NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – As Nashville prepared for the NCAA Women’s Final Four Basketball championship series last week, The Tennessean took a look back at eight women, all with ties to Middle Tennessee, who have helped put women’s basketball on the map in the United States.
One of those legendary figures is none other than Tennessee State University’s Athletic Director, Teresa Phillips. She joins other iconic figures such as Lin Dun, Marynell Meadors, Carolyn Peck, Alline Banks Sprouse, Pat Summitt, Nera White and Betty Wiseman.
Phillips became head of the TSU athletics department in April of 2002. She has the distinction of being the first woman ever to coach an NCAA Division I men’s basketball team en route to being named one of the “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports” by Sports Illustrated in 2003.
The Tennessean also named her as the Second Most Influential Woman in Sports in Tennessee. In addition, Phillips was named USA Today’s National Coach of the Year in 1990 and was a three-time OVC Coach of the Year selection.
Mike Organ, sports writer for The Tennessean, had a chance to speak with one of the most influential leaders and pioneers in college sports in Middle Tennessee.
Legendary Ladies: Middle Tennessee’s Elite Eight
Courtesy of The Tennessean
While some bemoan the time it took for women’s basketball to catch up to men in terms of equality, Teresa Phillips has no complaints.
Phillips played a big role in the evolution of the women’s game in the Midstate not only as a player and coach, but also as an administrator.
And considering how far it had to go in order to reach the men’s level she’s been quite pleased.
“I think it was rather quick, actually,” Phillips said. “You couldn’t just shoot ahead at warp speed because individuals weren’t prepared for that and there wasn’t the infrastructure to handle that. But once some of the major schools decided to buy into women’s basketball they did it at the reasonable, quick pace at which it needed to be done.”
Phillips fondly and vividly recalls those early years playing at Vanderbilt because they weren’t that long ago. She was a member of the Commodores first three teams (1977-80). In fact, Phillips played on a club team at Vanderbilt her freshman year (1976-77) before the school recognized basketball as a varsity sport.
She remembers the days when teams made do on shoestring budgets, traveled in borrowed vans to play away games, and had only a handful of fans show up.
“It’s so fun now to think back on it and those were some great days,” she said. “Riding in the van doesn’t sound very exciting, but to see how far you’ve come from doing that or having to drive your individual cars to knowing that today they fly anywhere they want. They do pretty much anything they want. Their locker room and everything else for the most part is equitable to the men and that is satisfying.”
Phillips made national news when she became the first woman to coach in a men’s Division I college game in 2003.
Phillips didn’t take her seat on the men’s bench at TSU to make history. She simply felt she was left with no other option.
She had fired Tigers coach Nolan Richardson III earlier in the season and then suspended interim coach Hosea Lewis.
She had 19 years coaching experience at the time, had coached the TSU women three years earlier, and felt that her only option was to coach the team herself in its next game against Austin Peay. The eyes of the nation watched as the Tigers lost their 17th consecutive game falling to the Governors 71-56.
While Phillips was praised for taking such a bold move, it was a step she regrets having had to make.
“That would probably still go down as my lowest time in my career at Tennessee State,” Phillips said. “That was a decision that I didn’t think very much of; I didn’t think a big deal would be made of it and all of a sudden it was a big deal. It was not intended to make history.”
Sports Illustrated made sure Phillips made history by naming her one of its “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports” that year.
The Tennessean named her the “Second Most Influential Woman in Sports” in the state.
Phillips may be 0-1 in her career coaching men’s basketball, but she was very successful coaching women.
After serving as an assistant at Vanderbilt (1981-1984) she became the coach at Fisk where she was named the WIAC Coach of the Year in 1987 and 1988. Her career record at Fisk was 68-34, which helped her to move on to TSU in 1989.
By 1990 she was named National Coach of the Year by USA TODAY.
Phillips went on to be named the OVC Coach of the Year three times including the 1993-94 season when the Lady Tigers claimed the league’s regular season and conference titles and sent them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
She guided TSU back to the NCAA Tournament the following year when the Lady Tigers posted a 22-7 overall record.
Phillips was named interim athletics director while she was still coaching. She stepped down as coach after the 2000 season to take over the athletics director position on a full-time basis.
Her career coaching record at TSU was 212-189, which is not bad considering she graduated from Vanderbilt with an economics degree and went to work as an insurance broker.
She never, however, lost her love for basketball.
“I just couldn’t get it out of my crawl, enjoying sports,” Phillips said. “I wasn’t making much money coaching in those early years and my father thought I was absolutely crazy. But with mother, the one thing that she really urged all of her children to do was to follow your heart. Follow what it is that you love and desire to do. I guess she was too crazy to realize I had all those bills to pay.”
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With nearly 9,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 undergraduate, 22 graduate and seven doctoral programs. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.