When people think historically about sports in Nashville, that history didn’t just start when professional franchises like the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators came to town. The Music City has been turning out top athletic talent for as long, or longer, than the Grand Ole Opry has been turning out country music legends.
There have been generations worth of great football and basketball players that have come out of local universities like Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb and Tennessee State and gone on to professional success and even Hall of Fame careers. There have also been hundreds of great baseball players dating back to the 1860s, who either got their start in Nashville or at one time stepped up to the plate at the old Sulphur Dell ballpark or Herschel Greer Stadium.
Many people, though, don’t realize that track and field has a very rich history in this town. At Tennessee State University, they have been producing some of the top track and field talent in the world. Much of that success is due in part to one man, Edward Stanley Temple, who served as head women’s track coach at Tennessee State from 1953 to 1994.
During Temple’s 44 year tenure, he guided his famed Tigerbelle teams to 34 national titles. While at Tennessee State, 40 of his athletes became Olympians – including five for countries besides the United States. They won 23 Olympic medals, 13 of them gold. Temple himself was the head coach of Team USA for the 1960 Games in Rome and the 1964 Games in Tokyo, while also serving as an assistant coach for the boycotted 1980 Games in Russia.
Temple’s Tigerbelle teams have produced some of the most famous names in US Olympic history – names like gold medal winner and Clarksville, Tenn., native Wilma Rudolph, along with gold medal winners Edith McGuire, Wyomia Tyus and Chandra Cheeseborough, just to name a few.
In a truly remarkable feat at the 1960 games in Rome, seven members of the U.S. women’s track and field team all came from Temple’s Tennessee State team. That Olympiad saw Rudolph run into the record books by capturing gold in the 100 and 200 meter races. She then became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the same Olympics when she anchored the winning 4×100 relay team, in which all four participants were Tigerbelles from Tennessee State.
Tyus, now a U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member, became the first sprinter – male or female – to repeat as Olympic champion in the 100 meters, winning in both 1964 and 1968. Her repeat performance also meant that for three straight Olympic Games, the fastest woman in the world hailed from Tennessee State.
In those 1960 Games, right behind Tyus in the 100 meters was Tigerbelle teammate McGuire, giving Tennessee State the two fastest women in the world that year. McGuire collected a gold medal of her own later in those Games, winning the 200 meter race.
The Tennessee State program was also about more than just producing quality athletes and future Olympians. In a true testament of perseverance and strength, Temple was able to produce these dominant teams of African American women year after year, in the racially divided South and well before Title IX came into existence. Temple was determined to nurture his teams into becoming quality citizens as well.
During Temple’s induction to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2012, Tyus recalled in an interview that “To me, the Tigerbelles are everything that I could see a woman should be. It was not only that they were great athletes, but they were also women that were doing something to make careers for themselves when they were told ‘no,’ and also to be black women and in the South, there were a lot of hurdles to get over.”
Speaking of those hurdles, she added that Temple often reiterated, “You just have to keep doing what you need to do.” She says he would also often add, “And even if you do that, you could go to the Olympics and win three, five or six gold medals and you may not ever get the credit you deserve. And it’s not about that. You need to get an education, so that’s what the Tigerbelles are all about. You go to school, you run, yes, but your main goal is to get a good education and be what you want to be.”
Through the years, Temple helped guide his Tigerbelles through the classroom with almost equal success as, of his 40 Olympians, 39 graduated with a college degree.
“And really, when I sit back and look at it now, I’m just as proud of that as if they won the gold medal,” Temple says. “I had 28 get their Master’s, and 13 or 14 got their MDs or Ph.Ds or Ed.Ds.”
The Tigerbelles had more than challenging social environments to overcome in their college careers. The training itself was a challenge in more ways than one. As was evident through his athletes’ Olympic successes, Temple was very good at teaching the Tigerbelles to run, despite difficult training situations. Even though he was producing world class athletes, the Tigerbelles had anything but world class facilities to train on. At times leading up to national championships of U.S. Olympic Trials, his teams would practice three times a day – at 5 a.m., 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on an old cinder track.
“And, brother, when it’s 2 in the afternoon here in July, it’s 90 or 95 degrees,” Temple said. “They had to put tape on their knees and tape on their fingertips to get down on their mark with the cinders so hot.”
Indoors, they would work out on the basketball court, which made it difficult to prepare for the indoor tracks they would be competing on.
Temple coached his last Olympic gold medal winner in 1984, when Chandra Cheeseborough became the first woman to win gold in both the 4×100 and 4×400 relays at the same Games. Fittingly, when Temple decided to retire from coaching at Tennessee State in 1994, it was Cheeseborough, now Cheeseborough-Guice, who took over the reins of the program.
Since taking over, Cheeseborough-Guice has continued the winning ways by leading the Tigerbelles to six Ohio Valley Conference Track and Field Championships and has been named OVC Coach of the Year four times. She has also followed Temple’s lead and was named the sprinter’s coach for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team and helped guide Team USA to 23 medals, 10 of which were gold, at the Beijing Olympics.
Clearly, the deep rooted history in track and field has helped inspire future generations of Tigerbelles, but the work of Temple and runners through the years has also set the bar tremendously high for the other NCAA Division I teams in Nashville.
Belmont and Lipscomb are both relatively new to the arena, having only joined the Division I ranks a little over 10 years ago, but the competition successes for both have improved with each season. Vanderbilt has been competing in SEC track and field since 1989, and, in that time, they have reached the NCAA Championships as a team nine times, finishing as high as 14th in the 1997 outdoor championships and 15th in the 1998 indoor championships.
A quick look at the Vanderbilt team’s facilities also shows exactly how far women’s track and field as a whole has come since Temple and his Tigerbelle teams were training on cinder tracks and basketball courts. The Commodores outdoor track facility underwent a $1.7 million renovation back in 2003, which made it one of the finest running surfaces in the Southeast.
That pales in comparison, though, to the brand new multipurpose facility that houses the track and field team’s indoor training facility. Leading the way in what is expected from indoor track facilities in today’s NCAA, the $30 million dollar project includes a six-lane, 300-meter indoor track, training room and video board for hosting home events.
Commodore head coach Steve Keith said of the new facility that, “now we are able to host an SEC level championship and have a winter home. It was always a limitation for us in the winter outdoors. In January and February when we are competing indoors, we would have to do it outside. Now we are looking forward to having a home with consistent training and for recruiting it has been phenomenal.”
With historic staples of excellence like Tennessee State’s women’s track program and others improving and making continual strides like Belmont, Lipscomb and Vanderbilt, it is very reasonable to expect that Nashville will certainly continue to impact the future of track and field in years and decades to come.