Don Edwin Coleman (May 4, 1928 – January 30, 2017) was an American football player. Coleman played high school football at Flint Central High School and college football at Michigan State University. He was a unanimous All-American in 1951, the first African American All-American football player at Michigan State, and the first Michigan State player to have his jersey number retired by the school. In 1968, he also became the first African-American to serve on the coaching staff at Michigan State. Coleman was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1975.
Born in Oklahoma, Coleman moved with his family to Flint, Michigan before his freshman year in high school. Coleman did not play football until his senior year at Flint Central High School. Two of Coleman’s older brothers had died in their youth, one from drowning and the other from pneumonia. Coleman’s mother did not want her youngest son to be injured playing football. Accordingly, Coleman played No.1 trumpet in the high school band and competed in swimming for three years. When Flint Central had a swim meet with Royal Oak High School, the Royal Oak coach “made it known Coleman would not be allowed to swim because a black swimmer had never been in their pool.” Flint Central swim coach, Bob Richardson, stood behind Coleman and told the Royal Oak coach that, “if Don Coleman couldn’t swim, then the rest of the Flint Central team would not swim.” Coleman became the first black swimmer to enter Royal Oak’s pool.
As a senior in 1947, Coleman’s mother finally agreed to allow her son to play football. In his first year of football, he was selected as an all-state guard and led Flint Central to the state championship.
After graduating from Flint Central, Coleman enrolled at Michigan State University, then known as Michigan State College. He played principally at the tackle position for Biggie Munn’s Michigan State Spartans from 1949 to 1951. At 178 pounds, he was the lightest player on the 1949 Michigan State football team. Coleman made up for what he lacked in size with quickness and intensity. Long-time Michigan State sports information director Fred Stabley in 1972 named Coleman as one of the two best players he saw at Michigan State and recalled that, despite his size, Coleman was “so quick and played with such intensity. He loved to play against big men. The 250 pounders were his meat.” In 1952, the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote that Coleman “probably is packed with more football per pound than any man in the United States.”
Coleman was also Michigan States’s first unanimous All-American football player and its first African-American All-American. Michigan State under Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty earned a reputation as one of the leaders in racial integration of football, and Coleman was the first of many great African-American stars to play for the Spartans. In 1953, a feature story on racial integration of football cited the example of Coleman:
“In 1951, for instance, as for two years previously, their watch-charm tackle, Don Coleman, was one of the world’s best football players. Weighing only 180 pounds, Coleman employed quickness, agility, brains and courage to win unanimous selection as an All-American in 1951. At Michigan State, he is perpetually nominated as one of the greatest football players of all time.”
As a senior year in 1951, Coleman was selected as the Most Valuable Player on the undefeated 1951 Michigan State Spartans football team and received the Governor of Michigan Award. In presenting Coleman with the award, Michigan Governor Mennen Williams said, “A couple of those tackles I saw you make in the Notre Dame game were enough to convince me.” Coleman was credited with being the key to the Michigan State offense in 1951. Line coach Duffy Daugherty pointed to a Coleman blocks in the Marquette game as “one of the greatest plays by an offensive lineman that I’ve ever seen.” According to Daugherty, Coleman was knocked to the ground, but got up, caught and passed the Michigan State ball carrier (Leroy Bolden) and “still made the key block that let him go for 33 yards.” Daugherty later credited Coleman with “changing the concept of offensive football at Michigan State” and added, “He gave me a lesson which made football a winning proposition at the school for ten of the next twelve years.”> Daugherty went even further in 1954 with the following words of praise for Coleman:
“If you want to pick a player on the basis of how close to perfection he is in whatever position he plays, I’ll say Coleman was the greatest.”
Although recruited by the St. Louis Cardinals, Coleman was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1952 and served during the Korean War. After being discharged, Coleman was signed by the Cardinals but was almost immediately traded to the Green Bay Packers. Coleman declined to make the move, and instead returned to Flint to become the first African American school teacher at Flint Central High School, and eventually became the Dean of Students at the school.
In April 1968, Coleman left his position as a school principal in Flint to join Duffy Daugherty’s coaching staff as an assistant coach. He was the first AfricanAmerican on Michigan State’s coaching staff. That same month, a group of African-American athletes at Michigan State had announced plans to boycott all sports at the university in protest against the lack of African-Americans in coaching, counseling and administration positions. According to a report in the Washington Afro-American, Michigan State was forced to leave its “lily-white hiring” by the “quiet but firm demands of a militant, forward looking student organization. Coleman resigned his coaching position at Michigan State in January 1969 and accepted a new position in the school’s residence hall program. At the time of his resignation, Coleman said, “Frankly, I found football coaching was not for me … During the years I had been out of football, the game had changed so drastically that I feel lost.” After his resignation from the coaching staff, Coleman held ten different assignments at Michigan State, including assistant dean of the graduate school, counselor and director of minority comprehensive support programs at the Michigan State College of Osteopathic Medicine, and professor emeritus.
Coleman was the first Michigan State football player to have his number retired. On December 14, 1951, Biggie Munn announced that Coleman’s No. 78 would never again be used on a Spartan uniform. An executive from General Motors presented Coleman with a check for $500 on behalf of the people of Flint, Michigan.
Coleman has also received numerous other honors and awards, including the following:
- Coleman was one of the charter members of the Flint Hall of Fame.
- In January 1970, Coleman was named to the All-Time Michigan State football team based on ballots collected by the Michigan State Alumni Magazine and Michigan State News. He was also named as the best all-time interior lineman in Michigan State history.
- In January 1971, Coleman was named to the all-time Hula Bowl team and was named as the outstanding college lineman in the 25-year history of the Hula Bowl.
- In February 1975, Coleman was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. At the time of his induction, Coleman was working as a counselor and director of minority comprehensive support programs in the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine. On learning of the honor, Coleman said, “This is the greatest honor I’ve ever received.”
- In 1992, Coleman was a charter inductee into the Michigan State Hall of Fame.
- In December 1996, Coleman was selected by the Michigan Hall of Fame as the recipient of its second annual Legends Award.
Coleman died on January 30, 2017, at age 88.