Bowling Industry Great Len Nicholson
continues our series of Editorial articles with this special tribute to bowling industry great Len Nicholson.
This renaissance man of competitive bowling began his career by steering the PBA into a new era in the 1970's and 1980's by revolutionizing and stabilizing lane conditioning procedures for the elite players in the world. It is appropriate that I share my own additional insight about my dear personal friend and also provide Len's responses to questions I posed to him so, in turn, bowlingball.com
can share with you an inside look at bowling industry great Len Nicholson.
First let's have a look at Len's career progression which has led him to the PBA Hall of Fame. Nicholson’s career was devoted to the science of bowling lane maintenance and for more than 20 years, the Tucson, Ariz., resident was the PBA Tour’s lane maintenance director. Nicholson, 70, has gained worldwide industry recognition as one of the foremost experts on the subject of lane maintenance. Nicholson was instrumental in developing the PBA Lane Maintenance Program in 1971 which is still referred to and utilized by proprietors and event promoters throughout the industry today.
Len was a founding member of the "Bowling Foundation" which was created to finding solutions to scoring issues in bowling. An author of several bowling publications and host of the popular Phantom bowling Internet radio program, he also has served on the technical committee of the World Tenpin Bowling Association. He was a recipient of the bowling industry’s Flowers for the Living Award and the John Davis Award in recognition for his contributions to the sport.
In January of 2011, Len was awarded the highest honor in his profession and that was his induction into the PBA Hall of Fame. Len was inducted for meritorious service to the PBA and to the industry. I can tell you with no uncertain language that Len Nicholson deserves every accolade he has and will receive based on his relentless pursuit of getting the tough work done the right way.
During his tenure in the PBA, Len was placed in controversial situations on many occasions. Len would have to to justify difficult decisions made by the PBA about lane conditions directly to the pro bowlers standing in front of Len and handle their obvious passion and emotional responses and outbursts. Len did so every time calmly and respectfully, and often times knew precisely when to be serious and when to introduce humor to diffuse the players' frustrations.
Len took the heat, stood by each player's side because he always considered their interests above his own, and he always told the truth as he attempted to explain the strategies used for lane conditioning. Len cared more about "his players" than his own neck, than his own job. Not many men could have had the courage to stand tall in the line of fire and take the sometimes verbal lashings by emotional players which happened to be targeted at Len, who represented the PBA establishment.
Len was a man among men. I personally witnessed players punish Len with accusations which turned out completely unfounded because he was willing to take the bullets on behalf of the PBA tournament staff and then, in turn, volunteer to take any amount of time to explain to the same players lane condition strategies and how to overcome them.
Len worked long and hard each night preceding tournament play, perhaps 7 - 8 hours at night, to condition the lanes using old fashioned lane maintenance equipment in comparison to the modern computerized lane machines of today. After this difficult and very physical work, Len would return briefly to his hotel room, shower and change clothes, and head right back to the bowling center with no sleep and watch the squads bowl to make sure the lane oiling patterns produced a fair and equitable overall lane condition. While watching the tournament evolve, Len would stand accountable and available to the players and take the heat when a player or players sounded off to him about the lane conditions and their individual failures to perform.
Because Len and I were friends and fellow Northern Californian's prior to beginning our PBA careers, I often felt Len's work was under-appreciated. Len always had time for the players, for the fans, and to listen and share his knowledge for the betterment of the game. Len's gregarious personality made him larger than life. To this day, I honestly do not know any other person in bowling who has made as many friends as has Len Nicholson. You see folks, he cares about people and about what is right. In my opinion, it has all turned out in the end as was ordained with Len's selection into the PBA Hall of Fame.
Fortunately, I caught up with Len recently and asked him several questions relating to his life and his career. Len's remarks are below: Rich:
Len, you were recently inducted into the PBA Hall of Fame for meritorious service. Tell us what that means to you after reflecting on a long career and encountering a few “bumps in the road” along the way?Len:
It’s an honor that is indescribable. It was something that I never dreamed of in my wildest imagination would ever happen. Not having the skills to become a Professional athlete, this is the next best thing that could have happened to me because I have always loved sports – all sports. I am totally humbled by being selected. Now, every time the words: “Hall of Fame” come up (any Hall of Fame), I get emotional and the hair on my arm stands up.Rich:
Please share a couple of special moments on induction day which you will remember forever.Len:
I was very nervous about it for weeks before the ceremony. During my acceptance speech, I thought I would start crying with every sentence. I had the whole speech written out and practiced, but still managed to miss an entire page. I could feel my eye balls shaking. This was the first time that a person that was involved in Lane Maintenance received such a lofty honor. Many thoughts were racing through my mind. Thoughts of my parents, Eddie Elias, all the bowling centers I had been in, all the miles traveled and a myriad of other thoughts.Rich:
Since you began your Hall of Fame journey as a lane maintenance specialist on the PBA Tour forty years ago, what can you recall as being the greatest challenges in getting the job done the right way for all those years with the PBA?Len:
Challenges? What a great word. From day one, it was a tremendous challenge. Sam Baca and I were in charge of equalizing the lane conditions on Tour. The lefties had enjoyed an advantage for a few years due to some poor lane surfaces. It was our job to develop lane patterns (with oil) and make things “fair”. There were many variables to overcome, with some of those being: hard rubber balls that were being replaced by plastic; soft lacquer lane finishes were being replaced by hard, urethane finishes; a new format was introduced; bigger sponsors were putting up more money for the Pro’s to bowl for which produced more and more pressures on everybody. Then, softer bowling balls were introduced creating a whole new environment. We were also instrumental in developing the Durometer and tested thousands and thousands of balls. The “challenges” were ever changing and still are to this day.Rich:
There were always tough personal times during everyone’s career, what were some of the toughest things you had to deal with on and off the lanes?Len:
“On the lanes” it was always trying to make things “fair”. We knew of the tremendous responsibility that we had. Most all the bowlers on Tour were our friends – back then it was like a BIG, traveling family. It was hard being scrutinized and questioned each and every day. We got more than our share of dirty looks, but we also knew that somebody had to do the lanes and it might as well be someone (us) that really cared. “Off the lanes”, it was tough to be on the road for months at a time, especially if you had a family that was back home. I saw way too many divorces among my friends, including my own.Rich:
Knowing you as well as I do, the Phantom bowling internet radio program is among your treasures. Please tell us about a couple of your favorite guest interviews and why?Len:
Each and every week (now for over 10-years), we interview bowling people from each and every area of our great Sport. In November of 2011, we will be doing our 500th Show and we are really proud of that. It is a good way to promote the Sport and get a variety of opinions. It is NOT a “Shock Jock” type of show, as we don’t want to hurt anybody. Rather, it is a great way to pass along knowledge and information. I think that most everybody is a teacher, in one way or another. As far as Guests are concerned, I think that Larry Lichstein was (is) one of the most popular. Jim Dressel appears quarterly and helps me with current events and what has recently happened in our Sport. We archive all the Shows on our website, at: www.foundation300.com (Look for Past Shows).Rich:
What is the heart of the Bowling Foundation you were a founding member in and where do things stand today with the Foundation?Len:
When I retired from the Tour in 1995, John Davis (Founder of Kegel) asked me to go to work for him. His company was going to be doing the lanes on Tour. He knew bowling but he didn’t know about the variables on Tour. For the first 6-months, all we did was talk about the Tour and lane conditions. Then to promote Kegel, we started an active website to pass along information. We also started a monthly Newsletter. Problems still existed on Tour (and all of bowling). John called together every professional lane person for a meeting to exchange ideas. From that meeting, “A Guild of Lanemen” was formed. We promised to do every major tournament in the world and post the results on our website. In order to do this monumental job, we needed help from bowling companies and people who loved the game. We called the group; “The Foundation” (not to be confused with “The Bowling Foundation – which started later). Then we ran a series of tournaments that were called: “The Foundation Games”. We ended up proving that controlled “formats” and “balls” could produce fair tournaments. The World Ten Pin Association adopted almost all of our ideas and are still successfully using them today.Rich:
Tell us about books you have published and what literary project you are now planning?Len:
I wrote a series of books, called: “Final Phase”. I actually got the idea of writing them from you because you had also done some books. These were more like pamphlets that contained information on how to improve your game. All of the information was from things I had learned on Tour, watching the greatest bowlers in the world perform for so many years. Then after that, John Davis told me that I should write one about the Tour, because (as he said), “People need to know what you know.” So, I wrote one that was called, “The Tour Would Be Great “IF” You Didn’t Have To Bowl.” It contained a lot of stories about several of the players. It was (also) a “labor-of-love”. Notoriously, bowling books don’t sell that well. I was happy to barely break even on those ventures. I am currently working on another book, titled: “My Personal Memories and Story’s of The PBA Hall of Famers”. It will be about one page on each of the 60 inductees. If I do say so myself, there are some very funny things that will be in there.Rich:
In my humble opinion, your greatest area of expertise lies in your knowledge of lane maintenance and conditioning lanes for tournament events. How are the challenges in preparing lanes for large tournament groups forty years ago different from challenges today?Len:
Back in the day, lanes were mostly wood. Wood lanes were re-surfaced and basically had a “track”, which was a “low spot” (depression) that was put into the lane by the resurfacing crew. Bowlers would have to play in that track area in order to get consistent ball reaction. We would go in to a bowling center in advance to check out that specific ball reaction, then design an oil pattern that was conducive to that reaction. Finding the correct amount of oil to use and the proper distance to go was an art. In today’s game there are more synthetic lanes and oil patterns with animal names. It is much more of a science today. The aggressive balls in use today make the job difficult.Rich:
Let me put you on the spot: which PBA players did you most admire during your tenure working with the Tour and why?Len:
I was so fortunate to start out in the 70’s which I call “The Golden Age of the PBA”. There were so many truly great players back then. I guess you can get the book of: “The 50 Greatest PBA Players” and go right down the list. I did have my favorites and they included: Earl Anthony, Mark Roth, Billy Hardwick, Jim Godman, Jim Stefanich, Dick Ritger, Joe Berardi, Butch Gearhart, Dick Weber…….geeze Rich, I could go on and on…….And you know what Rich, I followed you a lot, too. You were so exciting and you always showed a lot of heart. (You were a great roommate, too!)Rich:
If you have any tips for young players today striving for success in tournament bowling, what might they be?Len:
The key word there was: “Success”. I would tell a youngster to read every self-help book he/she could lay their hands on. To make sure that they love the Sport and have a real passion for it. To do what every Superstar in every sport (or business) does and that is to be the first one to practice and the last one to leave. Success is not easy. Success takes hard work – working on the right things.
It has been my pleasure to know Len well for more than 40 years, on and off the lanes. If I have to sum up how I feel about Len, it would be to say that what ever he might need, I will be there to stand with him - any time, any place and any where. Long live bowling industry great Len Nicholson.
Len Nicholson asked me to express his appreciation to our community visitors for taking valuable time in reading this article and he hopes for and wishes each of you much success. Everyone at bowlingball.com
wishes you the same.