Dec. 3, 2012: Buddy and Walt Coleman

Walt Coleman vividly remembers that night at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium in 1984.

It was Sept. 29 and a 1-0-1 Arkansas team was about to do battle with a 1-1 Navy team.

Walt Coleman

Walt Coleman, Class of 2009

Coleman, who has worked as an official in the National Football League since 1989, had been assigned to call the game with his father, the late W.C. “Buddy” Coleman Jr.

“I was the line judge, and my dad was the head linesman,” Walt Coleman says. “He was proud, but I was a nervous wreck. I just wanted to be invisible.”

Things turned out well for the officiating crew. Things also turned out well for the Razorbacks, who won the game, 33-10.

“The Navy coach probably would have had a fit had he known there were two guys from Little Rock on the crew,” Walt Coleman says.

“Buddy” Coleman, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Coleman Dairy in Little Rock, died in October 2011 at age 83. He will be inducted posthumously Feb. 15 into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, the fourth Hall of Fame in which he has been enshrined.

Buddy Coleman

Buddy Coleman, Class of 1994

The elder Coleman, both a business and sports legend in this state, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1994 in recognition of his distinguished career as a football official. A year later, he was voted into the Arkansas High School Officials Hall of Fame. In 1996, he was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame.

Now, induction into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame awaits as “Buddy” Coleman’s legacy will be celebrated by friends and family members.

Walt Coleman was in the news again Thanksgiving Day when he was the referee for one of that day’s three NFL games, a contest between the Houston Texans and the Detroit Lions. Houston had the ball on its 19 with 6:50 left in the third quarter. Running back Justin Forsett was down by contact after a short gain, but no whistle was blown. Forsett ran 81 yards for a touchdown.

Detroit’s head coach, Jim Schwartz, quickly threw the challenge flag after the scoring play. Here’s the problem: The challenge flag in this instance negated an automatic review that would have overturned the touchdown call. The Texans won the game in overtime.

The rule likely will be changed during the offseason, but Coleman enforced it correctly.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Walt Coleman was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, making seven people who have been inducted in the officials category. In addition to the Colemans, the inductees were Alvin Bell in 1978, J.M. “Johnie” Burnett in 1977, J.W. “Billy” Mitchell in 1976, Louis Schaufele in 2003 and Cliff Shaw in 1981.

Walt Coleman’s “officiating family tree,” if you will, runs from his uncle “Boots” Coleman (who died of a heart attack in 1971) to Cliff Shaw to his father.

“My uncle was a Southwest Conference official,” Walt Coleman says. “And Cliff Shaw, who was recognized as perhaps the premier college official in the country, was the sales manager at Coleman Dairy.”

Shaw worked for 35 years in the Southwest Conference, the Big Eight and the Big Ten. He officiated a number of college bowl games and the finals of the NCAA basketball tournament in 1953. He also served as commissioner of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference for a dozen years, starting in 1956. Shaw, who was a four-sport letterman at Little Rock High School, signed a pro baseball contract with what then was known as the Little Rock Travelers in 1927 as a shortstop. He began officiating in 1930.

During his three decades as an official, “Buddy” Coleman called more than 250 college football games, including 15 major bowl games. There were two Cotton Bowls, five Sugar Bowls, two Gator Bowls, two Orange Bowls and two Fiesta Bowls. He was involved in two national championship games. Coleman often worked with Schaufele, who died Oct. 24. They worked their way up together from junior high and high school games to the AIC and finally the Southwest Conference.

“I’ll never forget when my dad and I went over to Hot Springs for a game between the two junior highs there – Central and Southwest – along with Louie Schaufele and his son Mike,” Walt Coleman says. “Our dads were already in the Southwest Conference, but here they were working a junior high game just so they could say they had officiated with their sons.”

“Buddy” Coleman also was active in AAU sports such as boxing while serving as a timer at track meets across the state each spring. On fall weekends, he sometimes would work a high school game on a Friday night in Arkansas and then drive through the night to work a Southwest Conference game the next day in Texas.

“You can’t do that anymore,” Walt Coleman says. “The major college conferences now require you to be at the game location by Friday. He was running the dairy during the week and at football games on the weekends. In effect, you’re working seven days a week, but it’s different. I’ve found that football officiating gives you something else to focus on. If things aren’t going so well at your other job, you get your mind off that when it’s time for a football game.”

After graduating from Little Rock High School, “Buddy” Coleman decided to attend college at LSU and play baseball.

“My dad wasn’t a big fellow, and he didn’t want to play football in college,” Walt Coleman says. “The University of Arkansas was going to require him to play both football and baseball in order to get a scholarship there. LSU said he only had to play baseball, which was all he wanted to do.”

“Buddy” Coleman graduated from LSU with a business degree and spent two years in the Air Force before returning to Little Rock in 1953 to join his older brother (“Boots” was 13 years older) in the dairy business. “Buddy” Coleman was named the Coleman Dairy president in 1964. When “Boots” died in 1971, “Buddy” became chairman and CEO.

Coleman Dairy was known for sponsoring numerous youth baseball teams. “Buddy” Coleman also coached youth baseball, winning American Legion state championships in 1957 and 1959.

Walt Coleman, meanwhile, officiated games at the high school level before moving to the college level, where he worked five years in the Southland Conference and five years in the Southwest Conference. After being hired as an NFL official in 1989, he worked as a line judge for six seasons before being promoted to referee at the start of the 1995 season.

Nationally, Coleman is best known for his “tuck rule” call on Jan. 18, 2002, during a playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. With 1:47 left in regulation, Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson knocked the ball away from New England quarterback Tom Brady. The ball was recovered by Oakland and originally ruled a fumble. After a review, Coleman reversed the call because of the tuck rule, which stated that “any intentional forward movement of (the thrower’s) arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body.”

Just as was the case on Thanksgiving, Coleman had intepreted a rule correctly, though one team’s fans vehemently disagreed with the rule.

Twenty-eight years after Walt Coleman worked the Arkansas-Navy game with his father at War Memorial Stadium, his Arkansas accent is immediately recognized by Arkansans when they turn on the television and find him officiating an NFL contest.

Buddy Coleman into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1994; Walt Coleman into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2009: When it comes to officiating, it has never gotten much better than this father and son from an iconic Arkansas family.

– Rex Nelson.

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