"The afternoon of last commencement day at Abilene Christian College was middling hot for Texas, just over 100°, but the starlit evening brought a cool breeze, and the men in the crowd of several thousand spectators at the track stadium found their jackets comfortable. Folding chairs had been arranged out on the field for the 380 members of the graduating class and their sponsors—wives, mothers, fathers—and beyond the chairs there was a raised platform for the officials of the college and the distinguished guests, including the principal speaker for the occasion, who was listed on the printed program as A. M. (Tonto) Coleman.
It had to be printed with the nickname Tonto in there, for plain A. M. Coleman just would not have registered. But nobody had to be told who Tonto Coleman was, nobody in Abilene, or in all Texas, Georgia, Alabama—anywhere in intercollegiate athletic circles south and north of the Mason-Dixon line—or even at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where President Johnson had recently received Tonto in a delegation of football coaches who had come to present L.B.J, with a special plaque.
"Darrell Royal of Texas," says Tonto, "headed up the delegation, and he was kind enough to invite me to come along. He introduced us all to the President, and when he said, 'Mr. President, you know Tonto Coleman of Abilene Christian College,' why, the President said certainly, surely he did, and how are you, Tonto, glad to see you again. That's to the best of my recollection. Well, now, I don't know if L.B.J, really remembered me, although I must say we're about the same age and he might have seen me play at one time or another. At any rate, he went around shaking hands and then he invited us into his private office and started rummaging through his desk, passing out souvenir pens and bookmarks from the skin of a deer that he had shot himself around the L.B.J. Ranch. We must have been there the better part of 20 minutes, and then the President said something I thought was pretty cute. He said, 'Well, will you look at me here, running on talking and taking up your valuable time when I know how busy you gentlemen must be.' "
Whether the President was stretching a point or not, Tonto was very proud to be a guest at the White House and to have a picture taken that showed him standing right next to L.B.J. If the subject had come up, he might have explained that the nickname Tonto didn't come from the Indian on the Lone Ranger radio program. "I got it long before the Lone Ranger was thought of," he says. "Funny thing is, I fastened the name on a little ol' boy who went to school with me in Roscoe, Texas. I'd found out that Tonto means 'foolish' in Spanish. Anyway, this little ol' boy left that school and the nickname somehow was stuck on me. But I never minded. Even my wife calls me Tonto."
October 2, 1966
Since the visit to the White House, a lot of other nice things have been happening to Tonto Coleman. After 13 years at Georgia Tech, first as assistant to Head Football Coach Bobby Dodd and then as assistant athletic director, he was chosen this spring as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. His appointment to succeed the retiring Bernie Moore and take over the SEC headquarters at Birmingham brought Tonto an annual salary of $25,000 and a pension agreement comparable to the one he had at Georgia Tech, where he had tenure as a full professor. But what surprised Tonto more than the appointment (he hadn't written one letter or made a single phone call to get the post) was the spontaneous outpouring of tributes and expressions of affection from people who had just assumed all along that he knew how they felt about him.
Governor Carl Sanders of Georgia issued a formal proclamation of a Tonto Coleman Day, probably the first time an assistant athletic director was ever so honored anywhere. The Georgia legislature adopted a resolution commending Tonto. More than 600 letters of congratulation poured in on him. There was a civic luncheon in his honor in Atlanta and a great dinner, presided over by President Edwin Harrison of Georgia Tech, at the Piedmont Driving Club. Dr. Harrison said, "Many people pass through Georgia Tech, but only a few leave lasting memories. You, Tonto, are one of those few." There were so many other tributes by other speakers that Tonto couldn't keep back the tears. "I was just wrung out emotionally," he said after it was all over. "I just wasn't prepared for all the nice things people said. I guess I felt I didn't deserve them." He seemed to be genuinely surprised when he heard fellow coaches praise him for his honesty and integrity and former players tell of how he had helped them with a word of comfort or counsel when they had been troubled.
Tonto is not consciously humble about anything, or so he thinks. Yet, despite his wide acquaintance with the top figures in every area of sport throughout the country, he has the habit of saying things like, "Oh, yes, I know him, but I doubt if he knows me." And if he happens to coin a telling phrase, he immediately follows it with, "That sounds too good for me to have made up. I must have stolen that."
As Commissioner Coleman, Tonto has at last shaken himself free of the word "assistant" for the first time since he left Abilene Christian College as head football coach 17 years ago. If there were an All-America for assistants, Tonto would have made the first team. Bob Woodruff wanted him as assistant at Baylor before he finally persuaded Tonto to join him at the University of Florida. After a few years Bobby Dodd signed him as an assistant to coach defensive ends at Georgia Tech. When the post of assistant athletic director opened up at Tech, naturally Tonto got it. Alabama's Bear Bryant once asked Tonto to become his assistant. And when Frank Leahy was being considered as athletic director at the University of Texas he announced publicly—perhaps to indicate the high quality of his hoped-for administration—that Tonto Coleman would be his No. 2 man.
This year's commencement at Abilene Christian was something very special—even for Commissioner Coleman. He and his wife Ann both attended the school. So did his daughter Kay (Mrs. Don Skelton), who teaches speech and coaches the debating team at Cooper High School in Abilene. And, to make everything perfect, his second daughter. Nancy, was receiving her B.A. in elementary education this same evening.
During the day Tonto had enjoyed himself renewing old friendships at the luncheon that the alumni gave for the graduating class. He was table-hopping all around the gymnasium where the luncheon was held, and later, as he strolled around the campus, crowds gathered around wherever he stopped. Tonto draws people like Casey Stengel.
"How does it feel to be back home again, Tonto?" a man asked.
"Why," said Tonto, "it feels just like that—home. Some of our happiest years were spent right on this campus. Of course, I grew up in Roscoe. My daddy moved us from Alabama when I was about 10. I was born in the town of Phil Campbell, Alabama. It was named for a railroad man, I believe, for no other reason than that he had the first house there. There were only about 300 people in Phil Campbell when we lived there. Now I expect there must be double that.
"Phil Campbell seemed like a big town when we got to Texas. My daddy got a farm at Wastella. That town consisted of a store and a two-teacher school. We had to scratch for a living. Our nearest neighbor was three miles away. Occasionally we'd have visitors, but not often. I can remember my mother waking me some mornings and saying, "Arthur, get up and go look under the house for a hen's nest. We've got company for breakfast." In that part of Texas, visitors showed up unannounced. I've told the story about how first thing I'd do ordinarily in the morning would be to go out on the road and see if anything had been run over during the night that would put some meat on the table."
"Tonto," a woman said, "now that you're back in Alabama, how are you going to like having a lady governor?"
"Why," said Tonto, "you mean Lurleen? Well, now, a lady governor won't be any novelty to me. You're too young, ma'am, to remember Ma Ferguson right here in Texas. Oh, those were days. Governor Jim Ferguson, he was impeached by the lower house of the legislature and was due to be tried by the Senate. But he resigned and decided to run Ma in his place. I can remember him campaigning through this part of Texas. He'd drive up to the edge of a town in his big automobile and his city clothes and stop outside the town limits. There'd be a farm wagon waiting with a few bales of hay in it and ol' Jim would change to a pair of well-worn overalls, put on an old straw hat and stick a piece of hay between his teeth and drive the mules on down Main Street, calling out, "Howdy! How y'all? Ma and me would sure appreciate your help in this election that will vindicate the Ferguson name!'
"Well, Ma was elected, and then the action started. Ol' Jim was a lawyer, and so he developed a specialty of getting people out of prison. In those days all the governor had to do was sign a pardon and the prisoner went free. The procedure was that if your daddy, say, was serving a term, you'd just retain Jim at as big a fee as you could get up. If you were short on cash, Ol' Jim would take prime farmland instead. Once he had accepted the case, Jim would present the facts to Ma and she invariably saw things his way. Well, the upshot was that pretty soon more people were coming out of the prisons than were going in."
"Remember when you were head coach here," one of the old grads said, "you came out in the 5-4-2 defense? That's where it originated, wasn't it, Tonto, right here with you? And then Bud Wilkinson took it up at Oklahoma and it spread all over."
"Well," said Tonto, "I think we were the first to use the 5-4, but I wouldn't say we invented it. There's very few absolutely new things in football. But, speaking of defense, it puts me in mind of the time I was playing at Roscoe and we had a game with Snyder. They stopped us cold on every play. No matter what we tried, those Snyder boys seemed to know just where the play was heading. We took a bad beating and after the game I asked one of the Snyder players how they did it. This boy said, "Oh, we just happened to notice that whoever came out of the huddle wearing the helmet usually carried the ball." "
"You got off to a very good start when you were named head coach here at Abilene, Tonto."
"Yes," said Tonto, "we had a fine year at the beginning. In fact, the alumni were so enthusiastic about the team and my coaching that they started agitation to get me a lifetime contract."
"Son of a gun," a man said, obviously impressed.
"But," Tonto said, "next season was pretty bad, and I heard that these same alumni who wanted me to have a lifetime contract were now planning to go to court and have me declared legally dead."
Tonto took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. "It is just a little warm today, isn't it? Warm, but dry. That's the great thing about the weather here in this part of Texas. It may be hot, but it's usually dry. Puts me in mind of the time I was trying to recruit a football prospect. I told him all about the advantages Abilene Christian had to offer and then, trying to be honest with the boy, I said, 'Abilene does get pretty hot, but I tell you, son, if it were just a little cooler and we had a lot of nice fellas like you it would be just perfect!' Know what the boy said? He said that if it were just a little cooler and there were a lot of nice people there, the same thing could be said about hell."
Tonto and his followers stopped in front of a one-story frame building with a sign reading ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT on it. Tonto pointed to the building, but before he could say anything a man spoke up and said, "Tonto, it seems to me you've never had any trouble getting jobs—the jobs always came after you."
"That building—" Tonto started to say, and then he stopped and said, "Well, I can tell you, sir, there was one job I really went after. This was before I was married. I had to get a job before I could get married. I heard about this opening for a coach at a high school in Chillicothe. Now, this was back during the Depression and jobs were very hard to get. People were taking jobs for room and board, no salary at all. Well, I heard of this opening and I hitchhiked to Chillicothe to apply in person. I made a real sales pitch to that high school principal, and I must say he couldn't have been more courteous. He told me to go on back home and wait until I heard from him. I came back and told Ann and then watched the mails. The days dragged into weeks, and there was no word. Finally I just couldn't stand it any longer. I believe it was a dollar phone call, but I got a dollar together and called this man in Chillicothe person to person. I said, "Sir, I'm just so anxious about that coaching job that I couldn't wait another minute. I'm just wondering if you good folks have come to any decision.' Well, sir, the principal couldn't have been nicer. He said, 'Mr. Coleman, we had 138 applicants for that job. You made a very fine impression and I'm glad to tell you that you came in second.' I said, 'What does that pay?' "
Tonto chuckled and said, "I finally landed a job in Sweetwater, and went from there to Baird and then to San Angelo before I came back to Abilene Christian as head track coach and assistant to Coach A. B. Morris in football. But, now, I started to say something about that frame building there which is the headquarters of the athletic department. That building was government surplus that we got hold of at Camp Hood after the war. It was the plan to make it an athletic dormitory. We trucked it up to the campus and we saw that there would be some rearranging to be done. We found we would have to dismantle one wing and set up in another spot. There was Oliver Jackson, the track coach—he was coach of Abilene's great Olympic champion sprinter, Bobby Morrow—and Guy Scruggs, an assistant coach, and myself. We didn't know anything about how to dismantle a building, so we started at the bottom and worked up to the top. The three of us were up there on the skeleton of the building when Oliver said, 'I think this thing is moving.' I said no, it's the clouds going by that give that impression. That seemed to reassure him, but a minute later the whole thing came tumbling down and the three of us with it. We crawled under that mesquite tree over there and people came running to help us. Had to call an ambulance. We were all banged up. I broke an ankle, I recall. Well, that building was finally put together by some real carpenters. When the new Coliseum is built, there'll be space for the athletic administration office and no further use for that old building. But when it comes time to dismantle it, the authorities had better not count on Oliver Jackson, Guy Scruggs and Tonto Coleman."
Tonto looked at his watch. "I'd better be going to my daughter's house and go over my notes for my talk tonight. It won't take but about 10 minutes, but they say the shorter a speech is the harder it is to write." He slipped off his coat. "It is a bit hotter than usual for this time of year," he said, adding loyally, "but very, very dry. This kind of heat doesn't bother me. I wouldn't mind getting out on the running track and running a mile or so right now. I usually run—I guess jog is the word—most every day. I took up running about five years ago, when I was 54 years old. I noticed I had trouble fastening my seat belt on an airplane and decided to take off weight. I even run when I'm traveling, even if it's just running—or jogging—in place in front of a television set. Usually jog when the news is on. I figure sometimes I do about three miles during Huntley-Brinkley." He waved to his friends and cut across the campus to the home of his daughter Kay.
That evening the people and the cool breezes came to the track stadium. The college orchestra played as the crowd began to fill up the stands. Promptly at 8 o'clock the parade of caps and gowns began to enter far down at the end of the stadium. It moved past the spectators at a slow and dignified pace, the graduates two abreast, led by Abilene President Don H. Morris and Commissioner A. M. (Tonto) Coleman.
Tonto's talk was just fine. Its principal point was that the 1966 class was the best ever to graduate from Abilene Christian, just as his own class had been the best 37 years ago, just as next year's class would be even better. That, said Tonto, was because each class left something uniquely its own to enrich the traditions for the classes that came after. It was a good talk and just right for the occasion. The only thing wrong with it was that hardly anybody heard it. The public-address system had broken down just before the start of the ceremonies.
If Tonto was disappointed, he didn't let on. As usual, he was reminded of a story—about the time he was making a speech in New York and, sensing a restlessness in his audience, he called out, "Can you folks in the back of the room hear me all right, or should I turn the volume up?" There was an immediate and somewhat disconcerting response. "We can hear every word," a man yelled. "Turn the volume down!"