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"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."
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.