Jon Cole knew who he wanted to serve as his best man.
The former McDonogh and Virginia soccer star, now 33, had high school pals and college teammates who floated in and out of his life, but one guy was constant.
His high school coach, Steve Nichols, went from mentor to father figure to big brother to best friend over 20 years. At the time, two summers ago, Nichols joked at Cole's request: "I'm 43 years old, why me?"
Cole never thought twice.
"He's like the brother I never had," said Cole, who married in June 2012. "I wouldn't want anybody else to stand next to me on the most important day of my life."
After 17 seasons at McDonogh, Nichols is embarking on his biggest coaching challenge: He has taken over at his alma mater, Loyola University, with the goal of turning it into a Division I national championship contender.
And while he knows soccer inside and out — he won 290 games and seven Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference titles and an unprecedented nine youth national championships at the club level — it's his ability to build strong relationships with players that has been the biggest key to his success.
"Playing for Steve Nichols was the best coaching experience I ever had — a teaching experience. I think that's what you get with Steve," said former McDonogh standout Chris Agorsor. "I think there's a lot of coaches who know the game, talk the game and things like that. But they can't really measure up when it comes to the human aspect that Steve brings. It means a lot. You want to do it for yourself, but when someone is believing in you that much, it's contagious."
Some in the tight Baltimore soccer community were surprised Nichols agreed to replace 14-year coach Mark Mettrick in February. Nichols left monumental success at McDonogh — the Eagles finished 21-0-1 and were ranked No. 1 in the country last season — and gave up running the Baltimore Celtic Soccer Club.
When Nichols was a star player at Loyola in the early 1990s, the Greyhounds won conference titles and qualfied for the NCAA tournament. During that time, many of the area's top high school players wanted to go there.
While Mettrick's tenure produced its share of success — the Greyhounds won four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles and reached the NCAA tournament five times — the school decided not to renew his contract after the team went 7-8-2 last season.
For Nichols, a 1992 grad, trying to take the program to greater heights was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
"Coming back to Loyola as an alum and being from Baltimore, this is a dream come true for me," said Nichols, whose Greyhounds will open the 2014 season on Aug. 29 at Saint Francis (Pa.). "Spending 20 years coaching high school and youth, the success didn't quite happen overnight, but I kind of had my way. So I know it's going to be hard not being able to have my way right away. It's going to take a lot of work to do that and I think I'm ready for that."
Nichols is the son of Greek immigrants, who moved to the United States in 1959.
His father, George, opened his first Casa Mia's restaurant in 1976. To Steve Nichols, his father has always been like the best friend he never wanted to disappoint.
His mother, Cathy, was always the one to lay down the law. Although Nichols is married with three children, his mother still gets on him when she deems it's necessary.
"They're very caring people and they did everything in their power to give me and my brother and sister the best possible life," Nichols said. "Mom was the hard one on me. My personality when I coach is a lot like my mother's. She's the nicest person in the world, but she's also a tough lady."
On the sideline at McDonogh, it was common to hear Nichols screaming when he saw something he didn't like, always expecting the best from his players. And it was often the best players — Cole, Agorsor, Mike Marchiano, Mike Gamble and last year's All-Metro Player of the Year, George Campbell — who heard Nichols' wrath the most.
His philosophy is this: If you don't coddle your standouts, but instead ride them harder because you know they have the chance to go further, the other players will take note and follow.
Marchiano won championships playing for Nichols at McDonogh and in youth club, and then went on to win two NCAA championships at Maryland. He was the captain of the Terrapins' 2008 championship team his senior year. He remembers more than one occasion when he got chewed out by Nichols one day and had dinner with his coach's family the next.
After spending the past two years as an assistant coach at Army — helping the Cadets go from four wins in 2012 to 12 wins last season and a second-place finish in the same Patriot League that Loyola competes in — he jumped at the chance to join Nichols' staff.
"I feel a great sense of loyalty toward Steve because he's had an enormous influence on my life," said Marchiano, who joined Matt Dwyer as Nichols' assistants. "It's part of the reason now that I've come full circle and into coaching, to try to have the same type of influence on guys that he has."
Getting with the program
Hired after the recruiting period, Nichols will rely on players from last year's team, which won just two games in the conference.
Strides have already been made.
In the spring, the Greyhounds fell to Villanova, 5-1, in their first competition 10 days after Nichols was hired. He said it was embarrassing and a low point in his coaching career.
That night, the coaching staff went out for pizza and beers — and to find some answers.
"We said we knew it wouldn't be easy and we can either face the facts or hide from them," Nichols said. "And then we came back the next morning, set some new rules and goals and tried to meet the players halfway."
The rest of the spring season, the Greyhounds went 2-0-2. They tied George Mason, 2-2, and beat William and Mary, 3-2. Both teams reached the NCAA tournament last year.
After a 0-0 tie with Temple, Loyola closed with a 3-0 road win over Drexel — a game won with just 13 players after Nichols suspended two starters for violating team rules.
Following the win, Nichols went into the locker room proud.
"Seeing the guys, that was one of the best days here so far," he said. "Their spring was over and they really had gone through a boot camp. And to see the satisfaction on their faces, understanding that if we do put the work in and do things the right way, we are going to get results."
Senior captain Connor Thompson said Nichols' expectations have fostered change.
"The really big emphasis was having us come together," Thompson said. "He really got us to work hard for the wins. It wasn't so much technical, but we would fight for the win, we would grasp for every inch of the field. It was just pure grit and determination and we fought for it."
The other best day Nichols has had goes back to building those bonds.
He received a late phone call one night from a prized recruit. Described by Nichols as "an athletic freak," the rising high school senior had a number of big schools hot on his trail with offers.
The recruit had previously reached out to Agorsor, who played at Virginia and went on to play in Major League Soccer, and asked him to share his experience under Nichols.
Agorsor first told him he might be better off going to a more established program. But he then said if the recruit wanted to be part of something special — and have a coach that really cares about him — Loyola might be the fit.
So the player informed Nichols that he made up his mind. He started by talking about how great all the other schools were.
"The way the conversation was going, I thought he was going to tell me 'no.'" Nichols said. "So when he told me 'yes,' my jaw dropped."
Nichols had snagged his first recruit, who will join the Greyhounds in 2015.
"It was really rewarding and I was over the moon," Nichols said. "And then the next day, you're like 'OK, who's next?'"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun