Ron Coleman: The right person at the right time

Ron Coleman competes for UF Track and Field—Photo Courtesy Ron Coleman

Ron Coleman sat by himself, silently eating his food, hoping to just get through the meal quickly without any trouble.

Typically he would join his Florida track and field teammates in the athletic dining hall, but he was by himself this particular night, in what felt like more ways than one. It was 1968 and as the first African American athlete to attend University of Florida, Coleman knew he was an outlier, the subject of protest and debate, an isolated soul on a campus of thousands.

He had the support of his head coach, Jimmy Carnes, who Coleman calls a Civil Rights pioneer in his own right in part due to his assertion that Coleman would be on his team as a scholarship athlete and compete no matter what. As such, his teammates had become his close friends. But still, there was discourse around the school over Coleman’s presence and it wasn’t a secret. That extended to the athletic program with a very vocal few.

So on that night, Coleman kept his head down and focused on finishing his meal alone and getting out of the dining hall. From across the room, he saw someone rise and come his way. The large football player walked up behind Coleman, towering over the track star, and asked him ‘what’s wrong with you?’

“And my first thought was ‘oh boy. My dad told me I was gonna have to deal with this, this is the moment,’” Coleman recalls for GatorBait.

"So I slowly turned around, I was about to stand up and I started looking up, looking up, looking up and looking up and I kept looking up and looking up and I’m like ‘this is gonna hurt real bad. This guy’s gonna kill me.’”

Coleman gives a huge laugh when thinking about the moment now, thinking back on the young boy he was at the time with his life flashing before his eyes.

“And lo and behold the guy said to me, ‘can I sit with you?’”

That memory still makes him gasp, the sheer magnitude of what that simple act meant in 1968, and the risk that football player took as well in order to make Coleman feel welcome.

“From that day forward things in the athletic side of the house, literally changed as far as being accepted in that group of athletes, that training table environment, that Yon Hall athletic-academic environment. That literally made a difference.”

The player?

Jack Youngblood.

“That still gets me to this very day.”

That act by Youngblood helped, but when Coleman was first weighing whether or not to come to the University of Florida, he and his family knew there would be trepidatious moments and were well aware what his stepping on campus meant as the first black athlete.

The program, led by athletic director Ray Graves, had a freshly minted Heisman trophy winner and subsequent attention. Now they were preparing to integrate the athletic teams. Ron Coleman and his family were the bearer’s of hate around that movement.

Ron Coleman signs a scholarship with UF as Jimmy Carnes and Ray Graves look on—Photo Courtesy Ron Coleman

“A part of that awareness was because of the hatred that was spewed prior to my arrival. Right around the time that it was mentioned…but a part of that hatred or that learning about the experience of being the very first came from all of those hate filled diatribes you could say. ‘Dear N—r’ kind of letters. ‘You will never ever get to Gainesville. Don’t come out on your front porch. You’ll die tonight,' etc. etc. And so yea we were aware.”

At 18 years old, Ron felt invincible. Nothing was going to happen to him and as someone who had participated in Civil Rights movements—sit-ins, march’s and what-not—he felt prepared. But still, his dad was understandably worried.

“My father was very, very cautious and pretty soon he was adamant that I NOT accept the scholarship, that I NOT attend the University of Florida because of all of those threats on my life and all the hate that was spewed in our direction.”

Yet hailing from a family of educators, attending college was important to Coleman and eventually his mother and relatives were able to convince his father it would be ok. Some of his worries were realized early on as Coleman’s arrival was met with protests from everyone from fans in Ocala and Gainesville to legislatures and those leaning on the University president to keep Ron out.

“The atmosphere was a bit racial charged and a part of that was that there were only I think around 300 total black students on the campus at that time, 1968, September of 1968 and we were constantly arraigned as it were. And not by all of the students by any means. But those few that wanted to do that, openly did it.”

Coleman served on multiple UF Athletic boards—Photo Courtesy: Ron Coleman

Coleman recalls the time now with a lightness and humor, knowing he got the last laugh. Six SEC Championships in indoor and outdoor track and field, he became All-SEC while excelling in the triple and long jump. He went on to serve in the U.S. Navy as a carrier based naval aviator. After 23 years, he retired and started his own human resources management company. Now he continues to dabble in that, picking and choosing his jobs, waiting for the day he and his wife move to Ocala and into the home they’ve built for their retirement. In 2004 he was inducted into the University of Florida Hall of Fame as a distinguished letter winner.

And his willingness to be the first led to so many others. In December of 1968, a few short months after Coleman arrived on campus, Willie Jackson Sr. signed to play football with Ray Graves and the Gators. He was joined by Leonard George of Tampa. A few years later in 1973, Don Gaffney joined the squad as the Gators first black quarterback. Willie Jackson’s son—Willie Jackson Jr.—eventually played for Steve Spurrier’s Gators near the close of the century.

Related: Former Gators Willie Jackson Sr. and Leonard George Get Special Honor

Jackson and George were honored at the 2019 Auburn-Florida football game, commending them on the 50th anniversary of their admittance to the Florida Gators Football team and for their contributions. Jackson told FloridaGators writer Scott Carter of the day, “It's time, with all the notoriety that the school is getting and the players are getting. They forget about the ones who got it started, the ones who were there before them. It's just a forgotten thing and it's good to be recognized.”

Coleman respectively points towards others that deserve credit, like Carnes.

“Some of those early days when we would travel in the southeast—that was a bit intimidating in itself; because of the name calling. But, but what really mattered was the performance on the track. And another thing that really helped was having Coach Jimmy Carnes—Jimmy Carnes was our track coach and he never once let the crowd intimidate any of his performers much less me, his one and only black athlete.”

He brags on Johnnie Brown, a cross country runner who Carnes brought in to room with Coleman and who has become a lifelong friend.

"Johnnie and I were roommates. Johnnie was a non-scholarship athlete who ran cross-country. He eventually got a partial scholarship but his legacy at UF is that despite the fact that I was the first black athlete there, Johnnie was the first black athlete to compete at the University of Florida because he ran cross country and as you know cross country season starts before indoor season or outdoor season and so he definitely has that distinction.”

And his voice raises with pride when looking at those who have come behind him like Florida and USA head coach Mike “Mouse” Holloway and superstar hurdler Grant Holloway.

“I had no idea it would reach these heights. Mouse as the Olympic coach, wow, the Olympic team coach, that’s just the height of success in track and field right there. And Grant Holloway, oh my goodness. Every time I see him, he literally, ‘Mr. Coleman! It’s Mr. Coleman. It’s the famous world-‘ he goes on and on,” laughs Coleman.

Ron Coleman and teammates pose for a team picture—Photo Courtesy Ron Coleman

So much of what Florida Track and Field has become, for all athletes but particularly black athletes, is owed to what Ron Coleman did just over 50 years ago. He humbly defers praise for what he deems a change that just happened to include him.

“That paving as it were could have been done by anyone, any black athlete. It just so happened that Ron Coleman was the person who came along at that time and that’s the legacy.”

With all due respect to Mr. Coleman, legacies are rarely coincidental but almost always circumstantial. Change was wrought at the University of Florida due to the right person at the right time. Just ask those that strive to carry on that legacy…a legacy they credit to Ron Coleman.

Grant Holloway is in the midst of preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, where he will be defending his recent world title in the 110m hurdles. But he quickly returns a phone call.

“I heard you were doing a story on Ron Coleman,” he begins. And that deserves his time.

“Ron Coleman was a phenomenal athlete especially here at the University of Florida. I think what really comes to mind is someone that started the tradition for Florida Track and Field and started the tradition of blood, sweat and tears and working hard and doing certain things to fulfill certain dreams.

“For my story, everybody believes it was just me but they always forget about the Christian Taylors, the Will Claye’s, the Marquis Dendy’s, Kerron Clements—the list could go on and on and on but they forget that Ron really started it all off for us to follow that Florida track and field tradition.”

The two met at a Boosters event (over the years Ron has served as Gator Boosters president, and on the UAA Board of Directors, F-Club Committee and UF Alumni Association Board of Directors) when Holloway was a freshman. They talked for close to half an hour and the young hurdler came away with what he describes as one of his good friends to this day. And he came away with a greater understanding of how his life was changed decades ago by Ron Coleman.

“Without his courage and without his strength to stand up I don’t think there would have ever been multiple black athletes on Florida’s track and field program. Ron kinda started that, he was kinda like the line leader, that’s what I like to say. So far now, I would call myself, I mean I’m in the middle of the line cause years from now there’s gonna more and more, other phenomenal black athletes. Ron kinda just started it off. All the people I named before, they’re all African American as well. I’m just another one that came to a great program and a great coach.”

The titles would suggest Grant Holloway is more than just “another one” but his point stands. And it’s reinforced by head coach Mike Holloway. He’s preparing his team for the SEC Tournament. But yet again, the name Ron Coleman makes this men stop whatever they’re doing.

Ron Coleman during his Florida Track and Field days—Photo Courtesy Ron Coleman

“He’s an outstanding human being, a class act. Ever since I met him years and years ago, he’s always been a big supporter of me and what I’ve been trying to do with my career. When you think of him, he’s a trailblazer. He set the tone for what African American athletes could do here a long time ago. But you know, Ron, he doesn’t talk about that a lot. Whenever I talk to Ron all he talks to me about is me, my family, what he can do to support the program. He’s not a guy that pats himself on the back for that. He’s just a guy that wants to help other people.

“I think it definitely needed to be somebody with his demeanor, somebody with his attitude not just towards athletics but towards life, life in general. That’s classic Ron, ‘it just happened to be me.’ But—it took a special person to endure some of the things I’m sure he went through back then and it set the table for everybody else.”

Ron Coleman set the table by being willing to set at a table by himself. It didn’t take long for his courage and bravery, his steadfast spirit during a tumultuous time to lead others to join him.

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