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McCollum's Column: Reflections of the life of coach Don Nixon

Posted: March 24, 2014 - 5:20pm

Don Nixon was one of the most intense but caring basketball coaches to work the sideline in Arkansas.

Two examples, one the most told Don Nixon story on record:

After a game with rival University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix coach Cliff Garrison found a mangled waste basket in his locker room. He discovered after a particular fiery halftime talk that Nixon had gotten one of his feet stuck in the trash basket and frantically stomped about trying to get it off. He finally released it with a kick and the container crashed against the wall and lockers.

The standing joke between Garrison and Nixon for years was that the former UCA coach owed him a trash container.

Nixon gave him friendship.

Terry Garner, former UALR star and Lyon College coach and athletic director, played basketball under Nixon at Mabelvale Junior High in Little Rock. He remembers Nixon picking him up for for 6 a.m. practices, the lights on his car flashing and the horn honking to make sure Garner was awake.

As soon as Garner got into the car, Nixon started talking basketball. “A lot of times I had no idea what he was talking about,” Garner later said. “I appreciated what he did for me except when he bounced volleyballs off my head if I didn’t make the proper screen or something.”

Don Dyer, who succeeded Nixon as UCA men’s basketball coach, noted, “Whatever he said, that’s how it went, both for his players and officials. He got their attention.”

He coached with passion and energy. “He knew when to get mad and when to stay calm, but you’d sometimes worry about him with his constant movements on the sideline,” said Vance Strange, a former coach and longtime friend.

The big thing was Nixon, who died last weekend after a long illness, cared — about his players, basketball, friends, family and life in general or anything he touched.

And he cared very colorfully.

Before he was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, Nixon called Garrison, his old coaching rival who became a close friend, multiple times to make sure he got his speech just right. When the former Hendrix coach wasn’t home for the latest tweak job, Nixon would begin talking basketball strategy with Garrison’s wife, Maribeth, who politely listened but admitted she never cared that much for basketball strategy talk when Cliff was coaching.

But Nixon was that engaging.

“His teams executed on defense as well as any team you will ever see,” said Cliff Garrison. “And they were disciplined. You have to adapt when you move from the high school level (Little Rock Central) to the college level as a coach, and Don had the ability to adjust.”

“He was a student of the stock market,” Strange said. “He would talk to you about the stock market with that same energy and knowledge he would talk about basketball strategy. When he got into something, he was in all the way.”

Nixon often noted that his success related to having smart players, many who went on to become doctors, dentists, lawyers and business professionals.

But many he inspired to become coaches. Just among four of his former pupils — Garner, John Hutchcraft, Charles Ripley (whose love of basketball began as a manager for Nixon) and Joe Couch — represent a slew of basketball victories and championships.

“When you start putting together how many kids he influenced and touched over the years, it was just amazing,” Strange said. “He’s one of those individuals who coached at every level — junior high, high school and college. It’s incredible what he did for so many kids.”

By the way, Nixon’s often-revised speech at that Hall of Fame banquet was simple and just right. He thanked his wife and former players and asked them to stand. They filled several tables and applauded him with gusto. It was a moving moment.

When Nixon, who fought a courageous fight with cancer just as intensely as he fought for victories on the court, entered his final days in hospice, the family invited friends and coaches over for a barbecue and the chance to say goodbye.

Many did — with sadness and celebration. There was reportedly a continuous line of folks, young and old, Hall of Famers and just plain folks, filing into the bedroom to grip the coach’s hand and to tell him thanks for what he meant to them.

Nixon, sedated, may not have been able to talk much or call folks by name or recognize many.

But he knew their presence. He had experienced their love and respect long before that.

The fiery coach who commanded attention got it again — this time within an atmosphere of warmth, love and firm grips that said well done.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)

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