Ed Temple was a black man who became a track coach for a women’s team in Tennessee, who overcame, along with the women on his teams, a severe lack of resources as well as significant racial prejudice in the deep south, to become one of the most historically impactful coaches in American track.
In a career of over 40 years at Tennessee State University, Temple coached 40 Olympians who garnered 13 gold, 6 silver and 4 bronze medals, including the belle of the 1960 Rome Games, Wilma Rudolph, and her successor at the 1964 Tokyo Games, Wyomia Tyus. At the 1960 games, the four members of the American women’s 4X100 team that blazed to gold were all members of Temple’s Tennessee State University team, affectionately known as the Tigerbelles. On September 22, 2016, Temple passed away at the age of 89.
To be black and female in the southern states in America was a challenge in a good part of the 20th century. Black athletes, whose competitions would take them all over the country, had to deal with long hours in cars hoping to find a place that would serve them food or put them up for the night, thanks to legally or socially enforced segregation along racial lines. David Maraniss, who wrote about Temple in his book, Rome 1960, said this in a Nashville newspaper interview in 2008:
We’re talking about the Jim Crow era, a period when the Tigerbelles . . . traveled through the deep South and endured harsh conditions to appear at meets. You look at what he accomplished and the obstacles he faced, and it’s simply one of the great triumphs in sports and history.
Temple believed that for a black woman to persevere and win in America at that time, they had to be disciplined and smart. Temple’s standards were high, so training on the team was painful. The Tigerbelles were locked into practices three times a day, starting at 5 in the morning, resuming at 9:30 am, and then again at 2pm, often times in the searing heat of summer. Tyus, who was crowned fastest woman in the world by winning the 100-meters in both Tokyo in 1964 and in Mexico City in 1968 said that Temple practices were “just brutal. I just thought, ‘this man has got to be crazy.’” The Tigerbelles wrote and sang a song that reflected their feelings towards Temple and his practices: “It’s So Hard to be a Tigerbelle”.
And yet, the Tigerbelles won. But simply winning wasn’t enough for Temple. He was not only their coach. He was their father and mentor, one who showed a bit of tough love and expected them to keep up with their studies. Tyus was interviewed in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, and she wrote about Temple was a father to her.
Coach Temple was an advisor as well as a coach. My father died when I was only 15, so he became a father figure as well. He was very strict, and he was very tough. He used to say, “If we’re going to run, let’s run. If we’re going to be spectators, then let’s get up in the stands where we belong.” He also insisted that we train the European way, which to him meant “No play; just hard work.” When I look back on it, I sometimes wonder how I made it, but I also know that he was very good for us as women. He was always there to lend a helping hand, but if you needed to be reprimanded, he was also very good at that. And academics always came first with him. We had to have a C average to compete, but he always pushed us to do much better than that. His whole philosophy was that we were not going to be athletes all our live, so we had to take advantage of this opportunity to get a college education. We did, and he was always so proud of the fact that of the 40 of us who competed in the Olympics, 38 have college degrees.
Temple insisted that his Tigerbelles be smart, not only intellectually, but also fashionably. There was a school of thought at that time that blacks who wanted to succeed had to hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and appearance in order to simply get accepted in broader swathes of society. According to Maraniss in his book Rome 1960, Temple made sure his women looked good.
As the caravan approached its destination, an order would come from the front: “Get your stuff together.” This mean rollers off, lipstick on, everything brushed and straightened. The sprinters were a free-spirited group; some chafed at Coach Temple’s rules of behavior but grudgingly obliged. “I want foxes, not oxes,” he told them. The Tigerbelles had perfected the art of emerging from the least flattering conditions looking as fresh as a gospel choir, for which they were often mistaken.