EAST LANSING — There’s an old joke that says college is a storehouse for knowledge, because the freshmen bring so much, and the seniors take away so little. Maybe that’s true — until you meet Mill Coleman. Here’s a kid who came in with a ton and will leave with even more.

Already Coleman has gotten his diploma from Michigan State. That’s right. He graduated last semester — with honors, thank you — and now divides time between football practice and a master’s degree program in the business school. I went to business school once upon a time. As I recall, I barely had time to burp — and I didn’t play football. (Although at my alma mater, Columbia, they pretty much took anyone with shoes.)

So how Coleman does both things, I don’t know. But then, he has always been a sort of dual-major person. How else do you explain one of the best high school quarterbacks the state has ever seen turning into an All-America candidate at receiver in college? Passing and catching are supposed to be two different things, right? Unless you have skills like Coleman. And hands to match.

I first met the kid when he was a senior at Farmington Hills Harrison High. I lived in Farmington Hills and sort of adopted him as a hometown favorite. I used to drive past practice and slow the car to see whether I could pick him out. He was breaking all kinds of records then, setting the state mark for passing yardage and touchdown throws — which he still holds. His nickname was “Mill The Thrill.” Cute. You could walk around singing the old Fats Domino tune, “I Found My Thrill, in Far- ming-ton Hills. . . .”

And when I first shook his hand, I thought I was hallucinating. Although he’s only 5-feet-9, his paws are like catcher’s mitts. My fingers disappeared.

“Mill the Thrill,” I said, staring at the grip.

“Um, yeah,” he answered shyly.

“Can I have my hand back?” Learned to adjust at MSU

Five years later, he is just as reserved, just as modest and just as well-endowed in the hands department. More than that, however. Mill Coleman has learned the biggest lesson college can teach: how to adjust.

“I played quarterback all my life until I got here,” he says, getting ready for his last showdown with Notre Dame, Saturday in East Lansing. “I always thought I was good at it. I never knew I had potential as a receiver. After my freshman year, it was pretty much a choice of being a backup quarterback or stepping in and playing receiver right away.

“I didn’t like standing on the sidelines. The first Notre Dame game, my uniform was completely clean. I didn’t even have to take a shower. That wasn’t for me.”

So he agreed to try catching passes — with the promise that he still would be considered in the quarterback race. Was he good? By his junior year, he actually led the team in receiving, led the team in punt returns and started two games at quarterback. Talk about getting value out of an athletic scholarship! Even Deion Sanders doesn’t run, catch and pass the ball.

“At first it was a little weird, because at quarterback, you’re used to talking in the huddle and as receiver you just have to listen,” Coleman says.
“But one thing I learned in high school: Every receiver comes back and says,
‘I’m open. I’m open.’ Believe it or not, that puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback. It can make him look at one receiver when he should be looking at others.

“So I don’t do that. I figure they’ll find me.’

Spoken like a true quarterback — er, receiver. I mean, flanker. I mean, well, you know. Farmington was big-time

When Mill Coleman was a child, he had a daily routine. He would come home from school in small-town Albion, ride his bicycle to his grand-mother’s house, get a quarter, buy a bag full of candy, and wait for his cousins to play football in the park. It was every day. It was life as he knew it.

Life changed. His father, an insurance agent, was transferred to Farmington Hills — “it was like the big city compared to where I’d come from,” Mill says — and colleges began pursuing him like dogs pursue a biscuit. He could have gone to Michigan or Colorado. Both wanted him badly. Both have gone on to great success, more so than MSU in the last four years.

“I don’t look back,” says Coleman, a captain. “Nothing’s gonna come out of that.”

Instead, once again, he adjusted. While Michigan-Notre Dame made headlines year after year, Coleman quietly played some of his best games against the Irish (seven catches last year, seven catches the year before). And while pundits hail U-M’s Tyrone Wheatley, Coleman is on track to replace Andre Rison as MSU’s all-time leading receiver. Andre Rison? He’s going to replace him?

This is Coleman’s style. Big hands. Big accomplishments. Small mouth. And he’s a graduate student?

“It’s weird,” he says. “All these older people are in my classes. They talk about jobs they’ve had, and I sit there, because I’ve never really had a job.”

Oh, yes he has. He has had lots of them.

You hear all these awful stories from college football. And then there’s this kid with a big smile and big hands who had to make decisions, and made the most of them. Some people don’t know what to expect from Mill Coleman. I do. Expect results.

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