Commentary

Nearly five decades later, one of Lincoln's greats brings football back

Originally Published: July 7, 2008
By Donald Hunt | ESPN.com

When Lincoln University thought about bringing football back after nearly 50 years, Frank "Tick" Coleman, a member of the school's class of 1935, was one of its biggest supporters. At 96, Coleman is one of Lincoln's oldest alums. He also played football for the historically black college in Lincoln University, Penn., about 50 miles outside Philadelphia.

[+] EnlargeFrank Coleman
Bill Rudick Frank Coleman was one of the driving forces behind bringing back Lincoln University's football team.

Coleman, now a well-known community leader in Philadelphia, played quarterback for the Lions from 1931 to 1935. Other notables who played football for Lincoln include Hall of Fame baseball player Monte Irvin, who played in 1939, and Robert "Whirlwind" Johnson, also known as the godfather of black tennis, who played in 1924. And although it's been 73 years since Coleman put on a uniform, he still remembers the glory days of wearing the orange and blue.

"College football brought a lot of enthusiasm to the campus," Coleman said. "The Lincoln-Howard game was a real black college football classic. Everybody looked forward to that game. It was a big rivalry. There were some great players who played during that time. We had some big crowds at the games. It's good to see all that excitement coming back."

Lincoln will revive its program after 48 years on Aug. 30 against George Mason. The Lions haven't suited up since their 1960 matchup with Virginia Union. In 1912, Lincoln was one of the founding members of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the oldest black college conference in the country. The team's all-time record is 163-166-7, according to the school. It won CIAA championships in 1918, 1919 and 1924.

"We'll be playing a Division II schedule," Coleman said. "It will take us a while to get to that level. But the potential is there. We're playing a lot of CIAA schools like Fayetteville State, Virginia State, Shaw University and others. They have a lot of graduates in the Philadelphia area.

"This is going to help increase student enrollment. It will create opportunities for our student-athletes. In addition to football, we'll have a marching band. It's just a great thing for the university as well as the alumni."

This will be a historic event. And when you talk about history, Coleman has been a real pioneer. He was the first black quarterback to play at Philadelphia's Central High School. He guided the team to two consecutive Philadelphia Public League championships (1929, '30).

Four years ago, Central High named him to the school's athletic honor roll for his achievements on the field. During the ceremony, he talked about his success at Central and about having the opportunity to play football at Lincoln. Coleman also offered words of encouragement and inspiration, and stressed the importance of going on to higher education to more than 150 students.

"He's really an amazing man," said O.J. Abanishe, Lincoln's football coach. "He's very knowledgeable. He has a great memory. Dr. Coleman is a big part of the school's history. He played football here. He's given us a lot of support. He has done so much over the years."

[+] EnlargeFrank Coleman & Frank Lee
Bill Rudick Frank Coleman has reached out to Lincoln's newest players, including offensive lineman Frank Lee.

Coleman grew up in blue-collar South Philadelphia in 1920s. In middle school, he joined the Boy Scouts and gradually climbed the ladder in the scouting organization to the rank of Eagle Scout, which is the most outstanding honor in scouting. He is currently one of the oldest Eagle Scouts in the nation.

Coleman used sports, community service and education to make a better life for himself, as well as others. After graduating from Lincoln University in 1935 and receiving a master's degree from the Penn School of Social Work in 1959, Coleman spent 32 years as an educator for the School District of Philadelphia. After retiring in 1981, he participated in a number of Lincoln University functions -- such as homecoming, sports banquets, alumni weekends and graduations -- leading the singing of the school's alma mater at many of them. Coleman served as director of alumni relations at Lincoln from 1981 to 1988 and also spent 10 years as an alumni representative on Lincoln's board of trustees.

"He has been a strong representative of Lincoln University for many, many years," said Ivory Nelson, president of Lincoln University. "He's been a supporter of the university. He does everything to assist students in coming to the university. We call him 'Mr. Lincoln.'"

Founded in 1854, the school has produced a number of brilliant graduates such as Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice of the United States Supreme Court, and internationally known poet and author Langston Hughes. In spite of Marshall and Hughes' high profile, Coleman is widely recognized as one of the school's most prestigious alumni.

For the past six years, the alumni have hosted the annual Dr. Frank "Tick" Coleman Awards Luncheon. The event celebrates outstanding alumni achievements and raises money for student scholarships.

"We have some great young people out here," Coleman said. "I think the kids have a lot of potential. Obviously, things are much different today than when I was coming up. But I've spent most of my life helping young people succeed. That gives me a lot of pleasure. I'm really proud of these kids who have gone to Lincoln.

"Now, with football coming back, it should increase more opportunities for these kids. It's an exciting time for everybody. It just makes me feel good. I always wanted to make a difference."

He certainly has done that.