By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor’s Note: This is another article in the College Sports Journal Classic series. This article originally appeared on the College Sporting News website in the summer of 2011 as Dexter Coakley was about to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
BOONE, N.C. — Before the start of the 1996 college football season, I used my weekly sports column as sports editor of the Watauga Democrat to promote Appalachian State linebacker Dexter Coakley as my candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
“Coakley’s Drive For The Heisman Trophy Starts Here” the headline read.
I don’t know if Coakley, who was coming off the first of two Buck Buchanan Awards as the top defensive player in FCS, received any votes for the Heisman Trophy that year, but I knew one thing for certain.
He was the best college football player I had ever laid eyes on. Additionally, Coakley was and still is one of the classiest athletes I have ever encountered.
“Pound for pound, he is as good a football player as there is in the country,” ex-VMI and West Viriginia coach Bill Stewart said at the time.
Coakley’s achievements will be on display once more on Saturday, when he is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame during ceremonies in South Bend, IN.
Coakley, who was honored in his first year of eligibility, will be entering the Hall of Fame with an illustrious class of players and coaches with FCS ties.
Former James Madison linebacker and NFL great Charles Haley (1982-85) is the other FCS player who was voted in, while Dayton’s legendary coach Mike Kelly, ex-La Salle coach Bill Manlove and former Wofford player and assistant coach and Appalachian State assistant Fisher DeBerry will also be honored with Hall of Fame induction.
Mike Favor, who play center at North Dakota State during its Division II days (1985-88) and helped build the football tradition that is now on display at FCS, is still another inductee this year.
Dexter and I became permanently linked on a stormy Sept. 4, 1993 day at North Carolina A&T’s Aggie Stadium at the start of the 1993 season.
I had just been asked to serve as a beat writer for Appalachian State football by the Charlotte Observer after leaving the Los Angeles Times and moving to Boone three months before.
With rain pouring like buckets on the drive down Highway 421 and Interstate 40 to Greensboro and with the deluge continuing throughout the game, little did I know that I was beginning what has now become a 19-year love affair with the Football Championship Subdivision.
It also happened to be the first college game for Coakley, who had already begun turning heads at Appalachian State practices for a month.
“All I know is that it is awfully hard to move the football when No. 32 is on the field,” said Rob Best, ASU’s offensive coordinator at that time.
The Mountaineers dropped a dreadful 22-10 decision at North Carolina A&T that day, but you couldn’t help but notice the diminutive, 5-9, 200-pound Coakley flying around and making plays from his outside linebacker position.
“I always felt he was a special breed, a special type of athlete,” said Brent David, who was already established as senior star at linebacker for the Mountaineers when Coakley arrived on campus. “And you could tell from the start he had a great work ethic.”
I had no idea that I was about to have the delight of watching one of the all-time greats of college football and, in my mind, the greatest defensive player in FCS history for the next four years.
One of my favorite memories of Coakley as a player occurred a couple of years later on that same Aggie Stadium field where I had seen him for the first time.
NCAT faced a third and one around midfield and decided to smash the ball off-tackle behind a huge offensive line that included future Pittsburgh Steelers No. 1 draft choice Jermaine Stephens.
The running back arrived at the hole at the same exact moment as Coakley, who ferociously threw the ball carrier down for no gain.
Aggie coach Bill Hayes decided to go for it on fourth down and NCAT ran precisely the same play, with the same result. The rusher hit the hole and Coakley pounded him into the ground for no gain to give ASU the ball.
Another time in Winston-Salem, ASU met Wake Forest at Groves Stadium in the 1995 season-opening game. Now coach Jim Caldwell may have matriculated from Wake Forest to become a Super Bowl head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, but I had to wonder about Caldwell’s coaching prowess on that day.
On the Demon Deacons’ first possession, Wake Forest ran two plays at Coakley for little gain as the speedy linebacker made solo tackles.
Then on third down, Wake Forest quarterback Rusty LaRue threw the ball to a receiver being covered by Coakley. Coakley knocked the ball away as he crushed the receiver and the Demon Deacons lined up to punt on fourth down.
Three hours later, the Mountaineers left the field with a 24-22 victory, the first of 12 consecutive wins for the Coakley-led club that season.
Wherever he went, Coakley made as big an impression.
“He was always a leader, in the weight room, and on and off the field,” said Jay Sutton, the place kicker for ASU during the Coakley years and now the Mountaineers’ associate athletic director. “You always expected great things from him.”
I remember Coakley providing key testimony to say he was with his friend and teammate Aldwin Lance at a local McDonald’s restaurant in 1994 when Lance was accused of assaulting a female student at a party somewhere else in a case of mistaken identity.
Lance was rightfully acquitted and a couple of weeks later, the two combined for one of Appalachian State’s greatest playoff moments.
On a brutally cold New Hampshire day, the Mountaineers battled the Wildcats to a 10-all deadlock through four quarters before embarking on the shortest overtime game in FCS history.
ASU lost the coin toss and went on offense, with Lance taking a handoff from his fullback position and dashing through the line on first down for 25 yards and a touchdown.
After Sutton drilled through the extra point, Coakley led the ASU defense onto the field. On UNH’s first offensive play, Lee McClendon — a fullback that almost never fumbled — hit a hole for nine yards on first down before he was hammered by Coakley.
The ball squirted free and ASU defensive end Chip Miller recovered it to end the game in a 17-10 Mountaineer victory.
“I was watching the game from the coaching booth and I kept seeing this guy knifing through our line and making plays,” said current New Hampshire head coach and then assistant Sean McDonnell. “I asked our coaches why we were moving so slow? They said we weren’t moving slow, but that Coakley kid was just that fast.”
While the NCAA fails to recognize tackling records of Coakley’s era, the fact remains that no FCS player has reached the plateaus that this lightning-fast outside linebacker did. His 645 career tackles not only set ASU and Southern Conference standards, they also established a standard that no other FCS player has reached.
“I remember the intensity that he brought play after play,” said John Settle, one of the Mountaineers’ biggest stars and an NFL All-Pro running back with the Atlanta Falcons, who served as an ASU graduate assistant in 1994. “The other thing was the passion to play football the way he did.”
The only time Coakley ever refused an interview occurred after an excruciating 1996 loss at home to arch-rival Furman. The Paladins drove the ball over 90 yards on a fourth-quarter drive, converting third and fourth downs repeatedly to milk most of the clock and score the winning TD for a 20-14 victory that put ASU’s playoff hopes on life support.
Coakley told ASU’s sports information director Rick Covington that he was too upset to talk and asked that he apologize for Coakley’s absence from the post-game press conference.
How many athletes do you know that offer sincere apologies when they skip a news conference?
But then, how many football stars do you know that will pinch-hit as impromptu babysitters?
When I became a father for the first time on the day of a first-round playoff game between Appalachian State and James Madison in 1995 (I made it to the game in time for the second half of a 31-24 ASU victory, with Coakley contributing five tackles, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble), I quickly learned the value of taking my daughter Charlotte everywhere her stroller and baby carrier would allow.
She attended her first sporting event — an ASU men’s basketball game against Loyola-Chicago — when she was nine days old.
In the summer of 1996, I found myself at Kidd Brewer Stadium juggling a world of assignments on one steamy afternoon.
I was interviewing members of the U.S. National men’s field hockey team as they prepared for the Summer Olympics in a few weeks in Atlanta and I was scheduled to take photos of future Olympic 100-meter hurdles medalist Melissa Morrison as well.
The field hockey team doted on my baby, while Coakley waited nearby to begin an off-season workout. When Morrison arrived, I asked Dexter if he would mind watching my daughter — by then well-known to members of the football team — while I shot photos of Morrison.
Coakley gracious complied and he quickly won over the heart of a very young football fan.
“If this country needs idols, this guy right here epitomizes this,” ASU coach Jerry Moore said of Coakley. “He is a great role model.”
As you just learned, Coakley received his start in the role model business early.
Coakley is the only player to win two Buchanan Awards, capturing the honor as a junior when it was awarded for the first time in 1995 and winning it again following his senior season in 1996.
Few people outside of what was then called I-AA football knew of Coakley at that time, but that changed when the Dallas Cowboys made him a third-round selection with the 65th overall choice in the 1997 NFL draft.
Playing for one of the most recognizable teams in the NFL, Coakley quickly established himself as one of the best linebackers in the NFL, earning three Pro Bowl appearances (1999, 2001, 2003) in his eight years with the Cowboys.
“He is a tough competitor,” George Edwards, now the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills and Coakley’s position coach at ASU and with the Cowboys, said during Coakley’s playing days. “He makes use of all of the tools God has given him. He just has a knack for getting to the football and he makes plays when he is there.”
Coakley and his wife Nicole also earned a reputation for philanthropy in their community, something that they carried on even when his Cowboy days had ended.
After being a salary-cap casualty with Dallas, Coakley signed a lucrative contract with the St. Louis Rams and played two more years before a broken ankle helped bring his playing career to an end and set the stage for a new focus on commercial real estate in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
It had been a number of years since I had crossed paths with Coakley when he was honored on April 19, 2005 with a day of events to retire his No. 32 Appalachian State jersey. On his return to Boone for the first time since he had graduated, those who knew him found little had changed about this legendary athlete’s character.
Moore shared a story from a scout who had known Coakley before he became an NFL player.
“He told me that in 30 years (of scouting), that Dexter Coakley is the only player who hasn’t changed.”
Coakley thought of others when he accepted the honor that day.
“Appalachian has been my foundation,” Coakley said. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without all of my teammates and coaches.”
Coakley said he was amazed at the outpouring of love he had received that day.
“I never expected it to be like this.”
Coakley and I had gotten together again a little over a year ago in Chattanooga, TN. during the week of the 2009 NCAA Division I Football Championship game between Villanova and Montana.
In my role as FCS executive director for The Sports Network, I had invited Coakley to speak at our awards banquet and to present the 2009 Buchanan Award to James Madison defensive end Arthur Moats.
Coakley was also able to catch up with many Appalachian State dignitaries, including Moore, who were there as quarterback Armanti Edwards won his second Walter Payton Award, matching Coakley’s feat as a two-time major award winner.
Once again those of us who visited with him found Coakley was as down to earth as ever.
In the midst of our busy week of activities, Coakley even took time to phone his old babysitting experiment, my daughter Charlotte.
Five years removed from his professional football career and 18 years after stepping onto the Appalachian State campus, Coakley has experienced a attention renaissance.
In May, he was inducted into the Southern Conference Hall of Fame, along with Lefty Driesell (men’s basketball coach — Davidson), Regina Kirk (women’s basketball — Chattanooga), General Robert Neyland (football coach — Tennessee), Vic Seixas (men’s tennis — North Carolina) and Shannon Wommack (women’s cross country/track and field — Chattanooga).
And last month came the news that Coakley had been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
That flurry of recent activity may slow down in years to come, but one thing is certain. It will be a long time before FCS fans forget the legacy of Dexter Coakley.