or highschool level.
"Sure, I wouldhave liked to have had a shot at the big time," Nicholson says. "Sure,the better players may go to Division I. But they don't play any harder than wedo, and they don't have any more desire. To me, we are big time."