Randy York’s N-Sider
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Go to the website for one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges, and you see the logo: Florida Memorial University . . . A Promise. A Future.
Click on the President’s Cabinet, and you see the university’s president, then the provost and then, right there before your eyes, you see a face so familiar that you can’t possibly be fooled by the dress coat, white shirt, business tie, scholarly glasses, warm smile or even the first name.
Yep, the second you see Dr. L. Trey Coleman, Director of Grants and Sponsored Research, you notice the most important identifier of all . . . the Fu Manchu, Hulk Hogan-like mustache he wore when he came back for a Nebraska football reunion in 1981.
The mustache is the dead giveaway. It cuts throu gh any other disguise and makes you fairly certain that you’ve found Nebraska’s first out-of-state, walk-on football player from the early 1960s.
Still, you can’t help asking yourself this question: How in the world did someone who grew up around gangs in Washington, D.C., and essentially willed himself to the University of Nebraska despite multiple academic deficiencies, end up in the President’s Cabinet of a 130-year-old university in Miami Gardens, Fla., with a Ph.D. in front of his name?
“I’m sure a lot of people who knew me from my early days would wonder the same darned thing,” Coleman said over the phone with a laugh so animated that you feel like someone who just connected with his long, lost brother.
Even though you’re fairly positive you’re talking to the right guy, you decide to ask the next question anyway: Are you, Dr. Trey Coleman, the same man who was also known as Langston Coleman?
It’s Been a Long, Winding Road
Better yet, are you the player Bob Devaney once called the nastiest player he ever coached?
“Yes, indeed, Langston Coleman and Dr. Trey Coleman are, in fact, the exact same person,” Coleman said with a laugh that was even louder so it bellows through 1,367 miles of phone lines. “In fact, that column you wrote about me being Coach Devaney’s nastiest player is still hanging up in my office at home. I use it to remind me of the long, long journey I’ve taken over the past 45 to 50 years.”
And, oh, what a journey it has been . . . a journey that started with Coleman’s own, personal promise as a high school athlete who grew up on the streets of the nation’s capital. His mom, Audrey, was a domestic worker for Nebraska native Ted Sorensen, a former special counsel and adviser to President John F. Kennedy and a widely published author on the presidency and foreign affairs.
Sorensen graduated from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 1951 at age 23 before deciding to move to Washington, D.C.
“Growing up, I used to go to the Sorensens and mow their yard while my mom would work around their household,” Coleman recalled. “I still remember when I was about 16, and they invited me in one hot day for a cold glass of lemonade. They had all sorts of Nebraska memorabilia inside their house, and it all just fascinated me.”
A year later, Devaney arrived in Lincoln from Wyoming as the Huskers’ new head coach. “That’s when I decided I wanted to go to college and play football at Nebraska,” Coleman said.
There was only one problem. When it came to a personal resume', Langston Coleman had more knife fights than books read, facts that even Ted Sorensen couldn’t change. But that didn’t stop a special counsel to the President from encouraging a young African-American who, perhaps for the first time in his life, had a very real and a very special dream.
Coleman’s high school transcripts weren’t his only problem. The football film from Weston High School was so bad, you couldn’t even read the numbers on the players’ jerseys.
The obstacle course in front of Langston Coleman would have dissuaded all of his friends, but none of them had what he had – a signed letter from Sorensen on White House stationery, encouraging him to fix his academic problems in a junior college or elsewhere and go on “to prove your ability both on the gridiron and in the classroom.”
Once you establish a better record, “you might be able to transfer to the University of Nebraska with an athletic scholarship,” Sorensen wrote.
Nebraska Was His Only Land of Opportunity
Coleman cleared up his academic deficiencies in Central Ohio, and went back to D.C. to work that summer. He decided to save every dime he made, and to plan his trip to Nebraska, the only school he was interested in – and the only school that was interested in him.
Coleman had received a letter from Devaney, who indicated he could not offer him a scholarship, but he could offer him “a fair chance” to compete on the field. All he had to do is somehow make his way to Nebraska on his own.
“No other school even answered my letters,” Coleman said, “so when Coach Devaney wrote and said if I came out there and proved myself, that was good enough for me. That’s all the encouragement I needed.”
Coleman was only 6-1 1/2 and 180 pounds, but his body was chiseled and his desire intense. Arriving in Lincoln about two months before football season, Coleman and a friend got to Lincoln by thumbing rides and working occasional jobs along the way to buy bus tickets. When they arrived at Lincoln’s Greyhound Bus Station, they called Sorensen’s brother, Phil, to see if he could help them find a job in Lincoln.
“I’ll never forget the day I first saw Langston Coleman,” former Nebraska quarterback Bob Churchich said. “I came down to Lincoln for rush week, and I noticed a guy across the street with his shirt off, breaking up some concrete. It was Langston Coleman. People were already talking about him being our first walk-on. I said at the time that if he’s a walk-on and I’m a scholarship player, I’ll never be able to handle it.”
Former Nebraska All-Big Eight linebacker and now Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez has some fond and even hilarious remembrances of playing with Coleman when he was a first-semester walk-on and one of his coaches was a young graduate assistant – Tom Osborne. Nebraska’s future Hall of Fame head coach/athletic director enjoyed Coleman’s fervor and recommended him becoming a hard hitting defensive end who helped the Huskers win 28 of 33 games in 1964, ’65 and ‘66.
Five Decades Later, Osborne Still Has an Influence
“I’ll never forget the influence Coach Osborne had on me then and still has on me now,” Coleman said. “When he coached me, he wasn’t being paid because he was in grad school. At the same time, I was paying my own way just for the opportunity to play, and ended up getting a scholarship the second semester. I remember thinking how neat it was that Coach was working so hard on his doctorate degree at the same time he was coaching football. I told him then that some day, when football was all over for me, I was going to get my doctorate degree, too.”
Langston Coleman made good on that promise. When he was the last player cut by the Washington Redskins in his last try at the NFL, Trey (a high school nickname because he was always the “third wheel”) applied to graduate school and a couple of law schools. He decided he would go with whatever opportunity unfolded first.
It was grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where, in 1975, he received his doctorate of philosophy in urban education with an emphasis in higher education administration.
Coleman has used his education to work as a chief of staff for a Florida congressman and a chief of staff for a prominent D.C. politician who unsuccessfully ran for mayor. He has worked at American University, in Community Outreach and urban job training education. This is his 17th year at Florida Memorial University.
“Tom Osborne showed me in the early ‘60s what can happen if you apply yourself fully – athletically and academically,” Coleman said. “He showed me what determination is all about. It’s about the fire in your belly and not letting anything stand in the way of the commitments you make. I wanted to emulate that commitment, so I put together my own Trey Coleman Triple-A program to succeed athletically, academically and administratively.”
Osborne achieved his own Triple Crown and now directs the Nebraska Athletic Department Administration.
Representing Both ‘A Promise’ and ‘A Future’
Coleman may have taken a more circuitous route, but he, too, pulled off his own Triple-A feat.
No wonder he’s been at Florida Memorial University for so long. Who can talk about “A Promise” and “A Future” better than Langston Coleman, the “nasty” player who became the dedicated student and now, the visionary leader?
“I feel like I had a lot to prove as Coach Devaney’s first walk-on football player from out-of-state,” Coleman said. “He gave me an opportunity, and no one worked harder to prove himself than I did. I’m glad I didn’t come to Nebraska with a scholarship. I’m glad I played for Coach Devaney. He made an impression on me and a lot of other guys, and we all still reflect on it.”
Coleman and Bill Johnson were the first two walk-ons of the Devaney era. “Billy was a defensive back – a great teammate and a small-town Nebraska guy (from Stanton),” Coleman recalled. “There was some discussion about who was really the first walk-on. I guess it depends on how you define a walk-on. Billy was already in school, and some of his high school teammates encouraged him to go out for spring practice, so a story ran that I was the first out-of-state walk-on, and he was, technically speaking, probably the first in-state walk-on.”
Whatever, Johnson and Coleman helped launch Nebraska’s reputation as a “land of opportunity” for hard-working players who had big dreams, but did not have scholarships.
“Coach Osborne taught me the benefit of walking on. He taught me about character and dedication, endurance and maturity, goal-setting and sacrifice,” Coleman said. “He epitomized the importance of a competitive spirit and showed us all that it was about so much more than just football. He encouraged me to embrace my academic counselors and my professors, who were just outstanding. Just like Coach Osborne, they inspired me to push harder than I ever dreamed and to go way above and beyond what I thought was possible.
“I hope my story inspires others to walk on at Nebraska,” Coleman said. “I know one thing. If they make the same decision I did, they will never, ever regret going to a place like Nebraska.”
Osborne treasures his experiences with Coleman and when the former player came back last fall for his first Husker game in Lincoln since 1981, the two hugged when they met – the ultimate appreciative sign for the roads they’ve traveled and the ones they continue to take on.
“Coach Osborne motivated me by example,” Coleman said. “He taught me the meaning and the joy of working hard every day.”
Forget the doctorate degrees. For both men, working is not only a passion, but also a privilege.
“I don’t know who enjoys working more – him or me,” Coleman said. “I think we both have a lot left in us to give to others.”
Athletically, academically and administratively.
Editor’s note: The Nebraska Alumni Association originally published this feature in its Spring 2009 issue of GoodNUZ.