By Barbara Buratti, Esq.
This summer, Andrew M. Coats stepped down as dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Law as the college celebrated its 100th anniversary. In his 14 years as dean, Coats orchestrated and led the renaissance of the college, taking it from a time of crisis and near demise to national stature and high rankings among its peers. Now Dean Emeritus, Coats continues to teach as a faculty member of the college.
Coats has had an extraordinary and varied career. One of the most prominent leaders in the Oklahoma legal profession for almost 50 years, Coats has also served as the Oklahoma County District Attorney, the mayor of Oklahoma City, president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, national president of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and president of Crowe & Dunlevy, one of Oklahoma’s largest and most prestigious law firms.
From an early age, Coats was interested in the law. In high school, he would go down to the courthouse and watch cases being tried. He thought being an advocate was a very high calling and never wanted to be anything but a fine trial lawyer. He achieved that goal and much more.
After graduating from the University of Oklahoma, Coats served as a naval advisor to the Chinese Nationalist Government in Taiwan while he was an officer in the U.S. Navy. Coats then attended the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Being named Outstanding Law Student and Outstanding Law Graduate were signs of great things to come.
With his law degree in hand, he went to work for Crowe & Dunlevy. Within six years, he became a partner in the firm. Coats intended to continue his law practice, which he did, and continues to this day. Coats said he really hadn’t intended to do anything else. Then, in 1976, while serving as president of the Oklahoma County Bar Association, Governor David Boren persuaded Coats to serve out the term of Oklahoma County District Attorney Curtis Harris, who had died while in office. Coats thought he would serve two years, but this eventually turned into four.
Coats recalled that when he took over as D.A., it was almost like stepping into Charles Dickens’ time. Coats not only brought the office up to date, he tried a number of high profile cases. He said that in many ways, he spent more time trying NOT to send people to the penitentiary than trying TO send them there.
Coats said, “I tried to find ways to do different – and hopefully creative – kinds of sentencing, to try to avoid the significant risks faced when people are placed in the penal system. We made some important changes. It was a very interesting time.”
In 1980, U. S. Senator Henry Bellmon decided he would not seek reelection. Coats ran for the open Senate seat. He made it through the primaries and into the general election, but Don Nickles won that race.
“My life has been richer because I lost the Senate race, because of all the things I have gotten to do that I wouldn’t otherwise have done,” said Coats. One of those things was becoming mayor of Oklahoma City in 1983.
Penn Square Bank had collapsed in August 1982. “My timing has often been a little bit questionable,” recalls Coats. “By the time I took over as mayor in the Spring of 1983, the city was absolutely in gridlock. We used to say that it was one of the few places in the world where your check was good and the bank bounced.”
The city was dependent on sales tax for revenues, and nobody was buying or selling anything. As a result, Coats had to deal with closing parks and cutting back services. For the first two years of his four-year term, all that could be done was to keep the ship afloat. Coats said that in the last two years “we were able to do some things to stimulate the economy. We passed significant bond issues and began to have significant ability to deal with infrastructure problems.”
After completing his term as mayor, Coats served as president of Crowe & Dunlevy as well as president of the Oklahoma Bar Association. He was then selected as a regent of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and thereafter became the president of that elite organization. Less than one percent of the top lawyers attain membership; those accepted as members have demonstrated not only that they are really fine lawyers, but also persons of honor.
While Coats was serving as president of the American College of Trial Lawyers, David Boren, who had become dean of the University of Oklahoma, for the second time called on Coats to take over an extremely difficult task – to rescue and resuscitate the OU College of Law. Coats accepted the challenge, becoming dean of the law school in 1996.
“When I got here, things were truly in disarray. The building was in bad shape. There were too many students. The school was in danger of losing its accreditation, and its continued existence was in jeopardy.” Coats was brought in to “turn things around,” and that is what he did.
Coats increased the number of endowed faculty positions and scholarships, and decreased entering class sizes. Raising $20 million in private donations, Coats guided and oversaw the dramatic upgrade and addition to the Law Center, doubling its size. Upon its completion in 2000, the OU Board of Regents named the building that houses the law school the “Andrew M. Coats Hall” in his honor. Coats said, “That’s the only time Andy Coats was speechless.”
Coats’ appreciation and pride in what the OU College of Law has become under his watch are palpable. Strolling through the law school, Coats greets the students and staff, explaining everything from the inspiration behind the architectural design and the significance of the art chosen to hang on the walls to the state-of-the-art electronics.
He also takes pride in what he considers his most important legal accomplishment – his victory in the landmark case that broke the NCAA’s monopoly of college football television.
Coats explained, “NCAA had absolute control. There was only one game of the week, and many schools had never been on television in their entire history because the NCAA had such an iron hand. NCAA believed that television restricted live attendance. It turns out that it did just the opposite. People watch on television, and then they want to be at the game. So actually it encouraged live attendance.” Coats successfully argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which threw out NCAA regulations. This case brought by OU and the University of Georgia against the NCAA had a major effect on conference alignments, coaching salaries and the incomes of many universities.
In the first 50 years of his career, Andrew Coats has accomplished so much as an attorney, public servant and educator. He knows he has not done it alone. In his office in the grand building bearing his name sits a small bronze sculpture of a turtle on a fence post. According to an old saying, when you see a turtle atop a fence post, you know he didn’t get there by himself. To Coats, the sculpture is a reminder of those who helped him along the way.
Barbara Buratti is an attorney with the Wilson, Cain and Acquaviva law firm in Oklahoma City. Suggestions for future articles may be sent to Barbarab@wcalaw.com