Phillips, Teresa L. 1958–
Teresa L. Phillips 1958–
Athletic director, basketball coach
In February of 2003 the Tennessee State University (TSU) men’s basketball team lost yet another game, bringing their dismal season record to 2-21 (two wins to 21 losses). Nonetheless, journalists clamored to interview the TSU Tiger’s coach and fans from the opposing team lined up for pictures and autographs. The losing coach drawing so much interest was TSU’s athletics director. She was also a woman. When the Tigers unexpectedly lost two coaches mid-season, Teresa Phillips did what any good athletics director would have done—she found the best replacement for the team. That just happened to be her. With 19 years of coaching experience, 14 for the TSU women’s team, Phillips was a natural to coach the team. What made her decision so noteworthy was a matter of history—Phillips was the first woman to ever coach a men’s Division I team in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Phillips, however, rejected the idea that her one time coaching of the team was significant. “This isn’t history,” she told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “I’m about to go back out to pasture and back to my administrative office. When an institution hires a woman to coach the men’s team, that will be history.”
Born Teresa Lawrence on June 15, 1958, Phillips was raised in the community of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. At the exclusive Chattanooga Girls Preparatory School, she discovered a love of basketball. Later, at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, Phillips became a star player for the school’s Lady Commodores basketball team. Her skill on the court brought her several honors. She won three letters in basketball and was named the school’s first Lady Commodore Athlete of the Year. In 1979 and 1980 she won the Sportsmanship Award from the Nashville branch of the Civitan Club, an international civic organization. When not shooting hoops, Phillips served as a student government representative from 1977 to 1978. She was also elected president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in 1980.
After graduating with a degree in business administration and economics in 1980, Phillips joined the staff of Vanderbilt as an assistant coach of the women’s basketball program. In addition to coaching, she was
At a Glance…
Born Teresa Lawrence on June 15, 1958, in Chattanooga, TN; married Michael Phillips; children: Micah and Kyle. Education: Vanderbilt University, BA, economics and business administration, 1980; Tennessee State University, MA, administration and supervision, 1999.
Career: Vanderbilt University, assistant basketball coach, 1981-84; Fisk University, head women’s basketball coach, 1986-89; Tennessee State University, head women’s basketball coach, 1989-2000, associate athletics director, 1995-2002, interim athletics director, 2001-02, athletics director, 2002-, head men’s basketball coach, 2003.
Memberships: Board member, Fellowship of Christian Athletes; former member, NCAA Basketball Rules Committee.
Awards: Nashville Civitan’s Sportsmanship Award, 1979, 1980; USA Today National Coach of the Year, 1990; Ohio Valley Conference Co-Coach of the Year, 1990; Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year 1993, 1994; ranked 91, “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports,” Sports Illustrated, 2003.
Addresses: Office —Athletics Department, Tennessee State University, 3500 John A. Merritt Blvd., Room 131 Kean Hall, Nashville, TN, 37209.
responsible for scouting new talent and according to her biography on TSU Tigers website, “[she] was directly involved in recruiting six All-Americans and seven All-State players to Vanderbilt. In 1984 she left her alma mater to take on head coaching duties at the historically African-American Fisk University also located in Nashville. She led the Lady Bullfrogs basketball team to league championships in both the 1986-87 and the 1987-88 seasons. At the end of her tenure in 1989, Phillips had established a winning 62-38 record. She also had her first experience in the administrative side of the game, serving as a member of the NCAA Basketball Rules Committee for two years.
Phillips joined Tennessee State University as head women’s basketball coach in April of 1989. She inherited a team with a dismal record—in the three previous seasons the Lady Tigers had won just five games. Phillips more than doubled those wins in her first season, leading the team to a respectable 12-14 season. In the process she earned the title of 1990’s “National Coach of the Year” from USA Today and Ohio Valley Conference Co-Coach of the year—TSU falls under the realm of the Ohio Valley Conference. Under her tutelage the team continued to improve and at the end of the 1993-94 season won the Ohio Valley Conference championship and made their first ever appearance in an NCAA tournament. Phillips was named Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year for her efforts. The Lady Tigers repeated their success the following year, claiming part of the Ohio Valley Conference title and making their second showing at an NCAA tournament. Though the team was out after a first game loss to Oregon State, Phillips was again named Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year.
In 1995 Phillips was hired as Tennessee’s associate athletics director. Still serving as head coach for the Lady Tigers, Phillips brought her years of experience on the court to the halls of the administration. She was particularly involved in women’s athletics and non-revenue generating sports. She also brought renewed focus on the academic achievements of student athletes. In 2000, after 11 seasons as head coach, Phillips retired from coaching with an impressive 212-189 record.
By this time Phillips had earned a master’s degree in administration and supervision and was ready to turn her full attention to athletics administration. It wasn’t long before she was scoring kudos there too. In 2001 Tennessee State was awarded the Ohio Valley Conference Academic Achievement Banner. The award acknowledged TSU student athletes as having the highest comparative GPA’s of all other schools in the Conference.
Following the ousting of TSU’s athletics director in June of 2001, Phillips was made the interim director. In that role she “implemented a number of initiatives for the department in marketing, fund raising, and academics and developed a new departmental policy manual,” noted TSU Tigers website. In April of 2002 Phillips assumed the role full-time, becoming one of only 24 female athletics directors serving at the NCAA Division 1 level. Of her appointment Phillips said, “As a former TSU coach and a current athletics department employee, I am extremely proud of our rich tradition of extraordinary academic and athletic standards,” according to the Onnidan Online website. “My commitment is to a well balanced academic and athletic environment, and my foremost goal is for our athletes to successfully complete the university’s academic requirements for graduation.” She added, “I love TSU and will work to the best of my abilities to put the athletics program on a higher level.” She’d have her work cut out for her.
Phillips faced near-immediate problems with the men’s basketball program. Amidst suspicion of recruiting violations, the coaching staff began to fall apart. In December of 2002 head coach Nolan Richardson III and assistant coach Hosea Lewis had an argument. Richardson’s response was to bring a gun to campus with the intent of confronting Lewis. This was a violation of state law and Phillips wasted no time in suspending Richardson who resigned shortly thereafter. Lewis was appointed interim head coach. However, the problems didn’t end there. During a February game a sideline fight broke out between the Tigers and opponents Eastern Kentucky. When the brawl broke down, a total of 19 players from each side were ejected. The game concluded with just four men on each team and a 17-point loss for TSU. According to Hoopville, website after reviewing the incident, the commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference suspended both coaches saying, “the coaches are leaders, and it was their responsibility to make sure that those players did not leave the bench area in the first place.”
The suspension left TSU with only one person on their men’s basketball coaching staff—a 26-year-old rookie assistant with just two seasons of coaching under his belt. For the beleaguered team suffering from a 2-20 losing season, it was another demoralizing setback. Phillips, known for her no-nonsense leadership, wouldn’t have it. She decided that she would coach the men’s team in their upcoming game against Austin Peay of Clarksville, Tennessee. Her decision landed TSU in the middle of a media frenzy. A woman had never coached a Division I team before and news outlets from ESPN to the Los Angeles Times to Jet covered the story. While most called her decision “historic,” others pointed out that it was just plain sensible. With 19 years of coaching experience, Phillips was the best person—male or female—to lead the team. Meanwhile, a debate over whether a woman should coach a men’s team began to rage. Phillips took it in stride. “No matter what the criticism may be, I felt they needed an authority figure on the bench,” she said according to the Indiana Daily Student. “With all the circumstances that have happened, it’s not like its been a normal year.” One supporter of her decision was Austin Peay’s women’s basketball coach who had faced Phillips many times on the court. “She absolutely knows what she’s doing. She’s strong. She’s confident,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If there’s a female coach in America who can handle this situation, Teresa’s one of them.”
On February 13, 2003, Phillips stepped onto the court and into history. Though the ill-matched Tigers lost to Austin Peay, observers agreed that Phillips coached one of the best games of the season out of the team. Even the opposing coach acknowledged that the team was much more energetic than in a previous match. “I thought they had a good game plan,” he told The Oak Ridger website. Though moments after the game Phillips vowed to return to her administrative desk and let Lewis resume head coaching duties, the team implored her to stay on in a consulting capacity. “I’ll do it in that role, because they are two coaches short. That is the only reason,” she told The Oak Ridger website. In part because of her history-making accomplishment as the first woman to coach a men’s Division I basketball team, Phillips was named one of the “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports” by Sports Illustrated. Yet she has been quick to point out that she was just doing her job. “This was an athletics director stepping in, for lack of a better word, for a missing coach. It was nothing more than that,” she told The Oak Ridger website. However, it was much more than that, though. Her skill on the court proved—to athletes, sports commentators, and athletic administrators alike—that a woman could indeed coach a men’s team as well as, if not better than, a man.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 14, 2003, p. C1.
Ebony, May 2003, p. 12.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 17, 2003.
Knoxville News-Sentinel, (Knoxville, TN), February 14, 2003.
Seattle Times, February 20, 2003, p. D4.
“Female To Make History as First Division I Coach,” Indiana Daily Student, http://idsnews.com/story.php?id=14736 (July 20, 2003).
“Putting Out Fires, the Teresa Phillips Way,” Hoopville, www.hoopville.net/column/shandler.asp?EntryID=3065 (July 20, 2003).
“Tennessee State’s Phillips Breaks Gender Barrier,” The Oak Ridger, http://oakridger.com/stories/021403/spo_0214030049.html (July 20, 2003).
“Teresa L. Phillips, Director of Athletics,” TSU Tigers, www.tsutigers.com/coach.cfm?id=42&sport=1 (July 20, 2003).
“Teresa Phillips Named Athletics Director at Tennessee State,” Onnidan Online, www.onnidan.com/01-02/news/apr/tnst0430.htm (July 20, 2003).
“Teresa Phillips Recognized as One of ‘101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports,’” TSU Tigers, www.tsutigers.com/fullstory.cfm?id=262&sport=1 (July 20, 2003).
"Phillips, Teresa L. 1958–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/phillips-teresa-l-1958
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