When people think of Tennessee State University athletics, they often think of its history. They remember Wilma Rudolph and her remarkable gold medal performances at the Rome Olympics, future Super Bowl winner Ed “Too Tall” Jones, NFL Hall of Famer Richard Dent or longtime NBA stars Anthony Mason and Carlos Rogers.
There was a time not so long ago, when Tennessee State University was an unquestionable athletics powerhouse. In football alone, the Tigers have produced an astonishing 309 All-Americans, 13 Historically Black College and University National Championships, two Ohio Valley Conference championships and four appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The recent history hasn’t been as bright, though. The Tigers’ football team hasn’t seen the postseason since 1999.
On the basketball court, the Tigers have had similar successes in their history. In addition to 22 NBA draft selections, the Tigers captured three NAIA National Championships and since joining the Division I ranks, they have reached the NCAA Tournament twice. The most recent visit to the Big Dance was 20 years ago, though – before some on today’s roster were even born.
Through the mid-1990s and into the new millennium, the TSU athletic department lacked the stability that any successful organization needs in order to prosper. Having gone through three athletic director changes in a short time span, Tennessee State needed someone to help right the ship and get TSU athletics back on track. So in 2002, they turned to someone who certainly personified stability and success at TSU…Teresa Phillips. From that point on, she hasn’t disappointed.
Prior to taking on the role of athletic director, Phillips knew about success. She was the head coach of the Lady Tigers basketball program and led them to the program’s first-ever OVC regular season crown, two OVC tournament championships, and two NCAA tournament appearances. In addition, she was named USA Today’s National Coach of the Year in 1990, was a three-time OVC Coach of the Year selection and was twice asked to serve as an assistant coach with Team USA Basketball for the US Olympic Team.
Looking back on the state of TSU athletics when she took over 11 years ago, Phillips recalled, “I really inherited a department that was still-functioning but not one with a whole lot of infrastructure. It was one that needed a whole lot of work just with the organization of what athletic departments do today. We didn’t even have a secretary or academic advisor.”
“Fifty years ago, you just played football, basketball and a few other sports and there you go, you had an athletic department. But in the 2000s, there are many more expectations. You have regulations and standards of your conference and the NCAA to comply with, and you need to have that infrastructure in place.”
Phillips and her staff, which does now include a secretary and multiple academic advisors, have made great strides in bringing stability and needed infrastructure to the TSU athletic department. In the process, Phillips earned personal accolades like being named one of the “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports” by Sports Illustrated and the Second Most Influential Woman in Sports in Tennessee by The Tennessean. Those accolades aren’t what she is most proud of, though.
With obvious pride and enthusiasm in her voice, she says, “I’m most proud of our academic enhancements. When I first came in as a coach in the early ‘90s, our graduation rate was one of the worst in the nation out of the 320-plus Division I schools. If we weren’t in the bottom 10, we were pretty close.”
Phillips added, “now we have had some years recently where we were No. 1 in the OVC or in the state in regards to our graduation rates. We have not had any teams in the penalty phase of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, which is challenging for most schools to say.”
In addition to changing the academic expectations throughout the department, Phillips says that changing the overall perception of TSU athletics and the support it requires has been another hurdle she has faced over the last 11 years.
Phillips commented, “We are a historic program and have had a very successful past. Our fans and alumni are accustomed to winning, but we have to get it across to them that it doesn’t just come automatically in this day and time. It takes monetary support. It takes resources for it to all work and that, although we are a state university, the state doesn’t pay for that. It takes a lot of fundraising and revenue building. That is a bad word sometimes, but you just have to do it if you really want winning results.”
With out-of-state scholarships nearing $30,000 now at TSU and the constant need for facility improvements, Phillips and her staff have done all they can to improve the fundraising. Starting with the revitalization of the Big Blue Booster Club, Phillips and TSU have completed major projects to improve locker rooms for basketball, volleyball and softball. They have built an indoor practice facility for football and embarked on a campaign to renovate the football team’s historic Hale Stadium.
With these improvements in academics, infrastructure and facilities in place, the Tigers have started to see positive results on the field. Women’s Track and Field has captured a pair of OVC crowns since 2002, while volleyball won the OVC in title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2007. The golf team also won the PGA Minority Collegiate National Championship in 2009. The football team has been ranked in the FCS Top 25 in recent years, while the men’s basketball team was only three points away from the OVC Tournament crown and a berth into the NCAA Tournament in 2012.
That isn’t enough though for Phillips. She wants to continue doing everything possible to give TSU the best competitive advantage possible. For some schools around the country, that has meant realigning their conference affiliation, a possibility that isn’t completely off the table at TSU, either.
“Well, that has been debated at TSU pretty heavily since we joined the OVC,” said Phillips about a possible conference move. “With us being a [Historically Black College and University], there are two really solid conferences made up of those traditional schools. The [Southwest Athletic Conference] probably matches up best with TSU and we have a standing invitation with the SWAC that we delayed responding to, waiting for a permanent president to take office at TSU. We now have a president in place with Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover, and we are still looking at that response in probably the next year, but the OVC is still good fit for Tennessee State.”
Speaking of the Tigers’ current OVC affiliation, Phillips said, “Building OVC basketball is important, and keeping football relevant in the OVC I think will keep TSU feeling that the OVC is a good fit for it. Football is so important at TSU, so being able stay competitive and having value out of OVC football is our biggest challenge with the conference. The question isn’t answered yet, so there will always be a little question mark over TSU and conference affiliation because of that traditional rivalry with our sister HBCU institutions.”
It will become harder for TSU to bolt from the OVC, though. As Phillips also describes, the conference has been getting much stronger in basketball, which is where most of the money can be made through NCAA Tournament and television payouts.
”Basketball is about to be really big, and in mid-major conferences like the OVC, that is your big money maker in terms of having the opportunity to be profitable. That weighs into it, and football is tough to be profitable in at any level and especially at our level.”
Asked if the addition of Belmont to the league had any bearing on TSU, Phillips remarked that “Belmont had been on the OVC’s radar for a while and that it ended up being a great move for the conference because of the value they bring.”
Speaking of that value, Phillips does have a lot of confidence in the future of OVC basketball as a whole and the possibility of the Tigers being a part of that success. “I really think [the OVC] can get to a two-bid level in the NCAA Tournament.”
“When you get that second team in, that is when things get really exciting. When you can win a game or two, it gets even more exciting, and I really see the OVC doing that in the next five years or so.”
While basketball success is the best way to produce income for the department, football is still king among fans in the South, and at TSU it is no different. Tiger fans love the traditional rivalry games they play in each year, like the John Merritt Classic and the Southern Heritage Classic. Many programs at the FCS level find themselves having to “play up” a game or two each season against FBS competition for a payout or “money game.” In the past TSU hasn’t had to do that very much because the income from their classic games was comparable to the payout from FBS games. The same isn’t true today. With FBS game payouts increasing each year, Phillips and TSU are planning to add more of those games to future schedules.
It isn’t strictly for financial purposes, though, says Phillips. “The other part is our student-athletes want to play a big D1 game. We’ve only played Vanderbilt (2006) and Air Force (2011), but our student-athletes want the opportunity to play on that platform. I think that one D1 game is something you have to give to your student-athletes – maybe not every year but a few times in their career – because they really want to do it.”
When asked about potential future FBS opponents and if a second trip across town to Vanderbilt was in the works, Phillips responded, “Yeah, we are still talking with them about that. They reached out to us and we are talking about it because it is just a fun game for Nashville. The first game we had scheduled with them ended up being a huge rain storm, so it wasn’t as festive as it could have been and attendance wasn’t what it could have been so we are going to get it again in the next five years. We just don’t know exactly when yet, but we are working on it.”
Overall, Tennessee State isn’t where Phillips wants it to be in regards to winning championships yet. There is still some work to be done, but she is confident they are making strides and headed down the right path. With no plans to step away anytime soon, Phillips is also ready to help TSU keep knocking on that door. When the time does come for her to step away, though, she has only one goal in mind.
“When I finally go home and sit down, I want to pass the program on to the next person in a better position than I found it. I want them to be blessed by the things that we have done over the years prior to that.”