Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Remembering: Collie J.

In honor of this week's Bayou Classic, here are some more recent pieces about longtime Grambling sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, a friend and hero:

His sweeping influence
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

By Nick Deriso,

Framing the late Collie J. Nicholson's legacy within the context of Grambling is fitting, but it sells short his sweeping influence.

Without Nicholson, it's true, much of Grambling's nomenclature wouldn't exist - the nicknames, the classics, so on. But there are larger lessons, moments of towering leadership, inside these stories.

For 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, then, was twofold: In telling the story of Eddie Robinson, and his players, a case was made for African-Americans ballplayers everywhere.

That's his true contribution, and it can't be contained within a simple telling of Grambling's history. Without Collie J., everything is different.

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Nicholson dead, put GSU on map

Thursday, September 14, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
GRAMBLING — Former Grambling State University sports information director Collie J. Nicholson, credited as the brains behind the Bayou Classic, has died at 85.

Nicholson battled a series of age-related illnesses throughout his early 80s, finally succumbing at 7:08 a.m. Wednesday morning at his Shreveport home. His wife Ophelia, daughter and son surrounded him.

"Grambling lost a great soldier today," said Doug Williams, a former player and coach at GSU. "Flags should fly at half mast on campus for Collie J. The reputation that school has across the nation is all because of him."

During a 30-year career that began in 1948 at Grambling, Nicholson played a key role in many of its signature high points in sports — most notably the creation of the neutral-site rivalry game against Southern University at the Superdome in New Orleans.

He also helped establish the early careers of several future professional players, from Paul "Tank" Younger (the first black to sign a football contract in the 1940s) to Williams and Larry Wright (first-round draft picks by the NFL and NBA, respectively, in the 1970s).

"I feel quite sure that I never would have been chosen that high, if not for Collie J.," said Wright, who later returned to coach men's basketball at GSU. "This is a great, great loss for Grambling."

Nicholson's flair for promotion helped spawn celebrated football games at Yankee Stadium in the 1960s and in Hawaii and Japan in the 1970s. And by the time Nicholson retired in 1978, Grambling had played football in 27 of the 50 states, he once said.

A television program featuring team highlights, with comments from legendary former football coach Eddie Robinson, aired on 90 stations across the nation. Stories about Grambling athletics regularly ran in hundreds of newspapers.

Nicholson was widely recognized late in his life for those historic marketing breakthroughs, all accomplished in the days before facsimile, modem and cable.

The NCAA and College Sports Information Directors of America twice named his press guides as best in the nation, part of a string of 13 national awards Nicholson garnered.

A member of the Grambling Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the Southwestern Athletic Conference hall and received CoSIDA's Trailblazer Award in 2002. The Louisiana Sports Writers Association honored Nicholson with its Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism in 1990.

More recently, the University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees GSU, approved a plan in May to rename the Robinson Stadium press box on campus after Nicholson. He was too ill to attend the subsequent ceremonies, held in June.

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'Collie J.' remembered for lifting Grambling’s programs, players

Thursday, September 14, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
GRAMBLING — Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling's first sports information director, wrote GSU right into the national consciousness.

And he did it with nothing more than a battered typewriter and a big heart.

"Collie was the catalyst that put Grambling in the consciousness of America," said Douglas Porter, a former GSU assistant football coach. "His perseverance in promoting the team and the band across the country meant that eventually everywhere you went, people were aware of Grambling. And that's to his credit."

The 85-year-old Nicholson, who served as SID for 30 years through 1978, succumbed to a series of age-related illnesses on Wednesday morning at his Shreveport home.

But not before forging an identity for this country college, and shaping the careers of countless young student athletes with his flair for descriptive writing.

"When people think of Grambling, they think of (legendary former football coach) Eddie Robinson, and rightfully so. But the one who taught people about him was Collie J.," said Doug Williams, a former GSU quarterback and football coach. "He's the reason all of America knows about all that we did."

That no one had ever heard of marketing in the 1940s, well, that never stopped Nicholson — who had an unbendable optimism. When he was done, Grambling had established a far-flung reputation far beyond its humble and distinctly rural beginnings.

"We just came along at the right time. I tell you, the Lord was in the plan," Nicholson once said. "It was timing: Coach Robinson was developing all these players for pro football — and we had a marketing plan. We didn't know what it was — they didn't call it marketing, back then — but we had a concept."

Nicholson, the Marine Corps' first black correspondent during World War II, had been hired on the spot in 1948 by former Grambling president R.W.E. Jones during a chance meeting on campus. That proved to be an inspired choice.

Nicholson began building momentum by sending stories to a widespread national network of black newspapers, eventually contributing regularly to more than 400 of them. In those primitive times, he would type up dispatches and then drive 75 miles to the Western Union station in Shreveport to wire them out.

"When we wanted something to happen, we had to do it for ourselves," Nicholson once said. "Black college football and Grambling had to stick up for itself."

After the Grambling brand became better known, Nicholson then set about promoting a series of neutral-site games — eventually dubbed "classics" — to be played in large American cities against other historically black football programs.

Sold-out games followed in the late 1960s at Yankee Stadium and then later at Giants Stadium. The initial event, in 1968 against Morgan State, drew 64,000 fans.

Later, he negotiated deals that saw Grambling play in Hawaii and Japan — becoming the first American college program to play overseas — and also helped found the Bayou Classic, an in-state rivalry game against Southern played at the Superdome in New Orleans.

"There were naysayers when it came to neutral-site games," said Porter, who made that groundbreaking marketing trip to New York with Nicholson in the segregated 1960s. "But he was so positive. There was a never a shadow of a doubt. He had a tremendous amount of confidence — in himself, and in Grambling."

Much of Nicholson's — and Grambling's — legend was built around football. But Nicholson worked just as hard at promoting other sports, making household names out of talents like Willis Reed and Larry Wright on the basketball court, as well as slugger Ralph Garr and sprinter Stone Johnson, among others.

"He believed in all of the programs," said former baseball coach Wilbert Ellis, who worked with Nicholson for two decades at GSU. "He just loved Grambling. It's a great loss not just for Grambling, but for the entire sports world."

More personal marketing triumphs bookended his career at Grambling.

In Nicholson's first years at the school, he was instrumental in pushing Paul "Tank" Younger into the NFL, ensuring that Younger became the first black college player to sign a pro contract.
Nicholson's tireless promotion also lifted Williams to a fourth-place finish in the 1977 Heisman Trophy voting and to first-team honors on the Associated Press All-America team, both firsts among black colleges.

"To be mentioned for the Heisman?" Williams said, still a bit incredulous. "That was all Collie J. When he told me he was going to put me up, I though that was as funny as Bugs Bunny. It was the highest a player from a black school had ever finished. That's never going to happen again."

Nicholson's legacy continued to play out in ways both large and small.

He never stopped writing about sports. This was, after all, a man so dedicated to his craft that he actually learned Japanese while negotiating the Toyko game.

Years after retiring from Grambling, he was still working as a freelancer — and oftentimes for the same newspapers he'd once cold-called in the 1940s.

Known for his flair with the pen, Nicholson conjured dozens of nicknames that stuck forever — from Paul "Tank" Younger and Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd to Gary "Big Hands" Johnson and Ernest "Monster" Sterling.

"He described players in such a way that it captured the imagination," Porter said. "He had a way of attaching a name that fit the player. And he told their stories just as well. A lot of them never would have gotten a chance to play if not for Collie."

He earned national recognition 13 times during his time at Grambling for press guides. And, even in the end, awards continued to line his mantel.

The Louisiana Sports Writers Association gave Nicholson its Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism in 1990. The College Sports Information Directors of America followed with its Trailblazer Award 12 years later, even as Nicholson was inducted into the Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame.

Nicholson remained humble, framing his legacy in simple terms.

"I would like to be remembered as someone who tried to find a way to fit the Grambling program into the general marketplace," he said. "I've tried my best to do that."

Finally, just last May, the University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees GSU, approved a plan to rename the Robinson Stadium press box on campus after Nicholson.

His old typewriter was placed inside a special display at the Robinson Stadium Support Facility.
Friends and family hailed the honor, saying it will stand forever as a reminder of all that he'd accomplished.

By then, however, Nicholson's health was failing and he could not attend.

"He made Coach a household name," Porter said. "He had a gift for putting together words. That gift was to Grambling's great benefit. Without Collie J. Nicholson, such a great many things would not have been."

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GSU family still honoring Nicholson

Monday, September 18, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
HOUSTON — Saturday's Grambling State game turned into a tribute to the school's first sports information director.

Santoria Black presented an extended tribute to Collie J. Nicholson, who passed away on Wednesday, as part of halftime on the GSU radio broadcast.

Grambling product James "Shack" Harris also fondly recalled Nicholson's unique marketing genius while scouting seniors as the general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, even while Nicholson's son Jim was visiting with the team on the sidelines. His initials, CJN, were affixed to the back of the team's helmets.

"He's an icon and a legend," said Grambling offensive coordinator Sammy White, who played at GSU during the latter part of Nicholson's 30-year tenure, which lasted from 1948-78. "He had a passion — and that opened so many doors for me."

Nicholson is credited with establishing the Grambling name nationwide through neutral-site games in larger American markets — including the Bayou Classic in New Orleans against Southern. He was also the brains behind two trips to Japan, where GSU became the first college program to play overseas.

"He put Grambling on the map," said longtime GSU trainer Eugene "Doc" Harvey. "He had ideas long before his time. I was fortunate to be a part of that, and I got a chance to see the world."
Funeral arrangements for Nicholson were completed over the weekend.

A public viewing is scheduled for 1-6 p.m. Tuesday at Winnfield Funeral Home, 3701 Hollywood Ave. in Shreveport. Nicholson's funeral is at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Matthew A.M.E. Church, 1610 Murphy St. in Shreveport. Military burial follows at Forest Park Cemetery.

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Williams: Nicholson 'made Grambling what it is'

Thursday, September 21, 2006

By Nick Deriso,
SHREVEPORT — Collie J. Nicholson, Grambling State University's first sports information director, was given a hero's sendoff during his funeral Wednesday morning.

Family and friends spoke passionately for nearly three hours at St. Matthew A.M.E. Church in tribute to the man who made Coach Eddie Robinson's program — and black college football — internationally famous.

Nicholson died last week at his Shreveport home after a lengthy illness. He was 85.

"We as players tried to live up to Collie J. Nicholson's words," said former Grambling quarterback James Harris, now an NFL executive. "He'll probably never get the credit that he deserves. But I think I speak for the thousands of players when I say: We always knew what he meant to Grambling."

A military funeral followed at Forest Park West Cemetery, with ex-players Harris, Doug Williams and Steve Dennis, among others, serving as pallbearers. Honorary pallbearers included Robinson, football and wrestling star Ernie Ladd, boxing promoter Don King and Negro League baseball legend Buck O'Neal.

"I could talk about all of his accomplishments, but the proof is in the pudding," Williams said. "Collie J. made Grambling what it is."

Born July 7, 1921, in Winnfield, Nicholson served in the U.S. Marine Corps as its original black World War II combat correspondent before beginning his career in 1948 as GSU's first sports information director.

Nicholson's innovations over the following three decades at Grambling included the "classic" game concept, where Grambling traveled with its marching band to major cities — including groundbreaking events at Yankee Stadium; trips to Hawaii and Japan; and the Bayou Classic, an on-going rivalry played against Southern in New Orleans.

"He isn't here with us today, but his legend — his legend lives on," said longtime Shreveport newspaperman Andrew Harris, as he fought back emotion. Harris got his start writing as an assistant sports information director under Nicholson.

Other speakers included Joseph Carter, who as president of the Shreveport chapter of the Grambling University National Alumni Association pushed forward a resolution to christen the press box at Robinson Stadium in Nicholson's honor. Naming ceremonies were held in June of this year.

"It didn't happen until he was in his twilight," Carter said, "but at least it came before the sunset."

Members of Nicholson's family in attendance included his wife, Ophelia; son Jim Nicholson and his wife, Donna, of Houston; and daughter Shirley Rhodes of Shreveport; as well as two grandsons and a great-grandson.

"He loved Ophelia," Jim Nicholson said, as he detailed his father's more personal side. "It was like MasterCard; he never left home without her."

Jim Nicholson spent the service with his arm around Doris Robinson, wife of the ailing former coach. Eddie Robinson was too ill to attend.

Grambling president Horace Judson was on hand, as were former presidents Steve Favors and Harold Lundy. Wilbert Ellis, the school's second baseball coach and longtime administrator, sat in a crowd dotted with longtime GSU staff members, including Bessie McKinney and Ruby Higgins.

Former Robinson assistant coaches Melvin Lee and Doug Porter were joined by most of the current staff under coach Melvin Spears. Larry Pannell, director of the Tiger Marching Band, played clarinet as part of the GSU Faculty Ensemble, which performed throughout the services.
National writers paying tribute included Jerry Izenberg of The (N.J.) Star-Ledger and Michael Hurd, a 10-year staffer at USA Today.

Hurd, a collaborator with Nicholson on the reference book "Black College Football, 1892-1992," was at work on a biography at the time of Nicholson's death. Hurd said the book is due later this year.

"We'll always remember what he stands for, and I mean 'stands for'— not stood for," said Izenberg, who met and befriended Nicholson while on assignment to write his first story about Grambling in 1963. "We will all carry Collie J. Nicholson in our minds when we leave here."

After retiring from Grambling in 1978, Nicholson founded a successful public relations firm, while continuing to work as a freelance sports writer. He also handled publicity for both the Southwestern Athletic Conference and with Don King Enterprises over the years.

June's renaming of the Robinson Stadium press box became the final honor in a life filled with them. Nicholson received the Louisiana Sports Writers Association's distinguished service award in 1990, the Bayou Classic Founders Award in 1992 and the College Sports Information Directors of America's Trailblazer Award in 2002.

He was inducted into the SWAC Hall of Fame in 2002, as well.

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