|Andrew Nicholson's growth on the court has St. Bonaventure looking to contend in the A-10. (US Presswire)|
It's only fitting that the son of a retired welder has become the face of what is no longer regarded as a laughingstock St. Bonaventure program.
It was nearly a decade ago when the Bonnies began their descent into the A-10 abyss following an eligibility scandal in which former player Jamil Terrell was admitted from a junior college with a welding certificate instead of an associate's degree.
"We never talk about it," said St. Bonaventure star forward Andrew Nicholson. "No one does."
"It's water under the bridge," added Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt.
That's because 2002-03 was the ultimate black mark on a program known for its blue-collar approach, a season that was punctuated with calling it quits with two games remaining and being banned from the league tournament. The final record, after forfeiting six A-10 victories, reads 1-26.
The coach, Jan Van Breda Kolff, was run out of town. The athletic director and school president were both forced out in the wake of the embarrassment.
Notre Dame assistant Anthony Solomon was hired to clean up the mess, but he lasted four years in which his most productive season was his final one in 2006-07, when he won seven games.
Then came Mark Schmidt, who admits he wasn't the school's first choice. Truth be told, the former Robert Morris University coach, who sported a 82-90 career mark with the Colonials, was likely an afterthought when the process of selecting a replacement for Solomon began. But there wasn't exactly a lengthy line of proven D-1 coaches who wanted the job.
But Schmidt and Nicholson, also a virtual afterthought when he arrived on campus in 2008, have given more than just stability to a program that has made one trip to the NCAA tournament since 1978.
"The goal five years ago was to get it back to where we could compete for the top part of the league," Schmidt says.
This is a team that returns four starters from a team that went 16-15 and finished 8-8 in A-10 play, the first time the Bonnies were .500 in the conference since before the welding fiasco. And they welcome in a strong freshman class
"He's upgraded the talent for sure," Xavier coach Chris Mack of Schmidt. "He's gotten bigger players and it's more difficult to score against them in the paint."
But it has been Nicholson -- the underrecruited Canadian who started out as a chemistry major with virtually no aspirations of playing in the NBA and has transformed himself into a physics major with a legitimate chance of being taken in the first round of next June's NBA Draft -- who has been largely responsible for the program's steady incline over the past three years.
"He's as offensively skilled as any big guy in the country," Mack said. "He's a poor man's Tim Duncan. That's why they're in the position they are in."
To be able to go toe-to-toe with the big boys in the league: Xavier and Temple.
Schmidt was in the league, as an assistant to the late Skip Prosser at Xavier, when St. Bonaventure was competing in the top portion of the league. Jim Baron, before leaving for Rhode Island, got the Bonnies into the NCAA tournament and won 20 league games in his final two seasons in Olean, N.Y.
"There might be better facilities, but there's no better support in terms of fans in the league," Schmidt said.
Despite having a strong team coming back at Robert Morris and potentially putting himself in line for a more highly regarded job, Schmidt -- after consulting with his mentor -- decided to roll the dice and lead a program still trying to overcome a scandal that was nearly 5 years old.
"Coach Prosser told me it's always better to leave one year too early than one year too late," Schmidt recalled. "He was my guy and I relied on what he said. He thought it was a great opportunity."
Others felt it was career suicide.
Now Schmidt, with the help of his 6-foot-9, 240-pound big man who averaged 20.8 points and 7.3 rebounds as a junior, has put the Bonnies in a spot where they'll likely be picked fourth or fifth in the preseason poll behind Xavier, Temple, Saint Louis and maybe one other.
"We want to win the A-10," said Nicholson, who doesn't do much talking. "And we can definitely do it this year."
Nicholson is the arguably the best player to come through Olean since former No. 1 overall pick Bob Lanier, who spent three years on campus from 1968-70 and led the Bonnies to the Final Four. Nicholson needs 727 points to pass Greg Sanders to become the school's all-time leading scorer.
"We knew we had a good player," Schmidt said of his star. "But we didn't know he'd be this good."
In every aspect. Schmidt raves about his Nicholson's ability to score the ball, but that's secondary with the guy he calls the most "low-maintenance guy in college basketball."
There was the time when Nicholson was a freshman and the entire team -- on a road trip to play Ohio University -- was handed bags with sweatsuits on the bus. Nicholson walked into the restaurant as his teammates couldn't stop laughing.
"They were up to his calf," Schmidt laughed. "They looked five sizes too small."
"I had to make due," Nicholson recalled.
Or the countless times he shows up at practice with burns on his hands because the gloves at the chemistry lab don't fit.
"He's very unassuming and doesn't like the spotlight," Schmidt said. "That's just how he is. He's a breath of fresh air and a coach's dream."
And the guy who has given the Bonnies back their credibility.