By Dennis J. Freeman
news4usonline.com Black History Month Feature
Retired Tennessee State University coach Ed Temple still hasn’t received his due as one of the all-time great coaches in track and field. It’s time that he did. If it wasn’t for Temple, Wilma Rudolph would not have become the first woman in track and field history to record three gold medals in a single Olympics.
Rudolph, then a lanky teenager, pulled off her remarkable feat at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, making her an international celebrity.
“If Wilma Rudolph would have won those three gold medals in the 2004 Olympics, she would have been a millionaire,” Temple said in a 2007 interview. “She would have been a millionaire a couple of times.”
If it was not for Temple, Wyomia Tyus would not have become the first person-woman or man-to win back-to-back 100-meter titles at two different Olympics. Largely overshadowed by the legacy of Rudolph, the Georgia-born Tyus catapulted herself into the history books when she claimed the gold in the 100-meters in both the 1964 and 1968 Olympics.
What should have been a glorious moment for Tyus turned out to be minor blip on the media’s radar screen because of the 1968 Olympics upheaval surrounding the silent protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
“It overshadowed her, yes,” said Temple from a 2009 interview that will be featured in upcoming book on the legacy of the Tennessee State University Tigerbelles. “Well, you have to realize the times, the times of the 60s. The women weren’t getting any credit. They were always getting second page.”
Temple’s glory days, however, were far from over as a track coach. Forty members of his famed Tennessee State University Tigerbelles made their way to Olympic teams, solidifying Temple’s USA Track and Field Hall of Fame career.
Temple led the Tigerbelles to 34 national titles. He took nothing and built it into a powerhouse. When gender equality was very much just a thought, Temple pushed for fair treatment of women. Long before Title IX came along, Temple had already been busy going to bat for the equal treatment of female athletes.
“You’ve got to realize that when we were coming along women sports weren’t popular,” said Temple from that 2007 interview. “Women sports were just nothing. The philosophy then was if you ran track you couldn’t have any children or you were a tomboy.”
As the Jim Crow era hovered over America during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, Temple fought through segregation with class and dignity, a trait he passed along to his student-athletes. Temple is as iconic a force in the athletic world as there has ever been a sports figure.
His Tigerbelles made a lot of history, which hasn’t been supplanted today. At a time when African Americans were not usually found in leadership positions, Temple was appointed head coach for the United States women’s track team at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics. He took his abilities as a coach at a small black college and gave the world generations of track stars.
Current TSU track coach Chandra Cheeseborough was one of Temple’s bright lights. Certainly a product of Temple’s tough coaching, Cheeseborough made history at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, becoming the first female track and field athlete to record gold medal wins in both the 4×100 and 4×400 relays.
Temple’s Tigerbelles were so legendary that they made up the United States entire 4×100 relay teams in both the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. Under Temple, the Tigerbelles registered 23 Olympic medals, 13 of them gold.
That’s not too bad of an accomplishment for a group of women who had to deal with racism, sexism and discrimination at the height of Jim Crow. That’s because Temple didn’t believe in excuses. He believed in results, even with the $150 budget he started the track program with.
“Well, we achieved that a little early,” said Temple. “You have to realize it was during segregation. They (Tigerbelles) were female. They came from a historically black school. We had three strikes against us when we started. We had three freshmen when we started. We knew that it was an uphill battle. These girls opened the doors for girls that are competing now.”