By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
New Nicholson Bio Underscores The Legend Of GSU’s “Collie J”
NOTE: BASN continues to celebrate the life of Grambling’s legendary head football coach Eddie Robinson. Today, we look back at one of his closest friends, the Tigers’ late SID Collie J. Nicholson.
GRAMBLING, La.– Much of writer Michael Hurd’s new book on Collie J. Nicholson was not so much retelling history — but uncovering it in the first place.
The late former Grambling sports information director’s life was one lived large, but also largely in the shadows of that pre-Civil Rights era.
Even the best-known details of his life, retold in the just-published 240-page biography “Collie J,” had to be confirmed before they could be chronicled, not always an easy process.
Take Nicholson’s service to the U.S. Marine Corps as its original black World War II combat correspondent, a stint the Winnfield native served before beginning his career in 1948 at GSU.
Part of the local Grambling lore, even this tidbit took some time to verify.
“Ironically, the Marine Corps had nothing on him. I called historians at the Library of Congress; there was nothing there, either,” Hurd said. “Combat correspondents have an association, though, and they confirmed that, yes, he was the first. They had honored him, but otherwise there wasn’t a whole lot out there.” Hurd became ever more convinced of his premise: To honor an unsung hero in the Grambling legend.
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, GSU had established a far-flung reputation far beyond its humble and distinctly rural beginnings.
Perhaps his best-known innovation over his three decades at the school was the “classic” game concept, where Grambling traveled with its marching band to major metropolitan areas — including a groundbreaking game at Yankee Stadium, trips to Hawaii and Japan and the Bayou Classic, an on-going rivalry event played against Southern in New Orleans.
Nicholson, while working tirelessly for Grambling, had helped push black college football in the American consciousness.
That led Hurd, who first met Nicholson while covering Texas Southern for the now-defunct Houston Post, to contact him for his seminal publication, “Black College Football, 1892-1992: One Hundred Years of History, Education and Pride.” “He was one of my biggest supporters on that book,” Hurd said. “I would bounce ideas off him; he knew that history. I drew a lot from those conversations.” Hurd quickly discovered a growing admiration for the job Nicholson did, and for the man himself.
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.
After the Grambling brand became better known, Nicholson then set about promoting those neutral-site games.
Hurd says much of that success came because of the unique working relationship Nicholson had with second GSU president R.W.E. “Prez” Jones and former football coach Eddie Robinson.
“I can’t imagine a more harmonious situation between a coach, a president and the sports information director,” Hurd said. “They all respected each others area of expertise. I feel safe in saying there will never be a relationship like that again.” There were scores of individual triumphs that couldn’t have happened without Nicholson’s sweeping vision, too.
In his first years at Grambling, 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.
“There is just no way that he should have been able to accomplish what he did during the era he did all that for Grambling,” Hurd said. “It’s a testament to the chemistry he had with ‘Prez’ and Eddie — and probably even more of a testament to the visionary person that he was.” By the time Hurd finally got the green-light to more deeply explore Nicholson’s own story for a long-awaited biography, however, Nicholson had begun suffering from a series of age-related illnesses.
When he succumbed last September, Nicholson only had the energy for a handful of conversations with Hurd.
That meant he’d also come to rely on a series of interviews with people who knew Nicholson best over the years, including former Grambling quarterbacks James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams, Hurd said.
“I talked at length with ‘Tank’ about a year before he passed away,” Hurd said. “He gave me a lot of insight, too. Those were the ways I was able to make up for not getting more done while Collie able to.” Of course, the talk centered on Nicholson’s storied accomplishments, but Hurd noticed how reticent his subject often was when it came to accepting accolades.
Hurd admits that might have caused Nicholson to question his book’s subtitle: “Grambling’s Man With the Golden Pen.” Robinson, the winningest coach in Division I history, often used that nickname for Nicholson — and it stuck.
“Whenever people would refer to him like that, you could almost see him cringe,” Hurd said. “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.’” Still, the awards never stopped coming.
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.
The University of Louisiana System Board, which oversees GSU, approved a plan to rename the Robinson Stadium press box on campus after Nicholson in May 2006, just months before his passing at age 85.
His old typewriter has been placed inside a special display in Nicholson’s honor at the stadium support facility.
“His attitude was always that he had a job to do and he was going to do it,” Hurd said. “You look back, though and he really did it — and he really did it well.”