Men's Basketball

Back to school: Syracuse legend Coleman finishing degree 23 years after leaving for NBA

Daily Orange File Photo

Derrick Coleman put together one of the best careers in SU program history before moving on to the NBA. Now Coleman is continuing his education at Syracuse online to finish his degree.

Sociology is, in its most simplistic terms, the science of dealing with social problems.

Well, if that’s the case, then Derrick Coleman has been a sociologist for years.

“Think about this,” he implored, “I’ve been dealing with social problems my whole life, so I already have a master’s, a bachelor’s, I’ve been dealing with that my whole life.”

Twenty-three years after leaving Syracuse for the NBA, Coleman is gearing back up for classes in the fall semester. The former All-American is taking online classes and just 12 credits away from physically receiving his degree in sociology from the university. He is listed as a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences on the SU student directory and is enrolled in two classes this fall, which puts him on track to graduate in the spring.

Coleman played at Syracuse from 1986-90. Most people get their degrees wrapped up in four years, but most people aren’t on the fast track to their first million-dollar check at 22 years old.

“You’re coming out of school, you’re the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA, you’re not thinking about school at this time,” Coleman said, “you’re going to take on the world.”

Coleman was selected No. 1 overall in the 1990 NBA Draft by the New Jersey Nets after winning Big East Player of the Year as a senior. But he didn’t have enough credits to graduate.

At a time when most wouldn’t be thinking about completing an unfinished degree, the big man never let it escape his mind. Any conversation with head coach Jim Boeheim or former assistant coach Bernie Fine inevitably led to talk about Coleman finishing his degree.

“In the back of my mind, even when I used to talk to Coach when I was still playing he would always say that ‘you’ll come back to school,’” Coleman said, “and I was like, ‘Yeah, Coach, I’m going to do it. I’m going to get it.’”

“Every conversation I would have with Bernie that was like the second thing out of his mouth,” he added.

Coleman is the latest in a line of Orangemen from the 1990s working to finish the degrees left incomplete when they advanced to the professional ranks.

John Wallace finished up his degree two years ago. Lawrence Moten came back to Syracuse in 2007 to finish his while serving as an assistant for the basketball program, and Billy Owens has been working on his.

“You taking classes this summer?” one former teammate will ask another.

“You get back online with the classes?” another will inquire.

“It’s a group thing for all of us,” Coleman said.

The online model has made this possible. Coleman spends much of his time traveling, whether it’s attending Orange basketball games or public speaking, so it’s tough for him to get back up to Syracuse for class.

With online classes, he can complete them at his leisure.

“If I don’t have anything scheduled for me to do then I’m on my computer taking a class,” Coleman said. “There’s not really a timetable. If I can’t get a class done in five or six months or whatever then shame on me.”

Coleman will probably never use his sociology degree. Sociology is about dealing with social problems, something he’s done his whole life. He already has a bachelor’s and master’s in sociology, he likes to say.

So the motivation is personal and familial. He’s the first member of his family to attend college. Finishing his degree will grant him a sense of individual accomplishment.

“For me it’s just for personal reasons because I do believe that whatever I start I try to finish,” Coleman said.

The motivation seems to be the same for many of the former Orangemen who finish their degree up later. When Owens left Syracuse early for the NBA he said he told his family he would “eventually get a college degree.”

Coleman doesn’t regret leaving Syracuse early to finish his degree, just as most former players don’t.

“I was fulfilling my dream,” he said. He always knew he would come back and finish.

When he was at school, it seemed that something always got in the way. It was tough to balance practices, academics, training and a social life, especially at an age when he still wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with his life.

Coleman wishes that he had the resources that students and athletes had now, where someone could have noted how well he was doing in his speech communication classes and directed him on that route.

Things come up even now, but he has too much pride not to get it done. And now that he doesn’t need to sit in a classroom to finish it, he has all the time in the world.

“I travel so much and I get sidetracked about getting it done, but I am,” he said. “I’m definitely going to get it done.”

Top Stories