After graduating from Jesuit in 1995, Dave Nichol could have pursued several lucrative career paths. Instead, he chose football coaching, with its long hours, demanding work environment, and frequent instability.
Yet after more than a decade of moving to various jobs across the country, Nichol’s coaching future looks brighter as the new offensive coordinator at East Carolina University, where he had been the outside receivers coach for three years before earning a promotion following the departure of previous ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma.
Nichol’s rise in the coaching business didn’t come without plenty of passion and perseverance.
After playing quarterback for the Rangers in the early 1990s, Nichol was a walk-on receiver at Texas Tech, where he became a student assistant while working toward a master’s degree after graduation.
That placed him under the tutelage of eccentric head coach Mike Leach, one of the most prominent architects of the fast-paced spread offense that’s so prevalent at the college level. The staff included future head coaches such as Art Briles (Baylor), Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia), and Sonny Dykes (California).
“When you’re a young coach, you try to get on a staff of younger coaches that are going to move on and move up,” Nichol said. “It was a phenomenal staff. Those are guys I learned this offense from.”
He was hired as an assistant at Cisco Junior College in 2002, then went back to Texas Tech as a graduate assistant for the next three seasons. He moved to Baylor in 2006 and Arizona in 2007, again as a graduate assistant. He finally became a full-time assistant under head coach Mike Stoops the following season, and stayed at Arizona until 2011, when the entire staff was let go.
By that time, however, Nichol had plenty of connections in the business, and the new ECU head coach was Ruffin McNeill, who worked with Nichol at Texas Tech.
“The guys I learned from really grinded their way through various high schools, junior colleges, and small colleges,” Nichol said. “I kind of had to learn from the ground up, and hopefully I’ll be better because of it.”
While he’s excited for the opportunity, Nichol, 38, also is acutely aware of the added pressure that comes with the coordinator job. The Pirates were 8-5 last season with wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and are generally seen as a program with high expectations again, even after starting quarterback Kurt Benkert suffered a season-ending knee injury a week before the season opener.
Nichol’s debut season in the coordinator job will include a homecoming of sorts when the Pirates visit SMU on Saturday. He expects to have many friends and family members in attendance who have known him since he first got the urge to coach.
“I was a really average quarterback at Jesuit. There’s a reason why I’m not still playing football,” Nichol laughed. “You learn all the tricks and try to recruit really good players. I’ve had a great experience.”