It's Black and White For Nichols

By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 10, 2008

PHILADELPHIA Midway through the first half of George Mason's 75-65 victory over Drexel on Thursday night, the Patriots' Dre Smith lost control of the basketball near the top of the key. Thinking he couldn't pick up the ball again because a pass to himself would be traveling, Smith stared at the ball for a moment until he realized that Drexel's Scott Rodgers was about to pick it up and take off the other way for an easy basket.

Thinking a violation was better than a fast-break layup, he reluctantly picked up the ball and waited for the whistle.

There was none.

Sitting five rows up in the stands, Henry O. Nichols, retired chairman of Villanova's department of education and human services, was elated.

"You see that?" he said as the baffled Smith threw a pass to Folarin Campbell. "The kid doesn't know the rule. But my guys know it. You can dribble and then fumble and pick the ball up as long as you don't dribble again. A lot of times people get confused about that call. My guys got it right."

Nichols's guys were the three referees working the game: Roger Ayers, Mike Eades and Paul Faia. There are about 700 men across the country who referee Division I basketball games. They are known to most in the game as "Hank's guys."

That's because, for the last 22 years, Nichols has been the NCAA's supervisor of basketball officials. That means he has been responsible for the way games are officiated, for how rules are interpreted and for which officials work the NCAA tournament.

"When I was offered the job, I told my dad that I'd been asked to try to straighten out college basketball officiating," Nichols said. "He said, 'Take that job because you'll have it for life since there's no way you'll ever get them straightened out.' "

It didn't stop him from trying.

"When Dave Gavitt came to me with the idea in 1987, the goal was to try to get guys across the country to officiate the same way, not have the ACC be different from the Big Ten and the Big Ten different from the Pac-10," he said. "We wanted to teach guys to ref better, to try to get them to be more consistent. We didn't want them to be another factor when teams played on the road. We wanted them to stand tall and figure out tough situations. I think a lot of that has been accomplished."

That is one reason why Nichols, who is 70, is comfortable with his decision to retire at the end of this season.

"I think 22 years of being in charge of bad calls is enough," he said, smiling. "In truth, it's just time. I want to have more time for my grandchildren."

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