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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: For early Bucs, Hardy was leader

TAMPA — Office phone rings. New guy in charge of Bucs linebackers picks up.

“This is Coach Nickerson.”

Laughter up and down the hall, other coaches.

“Coach Hardware!” they shout.

The new Bucs head coach is telling how he once saved Brian Mitchell from Hardy Nickerson. It was a scrimmage, summer of 1996, Bucs against Redskins. There was a new staff, Tony Dungy in charge, Lovie Smith had linebackers.

Redskins running back Mitchell was nailed by the Bucs middle linebacker, who didn’t know what time of year it was, didn’t really care. Mitchell came up swinging. Hardy Nickerson, heat seeking, stalked Mitchell.

“Lovie, get him out of here,” Dungy told Smith. Correct: Tony Dungy threw Hardy out of practice. It was about saving lives.

“So I get in front of Hardy,” Smith said, laughing as he’s sliding around the other day in the Bucs locker room, as if he’s still trying to block Hardy. “I’m moving to stay in front of him. He was definitely Hardware then.”

“Was I really that insane?” Nickerson said.

Yet it had already occurred to Smith, and he’d always ask Nickerson:

“Hardy, did you ever think about coaching?”

Here is Coach Nickerson, teacher, motivator, removed from maniac days (we think), here for Lavonte David, Mason Foster and other Bucs linebackers.

Hardy to the rescue, again.

“We want to win,” Nickerson said. “I wanted to win when I came here the first time.”

Derrick Brooks is going to the Hall of Fame. Warren Sapp is already there. But before those two, before Dungy, there was Hardy. He came to the cold, dark planet that was Bucs football at the time and rocked that world. He led the way.

“My main goal was to come in here and be part of change,” Nickerson said. “Mahatma Gandhi has a quote, ‘Be the change you want to see.’ That was kind of my mantra when I came down here in 1993.”

Hold the non-violence.

Former Bucs GM Rich McKay said, “I remember in the pregame, being in the locker room before I went up, and I would always make a concerted effort to not look (Hardy) in the eye, because he looked like he wanted to kill someone.”

When his teammates didn’t follow, Hardy challenged them. Or fought them.

“Tough love most of the time,” Smith said. “But everything he told those guys to do he did every day. Preparation. Anything I said, Hardy is writing it down in his notebook, asking great questions. That’s why he’s such a wonderful teacher.”

It was Hardy who brought a T-shirt back from his trip to the 1996 Pro Bowl, for a young Derrick Brooks, who wore the shirt under his pads at practices in 1997, until it was a rag, until Brooks had made a Pro Bowl of his own. He’d make 11 in all on his way to Canton.

“I just wanted to make sure I setting a good example, trying to leave an impression, hopefully help him take his game to another level,” Nickerson said. “And, shucks, he became one of the best ever. So I feel kind of proud of that, being the older guy, him seeing what it’s like to be a pro.”

It’s Nickerson’s second turn at NFL coaching. In 2007, Smith called from Chicago. Nickerson joined Smith’s Bears staff as linebackers coach “and I caught the bug,” he said. He helped Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs bring even more out of their games. But Nickerson’s mother-in-law became seriously ill (she later passed) and he had to step away. When he returned to football, it was as varsity coach at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif.

“Got a chance to work with young men, changed some lives,” he said. “Set some guys on a path that they probably never thought they’d go on, sent 19 kids off to college.”

Then Lovie called, again.

“I don’t know if I miss playing,” Nickerson said. “As a coach, you’re competing, trying to be the best you can be, and trying to make the players the best that they can be. To be a great coach, you’ve got to be a great teacher ...”

He was asked about his new prized pupil: Lavonte David.

“It doesn’t take long to figure (him) out, that fire,” Nickerson said.

Coach Hardware knows the look.

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