A sprinter’s success is measured in hundredths of a second. Therefore, a track coach’s success is dependent upon his runner’s ability to lean a little more at the tape, or an opponent’s brief slip out of the starting blocks, or some other cruel act of fate.
As fate would have it, Ed Temple was a successful track coach. Some would say he was the best women’s track coach in the world.
Maybe more accurately, Ed Temple is simply an American treasure. Although not as well known, he’s as much of a coaching legend as John Wooden or “Bear” Bryant. However, in many ways, he’s more of an American treasure than each of those men because of his impact on race and gender during a tumultuous time in our nation’s history.
Temple died after a brief illness Thursday, two days after celebrating his 89th birthday. Without question, Temple embodied each of our “C” character-based leadership traits: Care, Character, Coach, Commitment, Competitor, Composure, Comprehension, Concentration, Confidence and Courage.
In an era when the United States was divided into black and white, men and women, Ed Temple took a group of young ladies from a virtually unknown school in Nashville, and transformed the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles into one of the most prominent track and field programs in the world.
“We had to fight a lot of things. We had to fight racial segregation and segregation of women in sports,” Temple told me years ago while I was working on my first book. “We just had a struggle when you look at it. I’m amazed that we were able to overcome that. I don’t think I could go through that again.”
Amazingly, from his more than four decades of coaching at TSU, 1951-93, Temple had 34 national team titles and 30 Pan-American Games medal winners. Forty of his Tigerbelles became Olympians. When he retired, Temple had been associated with more Olympic medals, 23, than any other individual.
How does that happen? It’s easy to brush it off as good recruiting at a time when women — especially black women — didn’t have great opportunities to compete athletically in college. So, it should have been easy for Temple, considering he was at one of the few all-black colleges that had a women’s track team, right? Not necessarily. You would be hard pressed to find a media outlet promoting a women’s track team from an all-black school in Nashville. Temple tried to explain it to me.
“We started with word of mouth,” he said. “For the first five years I was there, I didn’t have a budget to recruit. Two or three times I just went out on my own, because I was determined to get good girls in here. We started with Mae Faggs and built up from there.”
Faggs was the first American woman to compete in three Olympics, and she medaled in both the 1952 and 1956 Games. At Tennessee State, where she was known as the “mother of the Tigerbelles,” she helped set the stage for future olympians such as Wilma Rudolph, who, in 1960, became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics.
Sure, Temple, who was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012, was a good recruiter. But much of his success comes from being a “C” leader. Some of that can be seen, perhaps, away from the track. Of the 40 Olympians that competed for Temple, 39 graduated from TSU, and the other one finished her degree at Chicago State. Of those 40, 28 of them earned their master’s degrees, and 12 received either an M.D. or a Ph.D.
“To see them do so well (academically) is the main thing for me,” Temple said. “When we were coming along, I always advocated education because there was nothing left in track and field after they graduated. It was awfully important for them to get their degrees, which they did.”
Of course, at that time and at that school, most of Temple’s Tigerbelles were on work-aid, not on athletic scholarships. He said that on paper his largest budget ever was $100,000. Again, that’s on paper. By the time track season rolled around, it wouldn’t be uncommon for football or the other men’s sports to take a large chunk of that pie. In the early years, the program’s budget was $5,000, and the team traveled to meets in a station wagon. When the Tigerbelles did stop in a small Southern town for a food and bathroom break, the athletes had to go to the back of restaurants to be served food, and usually could not use the public restrooms. The biggest perk the Tigerbelles received was two pairs of track shoes from Adidas. Still, Temple won. And his girls won.
“When people ask me what I want to be known for or remembered for, I tell them simply that we made a contribution,” he said. “We were able to open the doors for women not only in track and field, but in all the women’s sports. I feel that Wilma Rudolph not only opened the doors for women in track and field, but for basketball, volleyball and all the other women’s sports. She was out there in front proving that a young lady given an opportunity could win.
“Before we got moving along, we were next to the obituary page in the newspapers. We started to move forward when we put six on the 1956 Olympic team. When Wilma won her three gold medals in 1960, we were on the front page of the whole newspaper.”
With all that’s going on in this country, today Temple again deserves to be on the front of newspapers.