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.
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.