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USC’s Lincoln Riley on Dave Nichol: ‘Owe everything to the guy’

USC coach Dave Nichol holds a football in one hand while holding up two fingers in "V" shape.
Dave Nichol, who joined Lincoln Riley’s coaching staff in December as the team’s inside wide receivers coach, died this week after a battle with cancer. He was 45.
(Courtesy of USC Athletics)
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If it weren’t for Dave Nichol, Lincoln Riley will tell you, he might not have made it as a college football coach.

It was Nichol who gave him his shot as a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech and taught him the intricacies of the Air Raid offense. When Riley hung up his cleats to be a student assistant with the Red Raiders, it was Nichol who showed him the ropes, who answered his incessant questions, who taught him all that it meant to be a coach.

It was Nichol who first believed in him, and Riley would never forget that. When he was hired as USC’s coach in November, there was no doubt in Riley’s mind he’d ask Nichol to join the staff.

“Without him I really didn’t have any other ins into this business, and this business is hard to get into,” Riley said. “I look back on it now and think, ‘Man, had Dave not taken a vested interest in some no-name walk-on coming in there, I probably wouldn’t be here right now.’ So myself, my family, we really owe everything to the guy.”

Nichol, 45, died Friday after a battle with cancer, leaving behind a trail of coaches and players whose lives he’d touched along the way. That legacy would live on not only in Riley, but in so many other coaches Nichol met through a coaching career that took him to every corner of the country, from Lubbock, Texas, to Greenville, N.C., and finally to Los Angeles, where he’d spent the last four months as USC’s inside receivers coach.

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Mike Stoops, who coached at Arizona with Nichol, remembered him on social media as “one of the purest I’ve ever known.” Mike Leach, who coached Nichol and hired him at Texas Tech, wrote that he “meant a lot to me and countless others.”

USC inside wide receivers coach Dave Nichol, who joined the team in December as part of Lincoln Riley’s staff, has died. He was battling cancer.

March 25, 2022

For Riley, Nichol was the one who first opened the door to a future in coaching. Yet no one had paved a similar path for Nichol. He fought his way through the ranks, working as a graduate assistant from one stop to the next, often for little to no pay. As an assistant at Cisco (Texas) College, he painted lines on the football field and served as a pseudo-handyman, completing whatever minor repairs came up.

It was taxing work, and Nichol never complained, even as it took another five years after that to get a full-time coaching job, courtesy of Stoops at Arizona. That perseverance always struck Riley.

“I think a lot of people would have given up because those are hard years when you’re a GA,” Riley said. “You’re not making any money, you’re doing all kinds of different jobs and all kinds of different hours. And he knew what he wanted to do, and he told me the other day as we were talking that if he had it all over, he’d do it exactly the same way.”

Over the last few weeks of Nichol’s life, as his condition worsened, Riley would call at night to talk to his friend. Riley said Nichol had no interest in talking about his diagnosis. He wanted to hear about USC’s walk-throughs and install of schemes. So the two coaches would talk ball, like they always had.

“He was Zooming in to everything we did,” Riley said. “That just shows you kind of who he was, man. He loved ball, he loved ‘SC. He loved this place, this was a dream for him being able to come here.”

Nichol died three days after the start of USC’s spring session. On Saturday, the team gathered again for practice, with staff and players still in a fog.

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“It was good to get back on the field,” Riley said. “That’s where Dave loved to be. He loved the field as much as anybody. So probably for us, you take some peace in that, that you’re out there doing what he loved to do.”

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