Legendary Tennessee State coach Ed Temple was undefeated
Tigerbelles coach sent 40 athletes to the Olympics, where they won 23 medals
Ed Temple, the legendary track and field coach of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles, died Thursday night just two days after his 89th birthday.
If you’ve never heard this name, that’s really too bad, because this dude was the baddest of the bad when it came to track and field. He was an elite coach who was inducted into nine different halls of fame, won 34 national titles and guided the careers of Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, Mae Faggs Starr, Edith McGuire Duvall, Chandra Cheeseborough, Barbara Jones Slater, Willye White, Madeline Manning Mims, Isabelle Daniels, Martha Hudson, Kathy McMillan and Lucinda Williams. All of those Olympic medalists were trained by Coach Temple, who was a two-time Olympic coach (1960, 1964) during his 41 years at TSU from 1953-1994.
Between 1956 and 1984, TSU sent 40 Tigerbelles to the Olympics, where they won 23 medals — 13 gold, six silver and four bronze. Better yet, all of them graduated. Thirty-two received master’s degrees and eight of them went on to earn doctorates. Their success has been unparalleled in NCAA history. They are the winningest track and field team, male or female, in history.
“We were always running against ourselves in meets,” said Slater, who ran on the 4 x 100 relay team in the 1960 Rome Olympics with Rudolph, Williams and Hudson, in a 2002 interview. “He was a great, great man. People just don’t know all of the things he had to go through — and what we had to go through — to be great. He never let us get away with anything! He had spies all over campus and they would report back to him! He had them everywhere.”
The last time I saw Temple was in New York City about 15 years ago. The Women’s Sports Foundation was honoring the Tigerbelles, and I was asked to be their official escort since I had helped Tyus pen her biography, Running the World. I’ve never enjoyed a better night as a journalist or as an unpaid escort. To be in the midst of that level of greatness was a quintessential moment in my life and career.
By that time, Rudolph had died, but this was like that Motown reunion show when the original Jackson 5 performed together for the first time in years. Picture this: a bunch of gracefully aging former athletes talking trash and recalling all of the times Coach Temple caught them doing something wrong, on or off the track.
I remember Willye “Red” White, who was actually expelled from the team for breaking the rules, trying to get me to drink some concoction that had about 10 different liquors in it! Red, who died in 2007, was the Wanda Sykes of the group. She had us rolling all night! And even though she left TSU under unfortunate circumstances, she always had a high regard for Coach Temple.
“We just didn’t see eye to eye,” she told me then. “But you can’t ignore the fact that he was the greatest coach of all time. And he had to deal with all of us crazy women!”
Tyus, who met Temple when she was 15, spoke wistfully about her friend, mentor and father figure on Friday.
“Of course, you are always saddened when someone dies, even when it was expected,” she said from her home in Los Angeles. “I’ve always felt a closeness to him. He came into my life just when I lost my father. He was always someone you could talk to. I remember he always taught me to never give up, to stand up for what I believed in.”
She also remembered the coach who used to camp outside the fire escape of TSU’s Hale Hall every night during track season. “He’d be there with his flashlight busting us as we came down the steps to go to a party or something.” she said.
That night in New York, Tyus, like all of her teammates in attendance, referred to Temple as “Mr. Temple.” She joked, “We’re all grown women with kids and grandchildren now and we still can’t call him by his first name!”
That’s the kind of respect that they had for him.
I remember that Temple was absolutely beaming that night, standing beside his beloved wife, Charlie B. who predeceased him, and mixing it up with the women who once ran the world. While Rudolph was clearly the most celebrated Tigerbelle, the story of this fabled team had pretty much gone unnoticed. Yet, after hearing about it, everyone in the room that night, including a young Serena Williams, was awed. It was a great night to be a woman — especially a black woman.
A few years before that New York encounter, I’d met Coach Temple in Nashville, Tennessee, where I went to interview him for the Tyus book. I had been warned by Tyus that he could be a bit cantankerous, so I wasn’t really surprised when he scolded me for being five minutes late because I had gotten lost.
Once we started talking, however, he became a complete teddy bear. The proudest moment of my career was when I walked into the TSU library and the front-page story I had written on the team for the Orange County Register called “Once They Ran the World” was displayed in a glass case at the entrance of the building.
It really doesn’t get much better than that. It never got better than Coach Temple.
According to Tyus, no arrangements have been finalized for Temple. While she admitted he had been sick, it was his wish to keep the details of his health private.
“We knew he was ill,” she said.
The magnitude of this loss is right up there with all of the other great coaches calling plays up yonder. The difference between Temple and many of them, however, is he truly built a world-class team from the cinders up — initially on an annual salary of $1,800.
Jim Crow couldn’t beat him. Substandard equipment didn’t deter him. He was an unstoppable force.
And whomever has plans to meet up with him soon, better not be late.