The First Female Basketball Coach

By Gary Norris Gray
Updated: August 21, 2005

TSUEL CERRITO, CA. — How would anyone conceive a woman coaching a male basketball program?

Would a college program be so daring? Would a professional team put their team in the spotlight?

Americans would fine out with the blurred images of young men going up for a rebound on the basketball court of Eastern Kentucky University. No big deal, that’s normal basketball action, until these very young men under the backboard started swinging elbows and fists.

Within seconds both team benches cleared and a complete melee developed on the court. Eastern Kentucky University players were piling on top of Tennessee State University players in an Ohio Valley Conference game. Coaches, players, and some students from both sides participated in this massive bench-clearing brawl. It was a five-minute brawl that sent 19 players and four coach’s home early.

Tennessee State played the remainder of the game with four players. Finally, they finished the game with three players on the court because one player of the four players had accumulated four fouls. The TSU Tigers lost the 16th game in a row to Eastern Kentucky. They lost their interim coach, Hosea Lewis, to a conference one-game suspension. After this well-published incident, the conference lost respect for TSU.

TSU Assistant Coach Chris Davis had only arrived on campus one year earlier, so he was still researching the skills his players and adapting to the new conference. TSU was in a complete bind being (2-20) overall, not winning a single conference game (0-10). What could the Tigers do?

A hero stepped in: Teresa Lawrence Phillips, Director of Athletics at Tennessee State University made American history. She became the first woman to ever coach a men’s Division One basketball program. Mrs. Phillips, a tall and proud African American woman, took control of this very situation.

The 44-year-old former woman’s basketball player and coach took the Tigers to Austin Peay and guided then to their 17th loss, but this would be different. An African American woman would be sitting on the bench, an African American woman would be calling the time-outs and giving the players instructions. Men have been doing this for 25 years in woman’s college basketball programs.

It has not been very bright for the Tigers this year. Being a team in last place, the coaches have a job just keeping moral high and the team ready for the next game. Many team members did not like their coach and were not afraid to say so.

Nolan Richardson III, son of Nolan Richardson, the former head coach of the University of Arkansas, came to practice a week before the brawl with Eastern Kentucky. When he arrived at the gymnasium, he began to yell that he was going to hurt the head coach. Nolan was removed from the team.

After the brawl and the Nolan incidents, Phillips decided to stop the bleeding at Tenn. State University. She would coach the struggling Tigers. She had the credentials, she had the skills, she had the knowledge, and now she had the opportunity.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the basketball history of this fine sports personality: Mrs. Phillips played (forward and center) basketball while attending Vanderbilt University. She graduated in 1980 and stayed on as assistant coach for five years. Her duties included recruiting and scouting for the Lady Commodores.

Mrs. Phillips acquired three star high school players and three All-American high school stars in her tenure at Vanderbilt University. She won the First Lady Commodore Athlete of the Year Award and the Nashville Civitan’s Sportsmanship Award. Wherever Phillips went, her basketball teams flourished. She became head coach of Fisk University and guided the Lady Bulldogs to three WIAC league Championships.

Mrs. Phillips coached the Lady Tigers of TSU from April 1989 until 2000. She pulled the Lady Tigers from the Basement of the Ohio Valley to the Penthouse, winning the first title in 1993-1994. The Lady Tigers went to their first NCAA birth losing to Southern Mississippi in the opening round. Phillips and her Lady Tigers repeated this feat the following year with a record of (22-7) overall and (12-4) in league play.

The Lady Tigers second trip to the NCAA Tournament had the same ending but they really battled #21 ranked Oregon State losing in the final minutes of the game 88-75. Ms. Phillips has many honors, including OVC Coach of the Year, USA Today’s Coach of the Year.

So it does not surprise me that she would take a struggling men’s team and make them look like a formidable college basketball team. Mrs. Phillips mapped out a strategy on how to beat the men of Austin Peay on the one-hour bus ride to the game.

The team loved it. At least they loved the attention the Tigers were getting for this game–so many cameras, so many news crews, and so many reporters. It was a caravan of love, love for the game of basketball.

Well, Tennessee State University did not win the game, but they played much better. The Tigers actually had many leads in that game. Austin Peay Coach David Loos stated that the Tigers played with much more energy and enthusiasm.

Something this team did not do the last time these two teams met. “I thought they had a very good game plan, they confused us with their zone defense” So, Tenn. State University went down to their 17th defeat but they fought hard to 71-56 final score.

Was it Ms. Phillips coaching? Was it the National media attention? Or did they really play better with a female coach–a coach that wanted to win, a coach that happened to be focused on the game at hand, a coach that had no history with the Tiger male players?

Teresa Lawrence Phillips made groundbreaking history that night, but she quickly stated, “I have to hang up my whistle, I’m officially retired.” Mrs. Phillips did not stay for the rest of the season to prove to the world that she still has that coaching magic.

Yes, she had the typical male chauvinist P-I-G at the game yelling at the Tenn. State University players “you all play like girls.” That’s o.k. The TSU Tigers scared Austin Peay for the first half of this game.

So congratulation to Teresa Lawrence Phillips the first woman to coach a male basketball program.