Grambling Legends: Collie J. Nicholson

Nick’s note: TheDerisoReport.com begins a series on 2009’s inaugural honorees into the Grambling Legends’ Hall of Fame, to be inducted this month:

Marketing is as much a part of college football today as inflatable mascot heads for the players to run through.

But 50 years ago? People must have thought it meant going to the grocery store.

Except for Collie J. Nicholson, for three decades the sports information director of tiny Grambling College.

That legacy plays out in media coverage of the program even today.

Now, make no mistake, it was Eddie G. Robinson who was in charge of coaching the team to victory. Robinson would eventually win more college football games at Grambling than Pop Warner and then Amos Alonzo Stagg and, by the early 1980s, even the immortal Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Coach Fred Hobdy and a future NBA Hall of Famer named Willis Reed, meanwhile, would during the early 1960s win the state of Louisiana’s first, last and (so far) only men’s national title in basketball. Grambling’s baseball team was advancing to the NAIA national championships, too.

But would it have mattered if nobody knew? That’s where Nicholson came in.

“He meant,” former Grambling basketball star and head men’s coach Larry Wright simply said, “everything.”

I’ve called Nicholson a shoe-leather genius, because he worked in the days before computers, fax machines and wall-to-wall cable coverage. Collie J. used to keep stats, write the stories, then book it down I-20 to the Western Union after every game, sowing these seeds of national stature through the wires to newspapers all over the country.

He went further, imagining the impossible, then making it real: Football games in Yankee Stadium, in Japan, in New Orleans — which evolved into the nationally televised Bayou Classic.

Collie James Nicholson, who died of heart failure on Sept. 13, 2006, was born July 7, 1921, in Winnfield, La. He was survived by his wife, Ophelia; a son, Carl, of Houston; a daughter, Shirley Rhodes, of Shreveport; two grandchildren and a great-grandson.

“Because of Collie J., Grambling State University is one of the few institutions known the world over,” said Joseph Carter, who as president of the Shreveport chapter of GSU’s National Alumni Association pushed forward a 2006 resolution to christen the Robinson Stadium press box in Nicholson’s honor.

His pen never lost its punch. Collie J. pushed Paul “Tank” Younger (the first black player to sign a pro contract) into the NFL at the beginning of his career in the early 1940s — and Doug Williams into the final list of Heisman Trophy candidates at the end of it in the late 1970s.

“We just came along at the right time,” the ever-humble Nicholson told me in 2003. “I tell you, the Lord was in the plan.”

Today, you’ll find Grambling on NBC in a national broadcast of the Bayou Classic that began 12 years after Nicholson ended his run as SID. That game was the subject in 2005 of just the second ESPN College GameDay broadcast ever from an FCS site.

There have been recent feature treatments on Grambling’s former passer Bruce Eugene by the NFL Network, take outs on its rivalry with Southern and Coach Robinson on ESPNU — and a BET series devoted to the football team and band called “Season of the Tiger.”

Nicholson wouldn’t have it any other way — though, it’s important to note that, despite his on-campus nickname as The Man With the Golden Pen, Collie J. never sought the spotlight for himself.

“Whenever people would refer to him like that, you could almost see him cringe,” biographer Michael Hurd told me. “It was not within Collie to bring attention to himself. He was not about all of that. He would always say, ‘I was just doing my job.'”

Nicholson, then ailing, was recognized three years ago this month on campus with the press box renaming. It was fitting tribute for a man who was the tailwind that pushed GSU to the national stage. And a chance, in an emotional outpouring, for folks to recall a few of the legends that Nicholson had authored along the way.

“I remember a quarterback who was having trouble completing his passes, because he worried about how they looked,” said Ernie Miles, a former assistant to Nicholson who then followed him into the SID chair.

Coach told the player to concentrate on completing the pass. “Do that,” Miles recalled Robinson saying, “and you’ll be surprised how straight and pretty that ball will sound once Collie J. is finished writing about it.”

The assembled guests roared with laughter.

Later, then-Grambling coach Melvin Spears shared a similar thought about defensive end John Mendenhall, who helped GSU to a league title in 1971.

“From reading Collie J.’s stories, I thought John Mendenhall was a giant,” Spears said on the day the pressbox was renamed. “Turns out he was really only about 5-10 1/2. Collie J. was just that good.”

Recognition for efforts in service of a school that he forever transformed follows later this month with induction into the Grambling Legends Hall of Fame.

Collie J. previously earned the Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association in 1990 and the College Sports Information Directors of America Trailblazer Award in 2002.

“He has given recognition to so many people who wouldn’t have received it if not for him and his hard work,” Eddie Robinson told TheDerisoReport.com before he too passed in 2007.

Without Nicholson, much of GSU’s mythical nomenclature wouldn’t exist — the nicknames, the classics, so on.

But there are also larger lessons, moments of lasting leadership, inside these stories.

For the endlessly imaginative Nicholson to be able to convince people in New York City, deep in the troubled 1960s, to let two black colleges square off in Yankee Stadium — and promising a sell out — is, to my mind, more impressive than actually selling it out.

He did, and they did.

As the legend of Grambling grew, so too did that of black college football in general — and then, after the school joined in 1959, the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Nicholson’s accomplishment, in the end, was twofold: In telling the story of Eddie Robinson, and his players, he helped construct the Grambling legend. But, along the way, a larger case was also made for African-American ballplayers everywhere.

That’s his true contribution, and it can’t be contained within a simple retelling of GSU’s history — even by a writer with the eloquence and power of my old friend, Collie J. Nicholson.

Without him, everything is different.

GET IN THE GAME:
For more on the Grambling Legends’ Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, to be held July 18 at the Civic Center in Monroe, visit http://www.gramlingsportshof.com.

Also featured in TheDerisoReport.com’s Grambling Legends series …
R.W.E. ‘Prez’ Jones
Ernie ‘Big Cat’ Ladd
Willis Reed

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for remembering. Collie J. madae my task easy because he was so deserving. The rest is history.

  2. Thanks for remembering. Collie J. madae my task easy because he was so deserving. The rest is history.

  3. I used to do some Grambling football program cover art and a few other things for Collie back in the early 80's. I was an artist for the Shreveport newspaper (and a white kid, too), only a handful of years out of ULM, then NLU. We met when he was visiting the sports department and he asked if I could help him out. It was fun to work with him and I probably did about 5-6 program covers and several post card mailers. I haven't seen or talked to him in about 20 years now, and after his death I was going thru some old papers in a box and I found a manilla folder that was covered in his handwriting (the entire folder was the note!) where he says "Alan, need poster for Grambling-Oregon State Game…" and his description of what the art should look like along with the purchase order number. At the bottom is his name, Collie, with a circle over the "i".

    I think I'm going to hang on to that folder. It's a good memory.

  4. I used to do some Grambling football program cover art and a few other things for Collie back in the early 80’s. I was an artist for the Shreveport newspaper (and a white kid, too), only a handful of years out of ULM, then NLU. We met when he was visiting the sports department and he asked if I could help him out. It was fun to work with him and I probably did about 5-6 program covers and several post card mailers. I haven’t seen or talked to him in about 20 years now, and after his death I was going thru some old papers in a box and I found a manilla folder that was covered in his handwriting (the entire folder was the note!) where he says “Alan, need poster for Grambling-Oregon State Game…” and his description of what the art should look like along with the purchase order number. At the bottom is his name, Collie, with a circle over the “i”.

    I think I’m going to hang on to that folder. It’s a good memory.


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