Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman created a new staff position called Director of Player Personnel when he arrived from Toledo. His first hire for the job was John Hauser, a defensive back coach who missed coaching so much he left for the Citadel during spring drills.
Scrambling for a replacement, Beckman returned to his Toledo roots to bring in Paul Nichols. It appears Nichols has the necessary understanding and determination to develop the position to its fullest. His acclimatization has been aided by his comfort level with the Illini coaching staff.
"It's been great. One of the things that has eased my transition has been my familiarity with not only Coach Beckman but the rest of the staff. I have worked with some of the guys here in the past at Toledo. And in the coaching profession, you always try to network and meet new guys.
"So I've either met or worked with every guy on the staff in the past. From that standpoint, a knowledge of the guys you're working with, what they're looking for, has been good."
His background has prepared him well.
"I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I went to Marist High School. My mother is a high school math teacher. She's taught at Marist for 30 years. My father is a stockbroker. I have an older brother who works in Atlanta and went to Georgia Tech. I have a younger sister who went to the University of Georgia, and she's a teacher as well.
"I went to Davidson College, played there and graduated there. After I left college, I went to the University of Florida as a volunteer in 2003. I left there for Ohio State as a graduate assistant in' 04 and' 05. And then in '06, I went to Marshall University and coached secondary there for three years. After that, I went to the University of Toledo as co-coordinator for Coach Beck and coached the secondary."
Nichols is already able to sell his new university and its people, a prerequisite for recruiting.
"It's a great honor to be here at the University of Illinois. It has a great tradition and such great people here. It was great to get here when I got here because I met so many great people around the spring game, the golf tournament, the former players, the parents of all current players. The reception has been so good.
"Mike Thomas the Athletic Director has been tremendous. And obviously all the people that are involved in our program on a day-to-day basis, the academic people, the dorm people, the cafeteria people, our secretaries…they've embraced this new staff and embraced me. It's been fun from that standpoint, getting to a new place."
He sees this job as a fun challenge.
"I've always enjoyed bouncing around. Since I was 18 years old, I've lived in five states. So it's always fun going someplace new, particularly when the people are so hospitable as they have been here.
"When you've got the facilities, you've got the academic reputation of the University, you've got good players on the football team and a great coaching staff, you have a recipe for success. We're excited about that."
Hauser struggled being tied to a desk all day. He needed to get back on the field as soon as possible. So far, that has not been a problem for Nichols.
"I was only here for four spring practices. I was spinning so much, I didn't have time to worry about what was going on in practice. We had guys here every day, we had important recruits here every day."
Like everyone else on the staff, Nichols hopes to be a head coach someday. He has the patience to learn all aspects of the job before jumping into that demanding role.
"I'm a coach, but I see this opportunity as another way to approach my goals because I'm working with recruiting every day. It doesn't matter whether you're on the field or off, recruiting is the lifeblood of your program. If you're not recruiting every day, you're behind. If you're not calling players, calling coaches, writing notes and watching film every day, it doesn't matter who you are.
"The head coach is watching film every day. All the assistants are watching film every day. So everything we do in this program revolves around recruiting. The way we present ourselves, the image of the program, the way our facilities look, the way our office looks. When we bring recruits in here, it better look first-class because that's the image we want for our program.
"Recruiting is the lifeblood of our program, and it's something we're going to do every single day. When you understand the importance, and then you think about your role on the staff, you realize it's a big deal. It's critical. You get people on campus, and you're in charge of them, that's critical."
A number of prospects visited campus during spring practices. While the nine assistant coaches worked with current Illini players, Nichols and his staff were giving tours and selling the program. He can't travel for recruiting, but his role is imperative once athletes make it to campus.
"You're gonna be the guy that's going to sell the program, you're gonna be the guy that's gonna coordinate the recruiting efforts; that's important. Really, we don't have jobs around here if it's not for the players. Our opportunity to remain here is going to be based on our players as well. We need to get the best, and that's what we're going to try to do."
A head coach must know everything about everything. There are myriad details that must be worked out, so a prospective head coach must learn from the ground up.
"There's no question. I've learned so much here in the last three weeks. You really don't grasp the full concept until you dig in and do it. Everything from setting up a log to setting up the systems and procedures of how we do things here.
"Tape gets mailed in. How is it logged, where does it go, how does the film get evaluated? What do we do when we decide to offer a player? What do we do if we want to bring someone to camp? I've taken those sorts of procedures for granted because I've never been involved in the planning and the setting up of those procedures.
"So I'm learning how we want to do things. What's the best procedure? Where are we going to find these players? How are we going to set up this travel? Boom, boom, boom. So it's been great hands-on experience.
"Responsibility is the greatest teacher. I've never had the responsibility of running recruiting efforts. I've always had the responsibility of a position and an area, go get them. Now I have to see the big picture."
If nothing else, Nichols has begun to appreciate Beckman's complex role.
"You have a little bit of an understanding of what Coach Beckman has to go through each day. He doesn't just have recruiting, he's got nine assistants, all this other staff, he's got to see the big picture of the whole program, he's got the whole deal.
"I'm in an area I've never been in before from the standpoint of managing an entire recruiting staff. I've managed a defensive staff, but this is different. So it's been a great learning experience, and for that I'm really excited."
In part two, Nichols shares more details of his job description and how important his role is.