The Last Lap – Coach Ed Temple

Within days of each other Arnold Palmer and Coach Ed Temple left us. Arnold Palmer was mourned and memorialized for the great contribution he made to his sport of choice, golf. He was a transformational presence in that sport, and financially turned it upside down . Coach Ed Temple was just as transformational in the sport of track and field,…. especially in the area of women’s track and field. He was the head coach of the women’s track and field team at Tennessee State University, a historically black university located in Nashville, Tennessee. For the better part of two decades from the middle 1950s, to the late 1970s, his Tigerbelles were the standard by which excellence was measured in women’s track and field. At one time his college 4 x 100 was in fact the national 4 x 100. At the 1968 Olympics he coached the Olympic record holder in the 100 meters and the 800 meters. No coach, before or since, has come even close to duplicating that feat,….coaching the winner and Olympic record holder, of the longest event for women in the Olympics and the shortest event as well.

Much of what Coach Temple and the Tigerbelles were able to achieve  on the track is documented and recorded in track field tomes and archives. As impressive as this is, the backstories and human interest and human insights into the man are even more impressive as they provide a larger and better prism into who he really was.

Coach Temple’s era of greatest success coincides with my introduction into the sport on a national level. As an athlete in the middle 50s and early 60s, I was totally impressed and captivated with the kind of success the Tigerbelles were enjoying. They always seemed so much better prepared mentally and physically than the women against whom they competed. Physically, I was very impressed with what we termed, ” the Tigerbelle Lean “. Technically it meant that the Tigerbelles ran with a forward lean that allowed their foot strike to land closer to being under their center of gravity. This cut down on breaking action at touchdown and was the most efficient way to propel the body forward. Earlier today I watched the Chicago Marathon and was impressed with the fact that all the top finishers had what I would call ” the Tigerbelle lean “. Another physical element that characterize Tigerbelle sprinting was the stride length with which they ran as opposed to stride rate emphasis.  Bolt takes 40-41 strides in his 100 meter sprints. The rest of the field takes between 43 and 46. The most telling fact is that for the first 10 meters, Bolt takes 6 strides. The accepted mantra for sprinting is 7 for 10, or 7 strides for 10 meters.  Within the first 10 meters of the race, Bolt has taken approximately 14% fewer strides than the rest of the field.  Before the Tigerbelles went home for Christmas Break, they were assigned “standards” they had to achieve before leaving for home. The “standards” were measured and met based upon what time they were able cover the cross country course. Compare that against some of the “New School” of sprinting where it is declared that anything over 150 meters is a waste of time.

As stated above, much of the statistical excellence of Coach Temple and the Tigerbelles is a matter of record and can be researched, and with reasonable effort, be discovered. What is not in the record books are the conditions under which these black women had to cope. When they went on road trips away from campus they had to pack food to eat on the bus because they were not welcomed or allowed in restaurants and cafes along the highways in the South. In many instances, if they had to relieve themselves it meant a stop along an isolated spot on the side of the road because bathrooms were segregated. A the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, the American team was allotted several sets of starting blocks for practice. None were designated for the women’s team. Even out of the Deep South, representing their country, the Tigerbelles had to cope and deal with prejudice and unequal consideration and treatment.

My entry into the coaching ranks coincided with Tigerbelle dominance. Coach Temple was simply an acknowledged entity above the rest of us. Nothing has happened in the interceding 60 years to change that fact. He was as efficient in  passing on coach-to-coach advice and guidance, as the efficiency and effectiveness with which the Tigerbelles performed. I remember tentatively approaching him early in my coaching career. I asked:

Coach, what is the secret to TSU and your success ?

Boy, if you want to make lemonade, the first thing you do is get yourself some lemons. If you want to make rabbit stew, then the first thing you do is get yourself some rabbits.

At the 1976 Olympics I was an assistant coach for the U. S. women’s team and went to him for some last minute insights and guidance. In those days the opening ceremony was officially concluded with hundreds of caged white doves being released and everyone watched as they flew up and flocked together over the Olympic stadium . I went up to Coach Temple and asked:

Coach, what can I do to better help the team ?

Boy,……when those pigeons fly, you better get some backbone !!!

During the 1950s only historically black colleges like Tuskegee, Alcorn State, and Tennessee State awarded athletic scholarships to women in track and field.  Thus,… preceding Title IX ( 1972 ) by decades ! This pioneering effort is not recognized and the legacy established by what they did has been historically unrecognized,,…if not totally ignored. When I was Director of Track and Field/Cross Country at Stanford University, in 1982 I had Coach Temple come to present at our track and field clinic. He was a big draw and the auditorium was packed. In a casual exchange with him I asked him how many such clinics he had done:

Brooks, this is the first one I have done in America. I have done a couple in Canada,…. but none in the U.S.

Coach you have the most Olympic medals of any coach in the sport ! The athletes you coached totally dominated the sport for decades. A lot of us are still using coaching principles that you pioneered and perfected.

No matter,…that is the answer to your question. None,… never in America.

My youngest son was born in a hospital here in Orlando that Arnold Palmer founded and funded. I am a living testament to the contribution that Arnold Palmer made. This same young man is now a freshman 400 runner at the University of California-Berkeley. He is a testament to the contribution that Coach Temple made in track and field. Between the two of us, perhaps we can further show appreciation for the generosity and innovation Arnold Palmer and Coach Temple both made in their respective sport.


Brooks T. Johnson














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