EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Former Michigan State All-American offensive lineman Don Coleman, who helped the Spartans to the 1951 National Championship, died Monday, Jan. 30. He was 88.
A three-year letterwinner (1949-51) under Clarence "Biggie" Munn, Coleman helped guide MSU to a 9-0 record in 1951, winning the Spartans' first national championship on the gridiron. Coleman was MSU's first unanimous All-American as a senior in 1951 as picked by the Associated Press, United Press, Collier's, Look, The Sporting News, New York News, Football News, Newspaper Enterprise Association, All-American Board, International News Service, Chicago Tribune Players and Central Press. During Coleman's three seasons on varsity, he helped the Spartans to a 23-4 record, including 15 of the school-record 28 straight victories.
Although just 185 pounds, Coleman used his quickness and technique to become a devastating blocker. The squad's Governor Award winner (team MVP) in 1951, he finished runner-up to Jim Weatherall of Oklahoma in the voting for the Outland Trophy. Known as the "60-minute man," Coleman stood out on defense and special teams. Against Penn State, he made every tackle on MSU's kickoffs and punts. Against Michigan, he made eight key blocks which enabled teammates to go for long gains.
Coleman became the first Spartan player ever to have his jersey retired (No. 78) and was called by Munn "the finest lineman ever to play for Michigan State." He was chosen to the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame in 1975 and was a member of MSU's Centennial Super Squad (Pre-Big Ten) as chosen by the Lansing State Journal in August of 1996. He was the first player named to Notre Dame's All-Opponent Team three straight years.
"Don Coleman was truly one of the great Spartans," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "He was a consensus All-American in 1951, helped the Spartans win the National Championship, and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Not only was Don a pioneer on the field, but off the field as well. He was a veteran who served his country in Korea, then came back home for a lifetime of helping others in working with the Flint and Michigan State communities. We send our condolences to the Coleman family. We're extremely proud of everything Don was able to accomplish in his incredible life."
Born on May 4, 1928 in Ponca City, Oklahoma, Coleman later moved with his family from Oklahoma to Flint, Michigan, just before he entered his freshman year of high school. He went on to become a standout swimmer and a trumpeter at Flint Central High School, not playing football until his senior year, when he helped Flint Central win the state championship. His goal was to work at one of the auto factories. He might have reached that goal had it not been for two key people who reached out to him -- Florence Riddell, an assistant principal at Flint Central, and Duffy Daugherty, an assistant coach at Michigan State at the time, who later became the Spartans' head coach for 19 seasons. Riddell mentored Coleman and pointed him in the right direction at Flint Central, and the two became friends. Daugherty was the offensive line coach at Michigan State, and recruited Coleman to MSU.
Coleman was inducted as a charter member of the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1992 and is also a member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
Off the field, Coleman had perhaps an even greater impact. He opened enough doors and eyes with a tireless work ethic to earn three academic degrees, an NCAA Silver Anniversary Top Ten award and countless citations for efforts after football, including his work for Korean orphanages and Michigan hospitals.
Coleman graduated from Michigan State with a bachelor's degree in health, physical education and recreation in 1952, and he also earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in 1956 and 1971.
Coleman played in three college all-star games (Hula Bowl, East-West Shrine Game, College All-Star Game in Chicago) and was drafted in the eighth round of the 1952 NFL Draft by the Chicago Cardinals. He left his professional football career, however, and joined the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. He adopted an orphanage while serving in Korea and helped acquire enough clothes for the orphanage through working with the city of Flint.
After leaving the Army in 1954, Coleman started a distinguished career in education, serving several roles in the Flint school system until 1968, including junior and senior high school teacher, counselor, community school director and elementary principal. He joined the MSU faculty in 1968 as an assistant professor in intercollegiate athletics. He served as an assistant coach for one season (1968) on Daugherty's staff.
In 1969, Coleman was named assistant director of student affairs, as well as being named director of the Minority Comprehensive Support Program of the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1974. Coleman was named an assistant dean of the Michigan State University graduate school in 1978 and was a professor in MSU's College of Osteopathic Medicine. He also served as the first executive director of the Black Child and Family Institute in Lansing, vice chair of the Michigan Department of Public Health Task Force on Minority Health Affairs, a trustee of the Michigan Capital Medical Center, and a board member for the Ingham Medical Center. Health issues forced Coleman to retire in 1992.
Details on funeral arrangements will be sent out at a later date.
Contributions from features on Don Coleman written by Larry Watts, Contributor BigTen.org, and longtime Michigan State beat writer and columnist Jack Ebling.