Niblack was a pioneer and a crusader

It was a casket of purple, the color of kings, that took Jim Niblack’s earthly remains to their final resting place Thursday, and what better place to send him off than the Gainesville High School gymnasium, the place Niblack dubbed “The Purple Palace” back in the 1960s. This was a coach’s funeral, held in one of those places that coaches hold dear to the heart. In his nearly 77 years on this earth, the three places Jim Niblack liked best were football fields, the weight room that bears his name at GHS and “The Purple Palace.”

Football was the vehicle that expanded his horizons and took him all over the world. He coached college football at the University of Florida and the University of Kentucky. He coached in every pro league you can think of, from the World Football League to the USFL to the Arena Football League to the Canadian Football League to NFL Europe and the National Football League. If there was football to be coached, Niblack was there to coach it.

Yet for all the coaching gigs that took him to the highest levels of football, the place he loved best is the place where he first discovered football and that is Gainesville High School. He played at GHS. He was an assistant coach at GHS. He became the bigger than life head coach at GHS. Because of the things he did at GHS, his impact on the Gainesville community is immeasurable.

Jim Niblack’s body was buried Thursday afternoon. You can bury a body but legacies go on for a long, long time. Five decades of turning boys into men is just the starting point for Jim Niblack’s legacy.

“Look around and what do you see?” asked Perry McGriff, the former Florida football and baseball star that was an All-American football player at Gainesville High. McGriff didn’t play for Niblack but his sons did. McGriff, who has long had his fingers on both local and state political power in this area, has a deep appreciation Niblack’s lasting contributions to the school, the Gainesville community, the state of Florida and beyond.

“You see doctors, lawyers, judges … lots of successful people that were boys that Jim Niblack transformed into men.”

The winning football teams and the success stories of the men he coached are only a part of the Niblack legacy. Probably his greatest contribution — the one that is felt every day in Gainesville and beyond — is the contribution he made to race relations during the troubled times of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Gainesville has a long standing reputation for racial tolerance. Thanks in part to the University of Florida, where students from more than 120 nations worldwide come to study, the city has a melting pot image. That wasn’t always the case, however. In the post Civil Rights Act years, Gainesville hovered around the boiling point, first when lily white Gainesville High School accepted its first black students and then when the local politicians shut down all-black Lincoln High School in favor of two new schools, Eastside and Buchholz. During these troubled times, Niblack became the leader by example. He was a football coach, but he was more than that.

“Incalculable,” is how McGriff describes Niblack’s impact on race relations in both Gainesville and the state of Florida during those times. “He opened the doors for so many others and showed that whites and blacks could get along. Because Jim Niblack saw what’s in the heart, he never saw color. He took on some very difficult situations and he made it work because of his character.”

During the 1966 season when Gainesville High School was breaking new ground as the first formerly all-white high school in the south with a black quarterback, the FBI was kept busy following up on the constant stream of death threats to the GHS coach from pro-segregationist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Jim Niblack was shadowed by FBI agents for weeks at a time. His mail box was jammed with hate mail. The nicer letters simply called him a “N … lover.” The not so nice ones described in detail how Niblack and Eddie McAshan were going to be taken out.

Eddie McAshan was the quarterback, a marvelous athlete who would go on to make Parade All-America in both football and basketball. Angry whites who felt they were being dragged kicking and screaming out of their segregationist cocoons saw McAshan as the anti-Christ. He wasn’t just a great football player. He was a great QUARTERBACK and he was black and that made him the symbol of everything that was wrong to your everyday bigot.

There was also some pressure from the local black community although it paled in comparison to the threats from the KKK and other white rights groups. In the pre-Eastside, pre-Buchholz days, there was Gainesville High, PK Yonge and all-black Lincoln. For all its history as a state football power, Gainesville High School wasn’t the only traditionally strong football team in the city. Lincoln, coached by Jesse Heard, was a big time football school, too, and there were those in the local black community that thought Eddie McAshan had turned his back on his own people by choosing to go to GHS.

Neither Niblack or McAshan ever saw themselves as crusaders or pioneers, but that’s what they were. Eddie just wanted to play ball and he felt his best chance to succeed was at GHS. Niblack was a former Marine drill sergeant with a deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong. There was right. There was wrong. He got that from his mama, Bertie Niblack, and from the coach that had intervened at a critical time in his life, Tiny Talbot. If not for Talbot, Jim Niblack may have never even finished high school. Talbot stepped in at a critical time, coached Jim up in the game of football and the game of life, and set him on a course that changed Gainesville forever.

McAshan’s first year at GHS was the worst. The threats were constant in those days but if Niblack was even the slightest bit scared or intimidated, he never showed it.

“One day Coach asked me why I never stood close to him on the sidelines,” eulogized Wesley Dicks at Niblack’s funeral Thursday afternoon. Dicks was Niblack’s defensive coordinator for years and when Niblack went straight from coaching high school football to the Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League in 1973, Dicks became the head coach at GHS. “I told him I was making sure they didn’t get both of us with one shot!”

Niblack did indeed put himself in harm’s way that year. That a white man would stand up for a 15-year-old black kid was a message that there could be fairness, that we could all get along if we only stood up for what’s right even in difficult circumstances.

Eddie McAshan would throw 61 touchdown passes in his GHS career and run for 25 more. In basketball, he averaged an astonishing 22 rebounds per game and hit a game-winning 40-foot shot at the buzzer in overtime to lead GHS to a 54-52 win over Tampa Hillsborough in the state championship game. McAshan saw the ball go through the net and then fainted at mid-court.

“You know, at first I thought someone had shot him,” Niblack would tell me years later. “I thought about all those threats his sophomore year. I saw him fall down and that’s the first thing that I thought.”

McAshan was fine in a couple of minutes. Niblack was there at mid-court along with doctors when he opened his eyes. Maybe it was all the emotion of those three years that reached a head at that moment, causing him to faint. I don’t know why he fainted. I do know that when he opened his eyes and saw Niblack standing over him, Eddie McAshan knew everything was okay. If there had been a bullet and if he could have taken it, Niblack would have once again stood in harm’s way for Eddie McAshan and wouldn’t have had to think about it. He would have just done it. That was the Niblack way.

When politics closed down Lincoln High School after the 1970 school year, there was a year when everyone from both schools poured into already overcrowded GHS while the two new schools were being built. Lincoln had its own teams, its own band, its own history. So did GHS. Now they were forced on each other. The tension almost got to a boiling point.

Again, it was Niblack that took the lead role as a difference maker. He as more than just the football coach, more than just the athletic director. He was the leader by example, proving once again that competition can be such a great equalizer.

“With Jim it didn’t matter what color you were, what side of the tracks you were from, whether you were rich or poor or who your parents were,” said Dan Boyd, the Alachua County Superintendent of Schools, who was in his first year as the principal at GHS that 1970-71 school year. “The kids saw that if you worked harder than anyone else and you were the best at your position, you would be on the playing field. All the kids wanted was fairness and Jim Niblack made sure there was fairness.”

At a time when schools all over Florida and throughout the south were divided, a time when blacks and whites were at each other’s throats, a big man with a soft heart for kids made a permanent impression on the racial attitudes in Gainesville. When it worked in Gainesville, it had a domino effect throughout the state, faster in some areas, slow in others. But the Gainesville example was living proof that we could all get along.

“You can’t measure the impact he had,” said McGriff. “We have a community where people get along no matter their race or background. Coach Niblack had so much to do with making that possible.”

Jim Niblack never thought he did anything special. He didn’t think it’s anything special to do the right thing. He believed you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. His legacy of doing the right thing will live longer than the memory of the purple casket that sent him to his final resting place.

Purple. The color of kings and royalty. The color of the Purple Hurricanes. The right color for a king of a man who made this a better place to live.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.