Teresa L. Phillips is a sports pioneer. A former Vanderbilt basketball player, Phillips spent time as the head women’s basketball coach at Fisk University (Tenn.) and Tennessee State University for a number of years before becoming the first woman to coach a Division I men’s basketball team, which she took over at TSU for a short time in 2003. Now the TSU athletic director, Phillips was named one of the 101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports by Sports Illustrated and Tennessee’s second-most influential sportswoman by The Tennessean—all this while becoming just one of a handful of female athletic directors in the country.
Also noteworthy about Phillips is that she is the mother of two boys and an active volunteer with several community organizations, including FCA.
This month, Phillips donated a few of her busy minutes to STV to share what it’s like to walk a mile—or, perhaps, drive the athletic administration lane—in her shoes.
STV: You’ve got quite a list of achievements and awards. What do all of those honors mean to you?
TP: At the time I received them it was a compliment, and it felt like some of the work I’d done was being acknowledged. But now, I don’t pay as much attention to awards or recognitions from the past because I think athletics can be such a “What have you done for me lately?” vocation. You have to continue to work and excel and make things happen. Now I see a bigger picture for myself and for what I do in my job and in my personal life.
STV: Being an AD can be a tough job with highly scrutinized decisions, controversies and, many times, confrontation. How do you handle those situations?
TP: At every level of athletic administration you will have controversies. You’ll be placed in the middle of situations where you have to arbitrate, and there will always be tough decisions because you are working with people on a variety of levels.
In my job, I work with the public, the community, the alumni, the staff, the coaching staffs and, most importantly, the young people. Not a week goes by that I don’t make a decision that impacts someone’s future. That is very humbling, and it can also be very stressful. There are many sleepless nights.
One of the things I wish I could do better is lay my burdens on the Lord and just leave them there. That is one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face being in my position. But I pray over all of my decisions, listen to everything, make the best decision I can. Then I move forward.”
STV: What is it like to be a female in a stereotypically male role?
TP: I actually think that has changed since I’ve been in this role. There are more women in athletic administration than people think.
But there have been awkward times. Athletics is always more of a man’s world. You know your decisions are going to be questioned and that you’ll be under different levels of scrutiny. That’s not abnormal. I’ve encountered that all my life, so I don’t view it as a negative but just a part of the challenge I wake up to every day.
Honestly, though, I don’t know of anything different. I’ve always been a female, and I’ve always been African-American, so I’m used to it.
STV: You were the first woman to coach a Division I men’s basketball team. Do you think more women could do that?
TP: I’ve been asked that question a lot, and I’m going to say no. I think part of being a coach is that you really have to be accepted, especially on the college level with recruiting and relationship-building. Until women start being assistant coaches and being worked into the structure of that coaching staffs and recruiting, they just aren’t going to jump to becoming head coaches.
It isn’t the X’s and O’s part. It isn’t the handling of personnel. It’s the culture—the institution of coaching. There is more to it than running a program and coaching a team. You have to crawl before you can walk. You have to get into the room before you can sit at the head of the table. Until women are integrated into the system as assistant coaches, I don’t think that’s a natural progression.
STV: A s a mother and a major university’s AD, your schedule must be pretty full. What’s your typical day like?
TP: Oh, my goodness. I have two sons, ages 13 and 15. My schedule in the morning revolves around getting them up and getting them to school. I cook them breakfast every day. I think it’s very important for us to sit down and have breakfast together because there are a lot of things going on.
After I drop my kids off at their schools, I get to work at about 8:30 a.m. From there, it just depends. I could be sitting in marketing and promotion meetings or dealing with budget issues. I’m also involved with a lot of university events that aren’t athletically related and sit on committees that have nothing to do with athletics. But really, as you can imagine, everything at the university affects athletics, and athletic success impacts the university. A lot of my day is dealing with our 15 sports, head coaches and compliance; dealing with academic matters; and dealing with circumstances and situations that have occurred between coaches and student-athletes, especially if they are problematic situations. It can be a little bit of everything.
STV: Is it hard to balance all of that and keep your faith as your top priority?
TP: It is hard to balance it all because it really is too much. You can’t do all of those things. I have a very supportive staff here at Tennessee State, and I have a mighty God. No matter what things are thrown on me in a work day, I can pretty much release those, which I wasn’t able to do earlier in my life. But I have been spiritually strengthened to understand how to put everything in its place. That isn’t an easy thing to do, and it has been a challenge. But the challenge has humbled me to know that I can’t do it by myself.
That is one of the most important things you learn in your Christian journey: You can’t do things by yourself. No matter how smart, good, strong or tough you are, you need to allow God to work in your life and to experience how much easier life is once you lay your burdens down.
STV: That is a great point. God’s strength is made perfect in our weaknesses. Are there any Scripture verses you turn to in tough situations?
TP: One verse that I’ve always liked and that has helped me through tough times is Isaiah 12:2 (NASB) – “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation.”
STV: What is something you tell your children every day?
TP: That I love them. I think that is very important. We take for granted reminding people—especially our children—of that. There are a lot of kids in the world who aren’t told that every day, week, month or year, or who have never been told it.
But I don’t just tell them; I show them. And that’s just like every person we come in contact with. Through us, they all need to hear and see the love of Christ.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
As a basketball player in the late 1970s at Vanderbilt University, Teresa Phillips got her first taste of FCA by attending one of the ministry’s small group Bible studies for athletes. Once she began coaching at Tennessee State, she was reunited with the ministry through FCA’s Lee Brown and his work in the Nashville urban ministry.
Currently, Phillips assists the ministry wherever she can, including helping in FCA fundraising efforts. According to Phillips, FCA has made an incredible impact on her Christian walk and has allowed her to witness life changes in many TSU coaches and athletes.
“Lee Brown has done great things here in Nashville,” she said. “He is off the chain! He has brought so many of our student-athletes and coaches to Christ. I am so thankful for FCA’s presence on our campus. It has made, and will continue to make, a huge impact.”
According to Brown, who came on staff with FCA 11 years ago when Phillips was TSU’s head women’s basketball coach, Phillips has made an impact on the lives of the student-athletes simply by opening doors for the gospel to be shared.
“Through Teresa’s influence, FCA has been able to have an awesome impact on the students and coaches at Tennessee State,” he said. “I get to speak to every team on campus every year, and all of the freshmen and transfer students are provided with an FCA Bible. I am grateful that she trusts me to be on that campus.”
Phillips also made a lasting impact on the FCA ministry from a different angle when she served on the local board of directors in Nashville.
“By serving on the board, she was able to see the ministry from behind the scenes,” Brown said. “I admire the way she is so down to earth, an easy person to approach, kind, has a sense of humor and is very encouraging. She is just a good person and a great lady.”
Photos Courtesy of Tennessee State University Athletics and Lee Brown