Coffman, 1939 Vol, dies

Leonard Coffman, long recognized as a favorite player of Coach Bob Neyland because of his take-no-prisoners approach to football, died Thursday in his adopted hometown of Greeneville.

He was the last surviving starter on the 1938 and 1939 teams that were two of the greatest elevens ever fielded under the orange and white Tennessee colors. The undefeated 1938 squad won the first of the UT's six national championships, and the 1939 Vols were the last major college team to go through a season unscored-on.

A native Kentuckian who moved to Greeneville while still in high school, Coffman died at age 92. Until the last few months, he had continued to enjoy health that allowed him to stay active at his farm on the outskirts of Greeneville, where he lived alone.

Coffman, who was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, was credited as the first back in the nation to ever execute the dive play for short yardage, a tactic that has since become standard in college football.

It was something Neyland told him to work on before the 1938 Alabama game at Legion Field in Birmingham. The coach explained that Alabama would send its defensive linemen in low at the goal line to thwart the Tennessee run. Twice on that October afternoon against the Crimson Tide, Coffman leaped high over the pile of players, resulting in the two touchdowns that gave Tennessee the victory, 13-0.

"We had practiced the play previously that season, but the Alabama game was the first time we needed it," Coffman said.

Fellow Vols who helped put together a 33-game winning streak in regular season play under Neyland in the late 30s and early 40s were in awe of Coffman's fighting spirit.

The late John Bailey, a teammate who later coached at Tennessee, once described Coffman as "the meanest, toughest football player Tennessee has ever had." George Cafego had echoed similar sentiments. The All-America tailback of those classic Neyland teams said, "When you saw the back of Coffman's neck turning red, you got out of his way."

After Army service in World War II, Coffman got into coaching, working on the staff of another UT All-America, Bowden Wyatt, at Wyoming. Coffman stayed at Wyoming until 1954, when he returned south to become the principal and coach at the high school in Hot Springs, N.C.

A year later, he was called to his alma mater, Greeneville High School, where he had been a star player after his family had moved from Middlesboro, Ky., while Coffman was still in high school.

Over a five-year period, he coached the Greene Devils to a 32-19-2 record. He left coaching to become a school administrator in the Greene County system.

Aside from his accomplishments as a coach and player, Coffman coined a philosophical statement that reflected his view of Tennessee football. In an interview with a Memphis sportswriter during his playing days, Coffman remarked, "To play football for Tennessee, you have to get wet all over." His description of the Vols makeup has been resurrected by UT coaches periodically as a motivational tool.

Neyland admired Coffman's spunk and grit but didn't spare his talented fullback the discipline for which the General was noted.

"Neyland was a great man who took care of me a lot," Coffman remembered a few years ago. "I got in trouble one time, though. I took off and went home to see my girlfriend. When we were dressing for Monday practice, Neyland asked me how far it was to Greeneville. I told him 72 miles. He said, 'OK, that will be 72 laps around the track.' Dink Eldridge, our manager, counted them off."

Funeral services will be held Wednesday at Greeneville's Cumberland Presbyterian Church, beginning at 8 p.m.

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