Mamie Rallins: The forgotten Tigerbelle

Former Ohio State track coach and Tennessee State University star Mamie Rallins. Photo Credit: Ohio State University

Record-setting HU Coach Awaits Her Due

HAMPTON — For all of her exploits, Mamie Rallins’ recognition in track and field is as visible as a wasp. For Rallins, the head women’s track coach at Hampton University for the past three years, the obscurity of her achievements stings a little at times.

Rallins, who was selected as head manager for the USA women’s track team that will compete in next month’s Olympics, has a porfolio that would make most international athletes drool.

She competed in two Olympics. She was the country’s No. 1 female hurdler for four years. She was ranked in the top 10 in the world three times. She has coached 24 All- Americans and one Olympian.

There’s more. She set seven world and 11 U.S. records during her career.

And she’s still waiting for her due.

“I think sometimes I feel I get short-changed because I am a black female,” Rallins said. “We don’t get the recognition that we should receive. We didn’t have that many black women coming and staying in the sport because they couldn’t afford it. There’s nothing more in track and field that I can do as a person.”

Rallins, 59, didn’t enroll in college until she was 30 years old. She suffered from malnutrition as a teen-ager while living at home with her father and six brothers. Her mother died when she was 13.

The only way for her to get a decent meal and survive the tough streets of Chicago was by joining a track club. That club, the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation Club, probably saved her life.

It also gave her incentive to succeed. In fact, she exceeded her own expectations. She finished second in the 80-meter hurdles at the 1967 Pan American Games.

Former Tennessee State University track star Mamie Rallins set seven world and 11 American records during her career . Courtesy photo
Former Tennessee State University track star Mamie Rallins set seven world and 11 American records during her career. Courtesy photo

She then made the 1968 Olympic squad at the ripe age of 27 and earned a trip to the ’72 Games while competing for Wilma Rudolph’s alma mater – Tennessee State. Both years that she made the Olympic team, Rallins was the top women’s hurdler in the U.S.

But Rallins, who was head coach for the Ohio State women’s team for 18 years, never made it past the semifinal heats of each Olympics.

Still, she feels she accomplished a lot.

“When a person sets seven world records and has had American records and been on two Olympic teams … there’s not too many people who receive a scholarship at age 30 and live in the dorm and make your second team when you’re a sophomore in college at the age of 31. I think I should (get the recognition). But that’ll depend on who sells me.”

This could be hard to do, given the era in which Rallins competed. When she competed, there was true amateurism. There were few if any endorsement deals, no commercials that try to woo television viewers into embracing track and field.

In the 1960s and ’70s, athletes were lucky to get some free shoes if they did well. Today, most elite athletes are professionals and have agents who accommodate them. A different time, a different era and a different type of beast, Rallins said.

“When I was running, everybody was an amateur. Now it’s become a job for them. They’re like semi- pros because now they’re allowed to make money.”

Former Tennessee State coach Edward S. Temple, who coached Olympic champions Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus and Madeline Manning as well as Rallins, says it’s a brand new day for today’s athletes.

“We had girls that worked hard,” said Temple, who also worked for a short stint with Karen Dennis, the U.S. women’s Olympic head coach. “These young ladies came along before it was fashionable. They didn’t get any money. They were lucky to get a pair of track shoes.”

Temple, who coached the 1960 and ’64 women’s Olympic teams, said he liked Rallins’ motivation and focus.

“I was impressed with her determination. Being that old and still wanting to come to college, and being around 18- and 19-year-olds, had to be a challenge. She was a pretty rough person, but she just wanted to get the job done.”

Rallins’ name is not a household item like that of Marion Jones, America’s newest track darling.

And you won’t hear people, outside the small circle of track and field, that’ll mention Rallins’ name alongside Gail Devers, the American record- holder in the women’s 100-meter hurdles.

However, Devers and other American hurdlers can certainly benefit from tips Rallins may give them. Stephanie Hightower certainly did. Hightower, a former American record-holder in the 100-meter hurdles, received more than her share of advice from Rallins.

At times the two clashed, but Rallins’ no- nonsense coaching direction eventually won out, said Hightower. She is now vice-president for the Columbus (Ohio) Board of Education.

“We were at odds from the beginning,” Hightower said. “I was a naive, self-centered athlete who thought she had arrived. I was very headstrong, but for the first time I had somebody who was actually coaching me. She’s very high-standard, very detailed. I was fortunate to have a coach who was an expert in the same field I was in.”

Rallins has seen the good, bad and indifferent. While most of the experiences have been good, Rallins has also seen how the ugly hand of politics can scar the Games.

In 1968, Rallins watched as the United States’ political consciousness grew into an uproar with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated.

The rioting at the Democratic Convention, and then the political statement made at the Olympics by African-Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised black-gloved fists on the 200-meters victory stand in Mexico City, sent a message for the power of black America.

Then in 1980, Rallins, Hightower – one of the favorites to win the gold in the 100-meter hurdles – and the rest of the Olympic team watched helplessly as the United States boycotted the Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

However, the scene at the 1972 Games, of which Rallins was a part, was perhaps the most harrowing for her. Arab terrorists raided the Olympic Village in Munich, West Germany, setting in motion events that forever will be the darkest moments in the history of the Games.

Eleven members of the Israeli Olympic contingent would die before getting to return home.

Rallins was more than a little shaken about the raid, which took place the night before her semifinal race.

“I heard some shooting and I thought it was some backfire,” Rallins said. “The morning of my semifinal, I got up to go to meet Ralph Boston (a U.S. long jumper) for breakfast, and he told me we couldn’t go no further than the cafeteria.

“Then we heard on the loudspeakers that the terrorists were still in the Village with guns pointed. Once we found out what was happening in English, we were frozen. It was scary for me. I was ready to come home when I saw the man on the balcony with his face in a hood and cap and holding a machine gun.”

This article, re-published in honor of the late Mamie Rallins, the first African American head coach of any sport at Ohio Sate University (1976-1994),  was originally written by Dennis Freeman for the Daily Press (Newport News, Viginia) on August 27, 2000.

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1044 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.