Opportunity Knocks

Lowell, Mich. quarterback Keith Nichol has no problem leaving his home state for the opportunity play football at Oklahoma. (Photo/Mark Cinco)

The envelopes addressed to Keith Nichol began arriving at Lowell (Mich.) High School shortly after he reneged on his oral commitment to Michigan State and pledged to attend Oklahoma in late November.

The hate mail was easy to identify for Lowell coach Noel Dean, who kept the vile letters from his star. The envelopes had no return addresses, just Michigan postmarks and the occasional holiday stamp.

The letters were often typed and unsigned. After all, who wants to admit sending hate mail to a 17-year-old high school senior?

Yet their sentiment was uniform: Nichol was a traitor. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder, who had been proclaimed Michigan State's savior when he committed to the Spartans in July 2005, had overnight become vilified by switching to OU. His career totals of 9,295 passing yards, 75 touchdown passes, 2,862 rushing yards and 56 rushing touchdowns suddenly meant nothing.

Never mind that Michigan State had gone 9-14 since his commitment or that coach John L. Smith had been fired. None of that mattered, at least to Spartan fans who flooded Internet message boards with hateful postings shortly after he changed his commitment.

"I'm actually glad the cancer is gone. Who needs that type of kid?," one person wrote. Another wrote, "I hope that (traitor) breaks his arm on the first play."

And yet another wrote, "You are no longer welcome here. You are a rat."

"People take this business way too serious," Dean said. "This is one boy making a decision based upon what's best for him. I share a lot of concern for some of these people. I feel bad for them."

But by enduring a firestorm, the dual-threat Nichol, who is rated as the nation's 21st-best quarterback by Scout.com, is perhaps better prepared for the scrutiny he will encounter at Oklahoma when he enrolls next month. His resolve has been toughened for the pressure that cracked former highly touted OU quarterback recruits Brent Rawls and Rhett Bomar.

And even though Nichol will enter spring practice as the least experienced of OU's three scholarship quarterbacks behind junior Joey Halzle and redshirt freshman Sam Bradford, some already have expectations of him succeeding Paul Thompson.

"He's going to Oklahoma to be a team player, but don't make any mistake about it, he's going there to compete for the job," Dean said. "I won't be surprised if he gets it."

Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., the state's second-largest city, Nichol lived in the same dark red wooden house that sits on 11 acres his entire life. It's just an hour away from East Lansing, Mich., home of Michigan State.

His mother, Patrice, a Michigan State graduate, molded his Spartan loyalty. As a youngster, he emulated former Michigan State standout Mateen Cleaves on the basketball court and idolized Detroit Lion Barry Sanders so much that he had a poster of him in his room through high school.

"I grew up liking Michigan State regardless of their record," said Nichol, who had a 3.4 grade point average in high school and plans to pursue a business degree in college. "It was a stick with your team type of thing."

Nichol began playing football at the age of 9 and quickly made a name for himself as a defensive end and running back for the Red Blazers. Dean first saw Nichol play football as a fifth-grader and fondly recalls his knack for the game.

"He was very determined," Dean said.

After a solid freshman season, Nichol was promoted to the varsity for the playoffs and saw action as a cornerback in a blowout. But it was as a sophomore that he exploded onto to the recruiting scene. He threw for 2,125 yards and 26 touchdowns in Lowell's spread offense and led the Red Arrows to a state championship.

A rising sensation, Nichol was suddenly Michigan's top 2007 prospect and he began garnering attention from Big Ten teams as well as Notre Dame and Tennessee.

So the summer before his junior year, Nichol, his father and Dean made trips to several Big Ten schools and also toured Notre Dame. After countless miles spent riding in Dean's navy blue minivan, Nichol chose the Spartans.

Michigan State was not only his childhood favorite, but the university was close to home and Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton would be graduating after the 2006 season, leaving the position for his taking in 2007.

"That was the one I liked the best," Nichol said. "Since I never imagined myself going Division-1, I never imagined myself going Big Ten. I never looked beyond the Big Ten. I really didn't let the recruiting process get too heavy. Michigan State was where I wanted to be."

The consummate commitment, Nichol actively recruited for the Spartans. He called prospects and helped land Detroit area wide receiver Mark Dell, one of Michigan's top 2007 players. He also routinely ventured to East Lansing when recruits visited to sell them on Michigan State.

Nichol also made a splash for the Spartans in July at the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp, a showcase of the nation's top quarterbacks, where he earned an award for being the camp's most coachable player.

"Physically, he's a pretty gifted young man," said Brian Stumpf, director of the Elite 11. "There's not a lot he can't do, whether it's running or throwing the football. He's got a good arm. He's a pretty smart kid with a good attitude. He's going to have a chance to be a pretty good player if he continues to work hard and progress at the college level."

But despite Nichol's commitment to Michigan State, Oklahoma was one of several schools to continue sending him weekly letters along with Florida, Louisiana State, Michigan, Southern California and Tennessee.

"The coolest thing was seeing the OU symbol," Nichol said. "I was like, 'This is one of the best teams in the country, what are they doing sending me something?' I was really more flattered than anything. It almost seemed like they were too good for me."

Until Michigan State fired Smith in early November, Nichol had still planned to enroll at the university in January. But when he was pulled out of U.S. Government class by Dean and told of Smith's fate, he knew his future in East Lansing was in doubt.

So did Michigan State, which is why Spartan basketball coach Tom Izzo honed in on Nichol while the university searched for a new football coach. The two frequently talked over the telephone and text-messaged. Izzo was even on the sideline for Lowell's 45-35 loss to eventual state champion Muskegon in the playoffs.

The defeat ended Nichol's senior season with 2,233 passing yards, 32 touchdown passes and just 6 interceptions. He also had 1,075 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns and was a starter at cornerback.

"Coach Izzo was really my link to Michigan State still," Nichol said. "A lot of the coaches that did recruit me weren't even sure if they were going to be there anymore."

Izzo also hosted Nichol at several Michigan State basketball games and spent time with him in his office before the games. There, they talked about everything from Nichol's girlfriend to Izzo's experiences with Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

All the while, Oklahoma's whirlwind courtship of Nichol continued. It started in early November with handwritten letters and text messages from quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel.

"I knew it was serious when he put me on with coach Stoops probably the second time we talked on the phone," Nichol said. "I was like, 'Is this really coach Stoops?'"

Just over three weeks after Smith's firing at Michigan State, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Heupel were sitting in Nichol's kitchen for a two-hour visit, the day after Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State to clinch a trip to the Big 12 championship game.

Two days later, Nichol and his father visited Norman in the midst of a blowing snowstorm and he committed after just 24 hours on campus.

"This was all about opportunity," Nichol said. "How can you blame anybody for trying to do what's best for themselves? It's really the selfish people that think otherwise."

The loss of Nichol to Oklahoma rocked the Spartan nation. It also stunned Michigan State commitments like Paul Simkovich, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound offensive guard from Latrobe, Pa., who Nichol had personally recruited.

Just four days after Nichol's announcement, he committed to Akron, citing Michigan State's coaching change, but he said Nichol's defection also influenced his decision some.

"That hurt them pretty bad," Simkovich said. "He was a great quarterback. The reason why he was a great quarterback was because he wasn't afraid to go down and get dirty with the rest of us. That's why we liked him. He wasn't afraid to take a hit. We respected him for it."

Opponents have that same respect for Nichol. Muskegon coach Tony Annese rates him as the top quarterback he has ever coached against.

"He's got great pocket presence and a good sense of when to put it down and rush the ball," Annese said. "To me, he's a really good running quarterback, but he can also stand in the shotgun and pick you apart. He's got a very accurate arm. He's got all the qualities you want in a quarterback."

Annese believes that Nichol is one of the nation's top five prep quarterbacks and that he is Michigan's best quarterback since former Michigan quarterback Drew Henson.

"That's the kind of athlete Keith is," he said. "That's really the only quarterback that I've seen in this state that I could compare with Keith."

Had Nichol not committed to Michigan State as early as he did, Scout.com national recruiting analyst Allen Wallace said his scholarship offers would have soared beyond those of Cincinnati, Iowa, Oklahoma, Purdue, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

"The sky could have been the limit," Wallace said. "It's just a matter of speculation as to who else would have really gone after him because he's certainly one of the best quarterbacks in the United States."

Added Dean, "Keith's birthday is Christmas Eve and mine is the day after Christmas. I used to tell our offensive line the three most important birthdays are in order, Keith Nichol, Jesus Christ and Noel Dean's in that order. I know that God has a sense of humor so he's OK with that."

In Lowell, Nichols is revered not only on the football field, but off it as well. He recently spoke to the weekly Lowell Rotary Club over meatloaf and mashed potatoes and left a lasting impression, Mayor Charles Myers said.

"He was very articulate," Myers said. "He was able to talk with us without any notes or anything. I was very impressed. He's a clean cut kid, well mannered and comfortable in a crowd. He's one that looks like he's got it all together."

Seemingly, Nichol does, which is why the Sooners promised he would be their only quarterback signee of 2007. In the meantime, he's familiarizing himself with the names of OU legends Billy Vessels, Steve Owens and Billy Sims after admitting that he didn't know that Dallas Cowboy safety Roy Williams played for the Sooners until his official visit. He's also already talking about winning a national championship at Oklahoma.

"I want to come in and compete and do the best I can," Nichol said. "If there's a guy that's better than me that can do the job better than me then I want him to play because I want the team to win. I'm just going to go in there and give it everything I have and if everything works out, it does. If it doesn't, it's not the end of the world."

That's unless you're a Michigan State fan and you've sent a letter to Nichol lately.

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