By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
HAMPTON, Va. -- Almost 30 years ago, a boy named Kevin Nickelberry attended Maryland's basketball camp at Cole Field House hoping another camper arrived sick. It was the only chance Nickelberry, who barely stood 5 feet tall at the time, had to get on the floor.
Nickelberry will return to College Park tonight in a far different capacity. The Washington native will make his head coaching debut for Hampton University against Maryland at Comcast Center.
"I've come from nowhere to be successful," Nickelberry said, "so I'm a little more hungry to prove people wrong."
Nickelberry began his coaching career in obscurity, as the women's coach at Columbia Union College in the early 1990s. After stints as a men's assistant at Holy Cross, Charlotte and Clemson, Nickelberry took over at Hampton, which has reached three NCAA tournaments in the past six years.
Nickelberry, whose niche has been as a recruiter, took over for Bobby Collins, who stepped down just days after Hampton lost, 71-49, against Monmouth in the NCAA tournament's play-in game. Almost immediately after being named head coach, Nickelberry surprised some Hampton supporters by revealing high expectations.
Nickelberry said his dream is to pick up USA Today and see Hampton in the Top 25. He also introduced a playing style dubbed "Frantic 40," a fast-paced brand of basketball that combines aspects he learned from the head coaches he worked under: Ralph Willard, Bobby Lutz and Oliver Purnell.
Unlike many schools in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Hampton does not have to rely on playing a large number of games against superior opponents to support its budget.
Nickelberry has a large-screen television in his office; flat screen televisions and new carpeting have been added to the team's locker room.
Hampton's best NCAA tournament moment came in 2001, when the school beat second-seeded Iowa State in the first round.
Nickelberry shares the vision of his school president, William Harvey, that the team is a "sleeping giant" that can recapture such postseason success. "It's so hard to get a head coaching job, you can't be real selective," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "I remember when I interviewed at American and took the job. They never showed me the gym. That's because they didn't have one. For Kevin to get that job, it is great."
Over the past two years, Nickelberry, who had been ranked as one of the nation's top 20 assistants by the Basketball Times, fielded dozens of phone calls from schools interested in talking to him about their head coaching opening.
At last season's Final Four, Nickelberry felt he was so close to being offered one job that he had already put together his staff. That's when Hampton called. Nickelberry went to the Hampton interview thinking there was "no way in the world" he would take the job. After Harvey mapped out goals of building a program, Nickelberry was sold.
"I went to Hampton thinking, 'Okay, nice cozy interview, get on the plane and go to the next interview,' " Nickelberry said. "I left the interview and we were working out the contract. Their standards and expectations are based on George Mason and Gonzaga."