Grace Keith, who played a pioneer role as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball program's first coach in the mid-1970s after Title IX was passed, died Wednesday.
Keith, who had been treated for breast cancer, was 86.
A member of both the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame and the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame, Keith coached the team known then as the Mocettes for two seasons (1974-76), doing so after she had already retired two years earlier from coaching high school girls' basketball for Hixson, where in a dozen seasons she led that prep program to more than 200 wins.
Keith's time at UTC preceded women's college basketball having an NCAA-sanctioned national championship tournament, but she directed the Mocettes to a winning record and an AIAW region tournament in her second season despite having no staff of assistants and having to do everything from schedule referees for games to drive the team van, as Friday's UTC release announcing Keith's death pointed out.
In a January 2012 column reflecting on the history of the UTC women's basketball program, Times Free Press columnist Mark Wiedmer noted that Keith made $260 a month for her coaching duties — and all that went with it at the time — that first season. And basketball was essentially a night gig, with Keith continuing to work as an elementary school teacher.
"I ran across the first team picture the other day," Keith told Wiedmer. "It was me, [trainer] Sandy Sandlin and six players. That was it."
Those two seasons led to a rivalry and friendship with Tennessee coach Pat Summitt — her last name was still Head at the time — as UTC and the Lady Volunteers played five times. The Mocettes lost each of those games but came close to an upset in the fifth meeting, and after retiring from her UTC post, Keith remained a supporter of both programs as well as Summitt, who died in 2016.
As recently as this past season, Keith continued to take in the occasional Lady Vols game in Knoxville despite her cancer treatments, telling the Times Free Press in January that being there to see Tennessee upset second-ranked South Carolina 75-67 "kind of felt like the old days" of dominance under Summitt, who led the program to eight NCAA national championships.
The accomplishments for Keith, a Rhea County native who grew up in Sale Creek, both preceded and followed her time at UTC. Her obituary noted she set many program records during her time as a college basketball player at what is now Tennessee Wesleyan University, and UTC's release pointed out she was the first inductee of the Chattanooga Volleyball Official Hall of Fame, having worked state tournaments as a TSSAA official. She also won medals in multiple sports in Senior Olympic competitions.
Keith's survivors include Paul, her husband of 64 years.
Visitation is scheduled for 2-4 p.m. on Sunday at Williamson & Sons Funeral Home, with a service there at 11:30 a.m. on Monday and burial at Chattanooga National Cemetery to follow.
Compiled by Marty Kirkland. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.