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Nicholl retires after 33 years as an Islander coach
By Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter
One man has guided the Mercer Island football team during the past 33 years. That man has embodied what the program stands for and led the team through the good and bad times. That man, Dick Nicholl, announced his retirement as Mercer Island High School’s head football coach Friday.
Nicholl’s impact on Mercer Island youth as head coach is immeasurable. The coach has guided more than 50 players each year during his decades in football.
“I’m going to miss the relationships with the players and coaches,” said Nicholl, who began his career with Centralia High School, where he won the league title twice in his first three seasons.
“I’ve been touched by well over 1,000 athletes and over 70 assistant coaches. That has been the reward.”
While the relationships are what is most important to Nicholl, his career numbers speak volumes. The coach retired with a record of 177-113-2. He leaves tied with Inglemoor’s Frank Naish as the (4A and 3A) KingCo football leagues’ winningest coach with 158 wins in league play.
Nicholl’s 1985 team finished a perfect 9-0 season in KingCo, allowing the fewest points ever (nine) for a regular season, a record that still stands today. Nicholl led Islander teams to six KingCo titles, with the last coming in 1998. During the 1988 season, he guided the Islanders to the state semifinals where they lost a heart-breaker 14-7 contest to Kentwood. Three years ago, the Islanders finished the season 8-2 in a league with the eventual state champion, Bellevue, and semifinalist, Issaquah. Nicholl has been an assistant and head coach in the coveted East-West High School football all-star game for Washington state.
“I have been thinking about this for a couple of years,” said Nicholl of retirement. “I lost my mom about a month ago and she came to every game ... it just seemed like the right time.”
Nicholl’s legacy goes far beyond wins and losses. His legacy is one of character according to all of his peers.
“Mercer Island is losing an outstanding role model,” said long time friend and Mercer Island boys basketball head coach, Ed Pepple. “He is as good as it gets for coaching and the kids. The kids will miss him the most.”
Nicholl said that the game had changed a lot during his 40 years in high school football.
“The biggest difference is the expectation to prepare year-round,” said Nicholl, who is 67. “When I started, things were different. Up until 1973, kids were never in the weight room. When the season was over, it was over, and you moved on to the next sport.”
One of the biggest stories of the past decade concerning high school sports, has been the increasing involvement of booster clubs with high school teams.
“The ideal booster club should support the team in a healthy way,” said Nicholl. “They shouldn’t support a team with money, but with time and loyalty.”
Nicholl said that he has never taken money from the Mercer Island High School football team booster club, an act, according to some, is becoming more and more prevalent in the game today.
“I don’t think it is wrong for them to do it, but I just never thought I should,” said Nicholl.
That integrity and character is what his peers see in the long-time coach.
“He has class on and off the field. He had more character than anyone.” said Mercer Island football team defensive head coach Don Papasedero, who has coached with Nicholl during the past decade. “I have had some tears. It has been a hard day or so.”
The announcement was not a surprise to most who know Nicholl but hard to take nonetheless. The coach has been contemplating the move for a few years.
“I knew that he had been debating this for the last two years,” said Mercer Island High School Athletic Director Craig Olson. “I hate to see him go. We would have loved to have him back next year and would have welcomed him back with open arms.”
The coach’s family was also a big part of the football team’s tradition. Nicholl coached two of his sons at Mercer Island High School and his wife Linda Nicholl took stats during games. The Nicholl’s have six grandchildren and Linda retired two years ago, adding to Dick’s decision. Nicholl’s coaching family consists of present coaches, such as Mike Linker, who has been on Nicholl’s staff for 18 years, and Paul Jackson, who retired in 2005, among others.
“He is so much more than a coach to the kids,” said Linker. “If a kid is in trouble, he tries to help him where other coaches might push them away. One thing I know he hates about this is that he hates the attention drawn to him over the kids or the program.”
Pepple, Jackson and Nicholl comprised a threesome of winning coaches at Mercer Island High School. Pepple is now the last of three men who have led Islander youth through the majority of the past four decades. Pepple is in his 39th season with the Islanders and Jackson retied after 28 years of coaching wrestling at the high school.
“My whole goal was to outlast those two guys,” joked Pepple.
Lost in Nicholl’s gridiron excellence are his other contributions to the high school and Mercer Island community. Nicholl also coached wrestling as an assistant for Jackson, while Jackson was one of Nicholl’s longest tenured assistants on the football field.
“I could see coming back and coaching some track or something,” said Nicholl, who has also been the high school’s track and field coach. “I still have a lot of energy.”
Emotion was not something that Nicholl was known for on the sidelines. His poker face never changed, win, lose or even during a kick return for a touchdown.
“I had to think about where my kicker was or if the kid was going to get us a (celebration) penalty,” said Nicholl.
But replacing a legend like Nicholl will not be easy.
“I hate to see him go,” said Olson. “It will be quite a dramatic change next fall.”
Olson said that he has begun setting up a panel to begin interviewing candidates.
“Ideally we would like to have an in-house teacher and we may have someone on staff,” said Olson. “But we are going to open it up and go through the normal process. We will have some parent input, but ultimately the parents will be gone in two years and we will hopefully keep the coach for longer than that.”