CHAMPAIGN - The name Hardy Nickerson started three generations ago. The name was bestowed upon Hardy James Nickerson by an uncle. He passed the name along to his son Hardy Otto Nickerson, who bestowed the name upon his son, Hardy William Lindsay Nickerson.
Technically, Hardy William Lindsay is not a "Jr." and Hardy Otto never was a "Jr." because their middle names differ from their fathers, respectively.
"For a while, my dad was Big Hardy, and I was Little Hardy," said Hardy Otto Nickerson, now the Illinois defensive coordinator. "Then my dad passed away. Now, I'm Big Hardy and my son became Little Hardy within the family. That's how that dynamic has worked out. He kind of made me promise that if I ever had a son, the first one's got to be Hardy. We're just trying to keep the name in the family."
No matter how we differentiate between them in text, the two surviving Hardy Nickersons will reunite on the football field this fall after the the youngest Hardy Nickerson announced Thursday he will graduate from Cal this summer and play his last season of eligibility immediately at Illinois.
Nickerson Sr. -- a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker during an illustrious NFL career -- last coached his son as head coach at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, California. Nickerson Sr. spent the last two years coaching linebackers under Lovie Smith for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When Smith was fired by the Bucs in January, Nickerson Sr. accepted the linebackers coach position for the San Francisco 49ers -- which also provided him opportunity to watch his son's senior season in the Bay Area.
But when Smith accepted the Illinois head coaching position, Nickerson quickly accepted the defensive coordinator role and assumed he wouldn't be able to watch his son's last collegiate season.
"I never would have thought it," Nickerson Sr. said. "Three or four months ago I was in Tampa (with the Buccaneers), and I didn't think I'd have the chance to see my son play his senior year. Then I got to San Francisco and thought, 'Oh, OK. Maybe I'll get the chance to play a few games.' I was excited about that and thought, 'Oh, man, the games are on the same day. We'll just ride it out.' It's just amazing (now). It's a great feeling. It's a special opportunity, not only for him but for me as well."
Nickerson Sr. said he and his son had initial discussions about the opportunity to transfer to Illinois while he was getting in settled in Champaign but that the two didn't seriously delve into the possibility until two weeks ago. Nickerson Sr. left the decision to his son. He also left it to his son to tell Cal coach Sonny Dykes of his decision.
"That's solely his decision," Nickerson Sr. said. "He decided he wanted to make the change, come here and be here at Illinois."
The addition is a boon for the Illini, who sorely needed help at linebacker following the graduation of four-year starter Mason Monheim and the surprise transfer of T.J. Neal. Nickerson started 27 games the last three seasons and led the Bears with 112 tackles last season.
"I've known Hardy Jr. for a long time too," Smith said. "He's established that he's a good football player in college football. What a unique opportunity for him to get a chance to play for his dad for his senior year, and it's a win for the University of Illinois to get a good football player like that. Can't wait to get him on campus."
Nickerson adds much needed collegiate experience. And if anyone knows Nickerson Sr.'s defense well, it's his son, who ran a similar defense at Bishop O'Dowd and at Cal. He'll play and certainly start at his familiar middle linebacker, or 'MIKE,' position.
"He fills quite a few voids," Smith said. "It's a guy who's played. He was the captain of his team there. He's a great leader. You lead a lot by what you do and the example you set. He'll set a great example for some of our guys.
"MIKE linebacker, just like the quarterback on the offensive side, he's got to be a vocal guy. I think some guys are made to play MIKE linebacker, to get the signal, to make the calls in the huddle, for him to be the one that everybody sees at the start of the play. That's what we're getting in Hardy."
Said Nickerson Sr.: "He has a knack for just making plays. He's had a history of making a lot of tackles and being around the football. That shouldn't change. He's accustomed to the intricacies of the defense and the calls and all that, the adjustments. He knows that. He's a guy that has the opportunity to fit right in."
The Illini linebacker depth chart improved greatly the last few weeks. In addition to Nickerson, sophomore Julian Jones rejoined the team following last fall's arrest for an alleged sexual assault. Smith and Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman cleared Jones to practice. Jones will compete with several other young players, including redshirt freshman Justice Williams, at the strongside linebacker spot.
"Whenever you add two players like that, any team would be better," Smith said. "We're excited about that. Linebackers in our system have to do quite a bit. If you get the right guy in there, he can make a lot of plays and that's what we're expecting from them."
Nickerson must finish up a few classes at Cal this summer before joining the Illini on July 1. Nickerson Sr. said his son likely won't rejoin the nest of he and his wife, Amy. After all, which college kid wants to live at home? Still, Hardy Sr. said it will be nice to have his son close again -- real close.
But when it's football time, Little Hardy must address Big Hardy by a different name -- one that easily separates the two surviving Hardy Nickersons.
"I'm Coach Hardy every time we step on the field. And in the classroom, Coach Hardy," Nickerson Sr. said. "No different than any other player. I coached him before in high school. He's my son at home. I wear the dad hat at home but when we step on the field, it's coach. My main objective with every guy that's here is to help them reach their whole potential."