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Grambling to name press box in honor of Collie Nicholson

May 8, 2006

By Nick Deriso

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

News-Star photo
Collie J. Nicholson

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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