By Gregory Crofton
The world took notice when a young African-American sprinter from Tennessee named Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
She was only 20 years old, and the first American to accomplish such a feat.
Not long after the Olympics, 18-year-old Cassius Clay who had met Ms. Rudolph as a fellow athlete in Rome, came calling. Clay drove from Louisville to the home of Mr. Ed Temple, coach of the women’s track team at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
Temple pointed Clay and his pink convertible Cadillac in the direction of her dorm. But help in tracking down one of his athletes for social reasons was him making a rare exception. The stern coach was very protective of his girls, the Tigerbelles, and careful about the interactions they had off the practice field.
Temple was also demanding. He held workouts three times a day, rain or shine, all while stressing that his athletes were in school first and foremost to earn a college degree.
But just like Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), once Temple laid eyes on Rudolph he had to be part of her life. The coach first saw her while working his “side hustle” as a high school basketball referee. At 5 feet 11 inches tall, with a gigantic stride, Rudolph was hard to miss as were all the TSU Tigerbelles coached by Temple.
He made sure they always looked their best in public, even after a track meet. In his 44 years as coach, Tigerbelles won more than 30 national titles, 23 Olympic medals (16 gold), and 100% of his athletes graduated with a degree.
The story of “Mr. Temple and the Tigerbelles” — how one man built an Olympic-caliber track and field team for women in the South during the Jim Crow Era — was largely inaccessible to the nation until the release of a 40-minute documentary from filmmaker Tom Neff.
Neff will be in attendance at the screening. A panel discussion moderated by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Mariness, currently working on a book about Temple and the Tigerbelles, will follow.