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Collie J.: Grambling’s Man With The Golden Pen
By Tony McClean
Updated: August 1, 2007
NEW HAVEN, Ct. – When one looks at the long and storied history of black college football, inevitably the conversation turns to a relatively small school out of Louisiana. What Notre Dame means to many Catholic football fans, Grambling State University is to HBCU football followers.
For many years, the Tigers under legendary head coach Eddie Robinson would match the Fighting Irish on and off the field as being the elite of college football. While “Coach Rob” and longtime school president Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones played major roles in that recognition, one man was behind the scenes of putting Grambling on the map.
To call Collie J. Nicholson just the Tigers’ longtime sports information director wouldn’t give him justice. In many ways, Collie J., as he was commonly known, he was a man that was way ahead of his time. He looked beyond the prejudice he faced in his life and is remembered as one of the most innovative promoters of his and any era.
In his new book, “Collie J: Grambling’s Man With The Golden Pen”, author Michael Hurd tells the story of a man brought the art of promotion to a traditionally black school in northern Louisiana long before many other colleges (black or white) even thought of it.
Nicholson briefly attended Grambling before serving in the Marine Corps in World War II. He ended up working at Grambling shortly after the war because President Jones convinced him to take a newly created position of sports information director. It was a job he would retire from more than 30 years later.
“When Collie served in the Marine Corps, he was was the only Black Marine Corps Combat Correspondent during World War II”, said Hurd. “His stories were sent to the headquarters of the Marine Corps where they were reviewed and released to the Associated Negro Press.”
“He would use those relationships he garnered over the years to help promote Grambling to not just the Black press, but to the White press as well.” Nicholson also promoted Paul “Tank” Younger after he scored a then-record 60 career college touchdowns in the 1940s.
Among Nicholson’s many innovations was the “classic” game, in which Grambling traveled with its marching band to major American cities. To orchestrate one such game at Yankee Stadium in the 1960s, Nicholson had to sell the concept to the Urban League and the Yankees, remembered Doug Porter, an assistant coach at Grambling for nine years.
“They weren’t too excited about the idea,” Porter said. “But Collie was so confident they had to be. He told them, ‘You may not have confidence in your organization, but I have all the confidence in the world in Grambling and its ability to be a success.’ ”
Though Grambling would suffer a rare loss (7-6 to Morgan State), the “Urban League Classic” was a sellout and spawned a longtime friendship between Nicholson, Robinson and the Yankee organization.
Nicholson and Robinson also established the Bayou Classic rivalry game against Southern University, which remains a tradition and a moneymaker for both schools. The game is now shown on NBC TV every Thanksgiving weekend.
“When you talk about Grambling athletics, most people say Coach Rob,” said ex-Grambling and NFL quarterback Doug Williams. “But we all know, especially those that went to Grambling back in the day, that you should say Eddie and Collie. They were the ones that put it out there for the world to see.”
Nicholson also took Grambling football international, arranging two games in Japan in the late 1970s. “Here I was a kid from little old Zachary playing in Japan, Hawaii, Washington D.C.,” Williams said. “And it was all because of Collie’s mighty pen.”
Nicholson’s promotion also helped 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, at the time both firsts among black colleges.
Hurd added that despite his huge success, Nicholson was incredibly humble about his many accomplishments. In fact, Hurd says that Collie J. was at times embarrassed about his colorful moniker as “the man with the golden pen”, which was given to him by Coach Robinson.
“I don’t think any school has ever been or ever will have the chemistry like the kind Collie J, Coach Rob, and (Prez) Jones had during the glory days of Grambling”, Hurd said. “When you talk about the success they achieved, you have to talk about all three of those guys in the same breath.”
“But Nicholson was the promoter,” said longtime HBCU sportscaster Mel Swann. “He went all over the country promoting the school. He got sponsors like Oldsmobile and a lot of the big companies involved. He was the man who got the Grambling legacy started.”
Howie Evans, veteran sports editor of the New York Amsterdam News, said, “Collie used his marketing skills to move Grambling and other Black college football programs from the boondocks to big city stadiums, big crowds, big paychecks, television and corporate respect.”
In penning Nicholson’s story, who passed away in 2006, Hurd gives a great insight on the history of Grambling’s dynasty and the times surrounding it. It’s not only a sports story, but a story about the perseverance of a driven individual.
NOTE: The Associated Press contributed to this story.