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. Temple’s help to locate one of his athletes for a social reason was him making a rare exception. The stern coach was very protective of his girls, the Tigerbelles, careful about the interactions they had off the practice field.
And Temple was demanding. He held workouts three times a day, rain or shine. At the same time he emphasized how important that all of his athletes earned a college degree.
Just like Clay (later known to the world as Muhammad Ali), once Temple laid eyes on Rudolph, he had to be part of her life. The coach first spotted her while working a “side hustle” as a high school basketball referee. At 5 feet 11 inches tall with a gigantic stride, Rudolph was hard to miss as a TSU Tigerbelle. Temple made sure all Tigerbelles looked their best in public, even after a track meet.
Working for 44 years as a coach, Tigerbelles won more than 30 national titles and 23 Olympic medals (16 of them gold). Most importantly, 100 percent 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 until the release of this documentary from filmmaker Tom Neff.
“Mr. Temple and the Tigerbelles” has aired on the CBS Sport Network and screened in Louisville at the Muhammad Ali Center. It was recently accepted into 2021 ARFF Berlin (Around International Film Festival) set for December.