Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Grambling greats: Collie J. Nicholson

'Nicholson' in the house at Grambling
Retired GSU sports promoter will have Robinson Stadium press box named in his honor
May 4, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Long-overdue recognition for former Grambling State sports information director Collie J. Nicholson has drawn emotional praise from those who were touched by him.

The University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees GSU, approved a plan late last week to rename the Robinson Stadium press box on campus after Nicholson, who spent three decades building the school's national reputation.

There was James "Shack" Harris, who played quarterback at Grambling in the 1960s: "He loved Grambling and he loved the players," he said. "We reached a national audience because of his tireless efforts and contacts. He was way ahead of his time in terms of marketing players."

And Doug Williams, whose early career was defined by Nicholson's brilliantly descriptive stories: "It's a great thing. It's a deserving one, too. The fact is, he deserves all the accolades he gets."

The recognition for Nicholson, who has experienced health problems in his early 80s, comes almost three decades after he left Grambling. But time hasn't dulled his impressive resume.

It was Nicholson who conceived of the classic-game concept, where Grambling traveled with its marching band to major American cities — including the ground-breaking 1960s sell-out at Yankee Stadium.

And Nicholson who established the neutral-site Bayou Classic rivalry game against Southern, which remains a cash cow for the university.

And Nicholson who arranged a first-of-its-kind overseas trip for the program, as Grambling played games in Tokyo twice in the late 1970s.

"I would like to be remembered as someone who tried to find a way to fit the Grambling program into the general marketplace," Nicholson told The News-Star in 2003. "I've tried my best to do that."

He did it within the framework of a segregated society, and long before the modem, the fax machine and the all-day cable networks.

"I don't think a school has ever been blessed with a better combination of support than we had in Grambling back then," said Harris, now an NFL executive. "He was a big part of that."

Nobody short of legendary former coach Eddie Robinson himself launched more careers.

"He has given recognition to so many people who wouldn't have received it if not for him and his hard work," Robinson told us three years ago. (Robinson is the one who gave Nicholson, so famous for giving the players memorable nicknames, his own memorable moniker: "The man with the golden pen.")

Paul "Tank" Younger, who Nicholson relentlessly promoted after Younger scored a then-record 60 career college touchdowns, signed with the Rams during Nicholson's initial year on the job as the first black college player ever in the pros.

He helped nurture a host of Grambling greats like Junious "Buck" Buchanan, Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd and Harris, who would be the first black player to be drafted at quarterback.
And not just by writing up game stories.

"When I was coming out (for the draft), I remember working with 'Nick' on what to say. I spent a lot of time with him, critiquing me on doing interviews," said Harris, who played for the Bills, Rams and Chargers. "Not having a lot of experience with public speaking during that time, it was so special to have somebody like that."

But it would be Nicholson's tireless promotion of the young Doug Williams that helped establish Grambling as a widely known football school.

Williams sparked national headlines, thanks to Nicholson, as the first player from a predominantly black college ever chosen as a first-team All-America by the Associated Press, a Heisman Trophy finalist and the first black quarterback to be picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.

"Me being voted fourth overall in the Heisman is because of Collie J.; there are not too many pens greater than his," said Williams, who later coached at Grambling and also works in an NFL front office these days.

"Collie J. is the one who put Eddie Robinson out there in the media and kept all of us out there," Williams said. "Everything got started at Grambling because of Collie J."

Nicholson, who had briefly attended Grambling before a stint in World War II, likes to recall that he only ended up working at the school after a chance meeting with then-president R.W.E. Jones.

Jones, known universally on campus as "Prez," convinced the young Nicholson — who was making a quick visit before enrolling in the University of Wisconsin — to take a newly created job of sports information director.

By the time Nicholson retired, 30 years later, Grambling was a national presence.

Nicholson used trailblazing experience as the first black Marine Corps war reporter during World War II to push Grambling to the national stage. "My time as a combat correspondent gave me the understanding of what editors were interested in," Nicholson told The News-Star in 2003.

While Nicholson "retired" to Shreveport not long after Williams left for the pros, the truth is he continued to write for newspapers across the nation on a range of topics, from boxing to (of course) Grambling football. He received lifetime recognition from the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1990 and the College Sports Information Directors of America Trailblazer Award 12 years later.

A newly renamed press box at Grambling may be the most appropriate recognition of them all, said Harris and Williams.

"As long as there is a Grambling," Williams said, "Collie J. should be a part of it."

Harris agreed: "It's a tremendous honor for a guy who really made a significant contribution to Grambling's growth and development and long-time tradition. That has withstood the test of time. He was a pioneer, so having his name on the press box is very deserving."

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A grass-roots great
April 28, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Collie J. Nicholson has been given perhaps his most important honor: Recognition at the school that he forever transformed.

The press box at Grambling State's Robinson Stadium will be renamed for Nicholson, after the board that oversees GSU approved the measure on Friday in Baton Rouge.

GSU's sports information director for 30 years beginning in 1948, Nicholson was a Gramblinite of the first order, and a shoe-leather genius - the guy who worked until the school was finally recognized nationally as a football powerhouse. And in the most primitive of conditions.

Later, his flair for event organizing and selling Grambling led to a sold-out contest in Yankee Stadium, the founding of the Bayou Classic - GSU's signature rivalry game against Southern - and a first-of-its-kind trip overseas to play in Japan. So complete was his dedication that Nicholson learned Japanese so he could conduct negotiations.

He's been widely recognized, including 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.

As prestigious as they are, I don't think any is as important, overdue - and appropriate - as this one.

In the end, Grambling wouldn't be "Grambling" without Collie J.

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GSU great Nicholson's prestige grows
Press box at Robinson Stadium named for former SID
June 17, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — As she spoke the words to Grambling State's alma mater, Ophelia Nicholson was moved to tears.

Her husband, former sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, had given 30 years to GSU — and, in so doing, had been largely responsible for its national reputation.

On Friday, the institution recognized his towering contributions by officially renaming the press box at Robinson Stadium in Nicholson's honor. Nicholson, who has experienced health problems in his early 80s, did not attend. But Ophelia and other family members were on hand.

She said Nicholson's abiding passion was promoting and supporting Grambling. "This is the fulfillment of that dream," she said.

She ended her brief acceptance speech with a few words from GSU's school song: "We love thee, dear ole Grambling."

The alma mater was written by former school president R.W.E. Jones, the visionary who hired a young Eddie Robinson to coach the football team and then Nicholson, a former Grambling student, to tell his story.

Nicholson was the Marine Corps' first black correspondent during the war years, a stint so impressive that Jones created the sports information director position for him in 1948.

Nicholson got to work, first by building a grass-roots network of 400 black newspapers nationwide that would carry his Grambling dispatches. He would then drive the 75 miles to Shreveport's Western Union station after every game to wire stories across the U.S.

"He was way ahead of his time in promoting players," said Grambling mayor Martha Andrus, who proclaimed Friday as "Collie J. Nicholson Day." "That resulted in hundreds of players going on to the pros."

The ledger is not limited to the gridiron, however - though, it's worth noting that each of Grambling's Pro Football Hall of Famers played during Nicholson's tenure.

Larry Wright, now the Grambling men's coach, said he would never have been able to make the leap from college to the NBA as a junior in the 1970s without consistent support in the form of press releases by Nicholson.

"He meant," Wright simply said, "everything."

Robinson took to calling Nicholson "the man with the golden pen."

He couldn't be contained by racism, lack of resources or smaller ambitions. Nicholson simply kept knocking until the door finally opened.

That led to a series of contests in Yankee Stadium, the founding of the Bayou Classic — GSU's signature rivalry game against Southern — and a first-of-its-kind trip overseas to play in Japan.

So complete was his dedication that Nicholson learned Japanese so he could conduct those negotiations.

"He made these accomplishments during an era when there were many barriers," current GSU president Horace Judson said. "That's why they rise above accomplishment, to the level of genius. His impact will endure as long as there is a Grambling State University."

Nicholson received the Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association in 1990 and the College Sports Information Directors of America Trailblazer Award in 2002.

But recognition at Grambling took longer. Dr. Joseph Carter from the Shreveport alumni chapter and retired GSU professor Bessie McKinney were two driving forces who had consistently lobbied for this honor.

The measure was finally brought before the University of Louisiana System Board this year, where it was approved earlier this spring.

"It's nice to put closure on this and pay tribute to a great man," said Carter, who wrote a letter on behalf of the chapter to Judson in support of renaming the press box. "We are delighted this was done while the sun still shines on his life and while his family can share in it."

Scores of former teachers, classmates and friends crammed into the meeting room where the rededication was announced — including Ernie Miles, a former Nicholson assistant who later succeeded him as SID.

Miles said Nicholson's savvy leadership style was evident even when the two were children growing up in Winnfield.

"He had a charisma, but even I never knew he'd have such an impact at Grambling," Miles said. "He not only deserves this honor, but the undying respect of every graduate of a black college in this nation."

Several items donated by Ophelia Nicholson — including citations for excellence, a Royal typewriter and, yes, a golden pen — were also unveiled in a trophy case in the lobby of the Support Facility where the temporary Robinson Museum exhibit is now on display.

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Recalling Collie J.
June 16, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling's long-time sports information director, had what one observer today called "readable magnetism."

And how. Nicholson, crafter of many a timeless nickname, was recognized this morning on campus with the rechristening of GSU's press box in his honor.

It's fitting tribute for a guy who was the tailwind that pushed Grambling to the national stage. In an emotional outpouring, folks remembered a few of the legends that Nicholson - now ailing - 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, current Grambling coach Melvin Spears shared a similar thought about defensive end John Mendenhall, a member of our GRAMBLING80 who helped GSU to a league title in 1971."

From reading Collie J.'s stories, I thought John Mendenhall was a giant," Spears said. "Turns out he was really only about 5-10 1/2. Collie J. was just that good."

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More than a game
The 30 years of the Bayou Classic show that early concerns about getting plenty of fans at the game were unfounded.
November 27, 2003

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Back then, even the participants couldn't have imagined how big the Bayou Classic would someday become.

"In 1974, you couldn't see into 2003," said Grambling State coach Doug Williams, a redshirt starting freshman quarterback in the inaugural game. "Playing in the Superdome. Playing for a championship. Playing in front of 75,000. It wasn't like that at that particular time."

Today, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that 200,000 people will visit the Big Easy for the 30th playing of the big game - representing an economic impact of $85 million.

"We just came along at the right time. I tell you, the Lord was in the plan," said Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling State's original sports information director from 1948-78. The Winnfield native and his wife Ophelia make their home in Shreveport.

"It was timing: Coach (Eddie) Robinson was developing all these players for pro football - and we had a marketing plan," Nicholson said. "We didn't know what it was - they didn't call it marketing, back then - but we had a concept."

The anchor for the weekend remains the football game - a 2003 sellout, as Grambling State and Southern fight to represent the Western Division in the Southwestern Athletic Conference's championship in December.

Neck-and-neck in the current standings, the two schools also have fought to a draw in New Orleans.Late in Robinson's long tenure at GSU, Southern began to assemble what would be the Bayou Classic's longest win streak, taking eight in a row in the 1990s. Yet, the all-time record stands at 15-14, with SU now just a game ahead.

A match up so evenly matched can only gather more significance.

But the Bayou Classic is more than Xs and Os. In the three decades since its founding, the game has become a magnet for social events - including a legendary Battle of the Bands and Greek Show, a job fair, elaborate formals, a gospel brunch, countless smaller get-togethers and various sponsored business events.

"The key to this whole thing was Collie J. Nicholson," Williams said. "He had a vision. On the weekend it's played on, with Eddie Robinson and all the great coaches at Southern, it became like a family reunion."

Nicholson - also the creative mind behind successful trips by Grambling State to Yankee Stadium, the Astrodome, Soldier Field and Japan - first presented the idea to GSU President Dr. R.W.E. Jones and Robinson in 1972.

The idea grew out of a trip Nicholson took to New Orleans, where "where he and (Buddy) Young (an assistant to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle) participated in exploratory meetings headed by Dave Dixon - an innovative entrepreneur who almost single-handedly ram-rodded construction of the Superdome," said Andrew Harris, then an associate sports information director for Nicholson.

Jones' counterpart at Southern, G. Leon Netterville, is said to have had initial concerns over filling the cavernous 76,000-seat stadium at Tulane - and suggested a game to gauge fan support be held in Shreveport in 1973.

"We didn't think we'd do that many. We thought it might attract about 50,000," Nicholson said.

In retrospect, the administrators shouldn't have worried. The story goes that, in 1971, an estimated 35,000 stood at Grambling to watch these two schools battle.

So, perhaps inevitably, a sold-out game in northwestern Louisiana was followed by another in New Orleans - where 76,753 fans crammed into Tulane Stadium a year later.

Williams, in 1974, had been warming up to a half-full venue. When he came out of the locker room for the first Bayou Classic, he got his initial glimpse at the burgeoning crowd.

"I looked around and said: `What am I doing here?'" Williams said. "We had 75,000 at a historically black college football game. I was a redshirt freshman, and scared to death. I was blessed to have some veterans around me and Coach Robinson ran a conservative offense that didn't put too much pressure on me."

Grambling State produced the series' only shutout that year, beating Southern 21-0. The Tigers, at 11-1, finished as co-champions of the Southwestern Athletic Conference with Alcorn State. GSU then defeated South Carolina State 28-7 in the Pelican Bowl.

A new tradition was born.

"The Bayou Classic was the brainchild of Nicholson," Harris said, "and the creation of the late Dr. Jones of Grambling and the late Dr. Netterville of Southern."

In 1975, the game found its current home with the completion of the Superdome. Later, with the addition of a national viewing audience through NBC in 1990 and the sponsorship of State Farm in 1996, the Bayou Classic became an even larger cultural event.

"It used to just be the local fans. Now, it's a national thing," said former GSU receiver Sammy White, the game's MVP in 1975. White now coaches receivers at Grambling State.

Quite an accomplishment for a little country school like GSU.

"When Eddie Robinson came to Grambling, people in Lincoln Parish didn't even know where Grambling was," said Nicholson, 82, a former combat correspondent.

"It took a long time to build name recognition for the school, during the time of segregation. We sent stories out all across the country, since blacks often had roots in the South. We did what we did in the Marine Corps - tell the stories of the fighting men back in their hometown," said Nicholson, the still-colorful writer who gave GSU running back/linebacker Paul Younger his eternal calling-card nickname, "Tank."

Largely through Nicholson's advocacy did Younger become the first player from a historically black college to be signed in the NFL. He was also instrumental in promoting Williams to a fourth-place finish for the Heisman Award in 1977 - the highest ever for a Grambling State player.

Tireless efforts like those on behalf of the school laid the groundwork for a game like the Bayou Classic to capture a national audience.

"We had played games in New York at Yankee Stadium - and we sold it out. We had drawn 64,000 in Los Angeles. So, we knew it was there," Nicholson said. He was presented the Bayou Classic Founder's Award before the kickoff of the 1992 playing of the game.

"He used his pen to spread the word," Williams said of Nicholson. "Scheduling it this week played a part, too - with so many families back to visit for Thanksgiving. Then, there's the in-state rivalry. It was a natural."

But, even without television cameras, the Bayou Classic would remain a friendly backyard scrum for Louisiana bragging rights in the SWAC.

"To appreciate the rivalry," Robinson said a few years ago, "you have to realize Grambling and Southern fans are close - friends, as well as relatives. In fact, in the early years, when Southern people came to Grambling for the game, they would stay at my house - because there were no hotels for blacks. They were for Southern, but it didn't make a difference."

Williams - who, like Robinson, is a native of the Baton Rouge area - still returns to visit his mother on the way down to New Orleans each year. And that means the occasional sidewalk smack talk about the game.

"Somebody walked up to me at the gas station and said: `What are you doing down here?'" Williams said, laughing. "My mom lives down here. They think I'm spying! That's how badly everyone wants to win."

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The power of the pen
May 03, 2006

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

But 50 years ago? People thought it meant going to the grocery store. Except for Collie J. Nicholson, the sports information director of tiny Grambling College.

That legacy plays out in recent media coverage of the program.

Ralph Wallace and I talked about it last night on "I-AA Waves," the nationally syndicated online radio program devoted to Division I-AA football.

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.

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

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

He imagined the impossible, then made it real: A game in Yankee Stadium, in Japan, the Bayou Classic.

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 - and Doug Williams into the final list of Heisman Trophy candidates at the end of it.

Today, you'll find Grambling on NBC in a national broadcast of the Bayou Classic that began 12 years after Nicholson ended his 30-year run as SID. That game was the subject last season of just the second ESPN College GameDay broadcast ever from a I-AA game ever.

There have been feature treatments on Grambling's former passer Bruce Eugene by the NFL Network, upcoming features on its rivalry with Southern and Coach Robinson on ESPNU - and, of course, the on-going BET series devoted to the football team and band called "Season of the Tiger."

Collie J., as I told Ralph, wouldn't have it any other way.

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Is he a 'Road Runner' or a `Widowmaker'?
February 23, 2005
One of the final interviews that Collie J. ever gave was a light-hearted look at what Nicholson would have called one current player ...

By Nick Deriso
The only thing missing from Kenneth Pettway's resume is one of those great Grambling State nicknames.

Collie J. Nicholson, GSU's legendary sports information director from 1948-78, penned one for all the legends - from Paul "Tank" Younger to Gary "Big Hands" Johnson.

"They had to have something behind the nicknames," said Nicholson, who still writes about sports from his home in Shreveport.

Pettway, Nicholson agrees, fits the bill. "He should do well up there (at the NFL Combine)," said Nicholson.

Pettway's great straight-line speed might suggest "Road Runner." That quiet intensity? How about "SBD," Silent but Deadly.

His versatility as a two-position all-conference player? May we suggest "Switch Blade"? That propensity for crushing tackles reminds us of "Widowmaker."

"You could always go out and get a nickname," Nicholson finally allows. "But Grambling has tried to give them more than just a nickname; they get an education, too."

Degree in hand, Pettway hopes to school opponents on Sundays now.

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