In Honor Of Woman’s History Month

By Gary Norris Gray
Updated: March 18, 2009

CALIFORNIA — The NCAA, ESPN, and other sports networks have ignored a great American historical event. That event was when Teresa Lawrence Phillips became the first woman to coach a Division One men’s basketball team.

This happened six years ago with images of young men gathering hard rebounds on a college basketball court. No big deal, that’s normal basketball action, until the players 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 brawl. It lasted for five-minute brawl and sent 19 players and coaches home early.

After the brawl Tennessee State University played of the game with four players. Finally, they finished the game with three players on the court because one player foul out. The TSU Tigers lost the 16th game in a row to Eastern Kentucky.

They also lost their interim coach, Hosea Lewis, to a conference one-game suspension. Tennessee State University decided to move forward with Ms. Phillips stepped in to restore order in the TSU men’s basketball program.

Assistant Coach Chris Davis had arrived on campus one year earlier. Davis was just getting acquainted with the players and the conference. TSU was in a complete bind with their record being 2-20 overall they had not won a single conference game (0-10).

What could the Tigers do?

The Tigers turned to their Director of Athletics Phillips, and stepped in and made American history. The 44-year-old former woman’s basketball player and coach took the Tigers to the campus of Austin Peay to play their last road game of the season.

An African American woman sat on the bench; an African American woman called the time-outs, and gave the players instructions. Men have been doing this for 40 years in woman’s college basketball programs but here we have the reverse sanario.

The Tigers had a year of turmoil and they were in last place, the coaches had the job of keeping the players morale high and ready for the next game. Many team members did not like Coach Lewis and were afraid to speak out.

Tiger guard Nolan Richardson III, son of Nolan Richardson, the former head coach of the University of Arkansas, came to practice looking for trouble. This happened just a week before the brawl with Eastern Kentucky.

Nolan III arrived at the gymnasium, yelling that he was going to hurt the head coach. This action resulted in the immediate removal from the team. After the brawl and the Nolan incidents, Phillips decided to stop the bleeding at Tennessee State University and to coach the struggling Tigers.

She had the credentials, she had the skills, she had the knowledge, and now she had the opportunity. Whether she won or lost Philips coached into the college basketball history book.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the basketball history of this fine sports personality: Mrs. Phillips played (forward and center) basketball while at 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-Americans during her tenure at Vanderbilt University.

She won the First Lady Commodore Athlete of the Year Award and the Nashville Citizen’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.

Ms. 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 of the Conference, winning the first title in 1993-94.

The Lady Tigers went to their first NCAA birth and lost to Southern Mississippi in the opening round. Phillips and her Lady Tigers repeated this fete 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 results but they really battled No. 21 Oregon State. They lost in the final minutes of the game 88-75. Ms. Phillips has been given many honors, including Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year.

Phillips became head of the TSU athlete program April 2002. She was named one of the 101 Most Influential Minorities in America by the Sports Illustrated Magazine in 2003. USA Today named her National Coach of the Year.

She was inducted into the Lookout Mountain Hall of Fame in August 2008. Phillips now serves as the chairperson for the Ohio Valley Conference Athletic Directors Committee.

So it is not surprise that she took take a struggling men’s team and made it look like a formidable college men’s basketball team that night. Mrs. Phillips mapped out a strategy on how to defeat the men of Austin Peay while they were on the one-hour bus ride.

The TSU men’s team loved it. At least they loved the attention the Tigers received at this game — there was an abundance of cameras, news crews, and reporters. It was a caravan of Tiger Basketball love.

The Tennessee State University male basketball team did not win that game, but they played much better. The Tigers actually had the lead in the first half of that game. Austin Peay, Coach David Loos stated that the Tigers played with much more energy and enthusiasm.

Coach Loos stated “I thought they had a very good game plan, they confused us with their zone defense.” Tennessee State University went down to their 17th defeat but they fought hard to a 71-56 final score.

Was it Ms. Phillips’ coaching? Was it the national media attention?

Or did they just play better for a female coach — a coach that wanted to win, a coach that happened to be focused on the game, a coach that had no history with the Tiger male basketball players?

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

Yes interim Head Coach Phillips had to deal with the typical male chauvinist P-I-G’s at that game. The fans yelled at the Tennessee State University male players “you all play like girls.”

That’s o.k. The TSU Tigers men’s team scared Austin Peay. Ms. Phillips, Director of Athletics at TSU continues to strive for the best for all athletes.

We are reminded of this amazing event in March, Women’s History Month remembering that sometimes the best man for the job — is a woman!