Wiedmer: GPS alum Teresa Lawrence Phillips a Title IX pioneer in more ways than one

Two days before she was to graduate from Vanderbilt in the spring of 1980, Teresa Lawrence was working out in the school's weight room when Emily Harsh, VU's women's athletic director at the time, asked her what she was going to do for a career.

Replied a smiling Lawrence, the Girls Preparatory School product who became the first Black female athlete in Commodores history: "One day I'm coming back and taking your position."

More than 40 years later, and two years after retiring as Tennessee State's overall athletic director following 18 years in that role, the now Teresa Lawrence Phillips says of that moment, "I don't even know why I said it. I was laughing when I did. But while I never became athletic director at Vanderbilt, I did wind up spending most of my adult life in college athletics."

A three-sport star at GPS in basketball, swimming and volleyball who's a member of the school's Hall of Fame, Phillips first went to VU on an academic scholarship. Asked what she intended to become following college back then, the eventual economics major said, "I probably thought I was headed to law school. Athletics was not even a thought."

It also didn't help that despite Title IX's passage four years earlier, Vanderbilt didn't even have a women's varsity basketball team in the fall of 1976.

"It was a club sport back then," she recalled on Tuesday. "They didn't give scholarships until my junior year."

That didn't mean that playing in the Southeastern Conference didn't give her an unwelcome lesson about what it could still mean to be Black in the Deep South.

"You heard things in some gyms," she recalled. "Someone spit at me at Mississippi State."

Upon hearing those words, Phillips was asked, "Someone spit on you at Miss. State in the 1970s?"

She replied, "Oh, no. I didn't say, 'spit on.' I said, 'spit at.' If someone had spit on me, you and I would be having an entirely different conversation right now. I'd never let anybody spit their saliva on me without a fight.'"

If anyone in the Volunteer State has tirelessly, courageously and successfully led the fight for both women's rights through Title IX and Black women's rights across the board, it's Phillips.

Originally working for both Provident Life Insurance and as a Vanderbilt women's assistant coach her first year or two out of college, Phillips eventually focused on basketball only, taking the head women's job at NCAA Division III and predominantly-Black Fisk University in the spring of 1984. Her career record there was 68-34 and she was a two-time WIAC coach of the year.

But it was at Tennessee State that she proved to everyone how good a coach she really was. The Tigers women's program had won five games in three years when she took the job. TSU went 12-14 during her first season in 1989-90 and she was named USA Today's National Women's Coach of the Year. She later built on that success by guiding the Tigers to their first NCAA berth in 1994, then repeated the feat a year later.

But it was a single men's game she coached on February 13th of 2003 that probably brought her the most notoriety, whether she welcomed it or not.

Having been forced to fire her head coach earlier that season, Phillips watched in dismay as a fight broke out at Eastern Kentucky between the EKU men and TSU in the week before the Tigers were supposed to travel to Austin Peay to face the Governors. Already on a long losing streak, TSU was soon down its top three scorers and its interim coach after the Ohio Valley Conference suspended players and coaches from both programs for the brawl.

Not wishing for an unproven assistant to be thrown into that situation, Phillips coached the Tigers to a respectable 71-56 loss, becoming the first woman in NCAA Division I history to coach a men's team.

"I didn't think anything of it at the time," she said. "Boy, was I wrong."

She still has a box filled with all the letters of praise she got, including one from the late Tennessee women's coaching legend Pat Head Summitt.

"I couldn't believe it," Phillips said. "I felt like I should be writing her for all she's done for women's basketball throughout her life."

Nor has she ever looked at it as a historically important moment.

As she first told the Knoxville News-Sentinel after that game: "This isn't history. 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."

Just don't tell that to current GPS basketball coach Janna Eichelberger, who was once a director of basketball operations for the TSU men's program.

"Teresa is absolutely a role model because she's a pioneer," she said. "She gives you the facts about being a female athlete. She put in the work every day to make sure the TSU women were treated equal to the men. She was THE encouragement for me to come to GPS. She talked about the all-girls environment here and how I would grow into it and she was right."

It has been a remarkable life and career, especially since she was raising two sons - including former Tennessee Vol and current NFL player Kyle Phillips - while making history for all women everywhere through athletics.

"I am definitely proud of all we've accomplished in this Title IX era," Phillips said. "We've come really far. But we have to remain vigilant. As we've seen with lots of others laws in this country recently, discriminatory practices can get around laws if you aren't careful."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.