Full-Court Press: Over 40 years, Diane Turnham giv...

Full-Court Press: Over 40 years, Diane Turnham gives Title IX a big assist at home and away

by Allison Gorman

Diane Turnham calls herself “a Title IX baby.” She and the landmark legislation grew up together. Fifty years ago, when Congress officially prohibited sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools, Turnham was just a skinny eighth-grader in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.

Title IX was officially on the books when Turnham was following in her father’s footsteps as a basketball star at Mt. Juliet High School. Except she was still playing half-court.

Title IX was 10 years old when Turnham was hired as MTSU’s first full-time assistant women’s basketball coach and learned that she’d be coaching volleyball too. (Two coaches for the price of one! One women’s coach, that is.)

During the next several years of long days, as Turnham helped transform MTSU’s underfunded women’s basketball team into conference champs while also driving the bus, taping ankles and selling doughnuts to buy equipment for MTSU’s unfunded volleyball team, Title IX was established law.

The movement for equity in college athletics has always been sparked by determined women like Diane Turnham. Title IX simply kept the fire burning. In fact, the law was originally intended to ensure equity in academic tenure opportunities. It took years for its effects to trickle down to women’s athletics.

Turnham had been coaching at MTSU for 13 years before the Title IX effect gave her a chance to prove what she’d always known: “When you have the resources, you can do incredible things.”

Photos by J. Intintoli

Play like a girl

Diane Turnham learned to love basketball from her dad, Charles Cummings; they’d shoot hoops together between chores on the family farm. But for all practical purposes, it was also the only sport girls could play in Mt. Juliet.

“When I came through, it was pretty much basketball or nothing,” she said. “My high school coach, Larry Joe Inman, started track so that we could condition out of season too.”

Inman’s girls played “like boys” only to the degree that they were tough and physical, trapping and pressing even on the half-court, Turnham said. Unlike the boys, they could pack a gym at home and away. 

On the strength of his 126–24 record at Mt. Juliet, Inman was hired to coach at MTSU. 

He recruited Turnham, but she took a pass.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life than I did in high school for that man,” she said, “and while I appreciated him for molding me into the player I was, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play for him again just yet.”

Instead she played — full-court, finally — at Volunteer State Community College and then David Lipscomb University. She went on to Austin Peay State University, where she coached as a graduate assistant while earning her master’s degree and doctorate in education. She saw coaching as a means to an end: She wanted to be an elementary school teacher.

Inman watched her coaching and saw potential. He offered her a full-time job at MTSU as his assistant coach. This time she accepted his offer. It was 1982.

When Turnham met with then-athletic director Jimmy Earle to formally accept the job, he welcomed her and mentioned that she’d be coaching volleyball, too.

She protested that there must have been a mistake, that she’d never even played volleyball, much less coached it.

“You’ll do great,” he said.

“That’s my Title IX story,” Turnham said. “They needed someone to coach the team, and resources were limited then. So despite the fact that our men’s [basketball] program had two full-time assistants that didn’t coach any other sport, I was brought in making a little less than they were — actually probably quite a bit less than they were — and I was also asked to coach another sport I didn’t really know anything about.”

No bench support

Earle was right, though. Turnham did great.

Basketball may have been her first love, but volleyball — specifically, MTSU’s eager but woefully overlooked and under-resourced volleyball team —became her passion.

It was clear to her that women’s basketball benefited organically from the existence of men’s basketball. MTSU had a charter bus, so if the teams’ schedules meshed, the women could travel too. But volleyball was a women’s sport only. There was no infrastructure to borrow. She had to scrape together money for uniforms and shoes and equipment. She had to figure out travel, too. She got her chauffeur’s license so she could drive a van or minibus to and from away games. On trips home she was often so tired that one of her players would sit up front and talk to her to keep her awake.

Turnham gave of herself what she couldn’t offer in scholarships. Behind the scenes, Turnham was always pushing for more.

She quickly learned that coaching women necessarily meant advocating for them, following the trail blazed by determined women like Belmont’s Betty Wiseman and Tennessee Tech’s Marynell Meadors, a former Blue Raider. They put women’s basketball on the map in the state even before a dynamo graduate assistant, then known as Pat Head, began pushing for resources to build a women’s basketball program at the University of Tennessee.

Between her coaching and her advocating, Turnham’s original career plans fell by the wayside.

“I thought I would coach for four or five years and go back and teach elementary school,” she said. “But it got in my blood and I loved it. I loved being able to see our athletes come in and work on their degree and receive financial support in the sport that they loved. So we fought for more scholarships. We fought for more travel money. We fought for more coaches. We fought for better facilities. We just knew it was the right thing to do.” 

She fought for her athletes even though her own treatment wasn’t equitable to that of her male counterparts.

“I can’t say that I didn’t complain about my salary versus theirs, or my workload,” she said. “Yet while it didn’t seem fair, and there were certain aspects of it I did resent, I so wanted our female athletes to have the opportunity to play the sports they loved that I was more than willing to do it.”

Upping her game

It hadn’t taken long for the women’s basketball team to show the positive results of Inman and Turnham’s coaching. In her first six years at MTSU, the team won the Ohio Valley Conference championship every year.

Volleyball was another story. “There were some lean, lean years,” she said.

The volleyball team shared space with the rec leagues in Alumni Gym, so even getting adequate practice was a struggle. As usual, Turnham made the best of the resources available to her — in this case, rec players who were hanging around. The SAE fraternity’s team wanted more practice time, and her team needed practice players. Turnham turned it into a W.

When you have the resources, you can do incredible things.

“We were just doing whatever it took to enhance our program,” she said. “We started getting better athletes, and we got some additions to our scholarships. And I started to realize I wanted more.”

It hadn’t escaped her notice that more women were being hired as college athletics administrators, UT’s Joan Cronan being the most obvious example. Turnham envisioned herself as an administrator; it seemed a logical career step. She also envisioned what she could do in that role.

By then the NCAA had passed a new rule: Every member institution had to have at least one woman in senior-level athletics administration. As the only obvious candidate, Turnham applied for and was offered that spot at MTSU. Unfortunately, it was part-time. She’d have to keep coaching, too.

Of course she took the job.

MTSU’s new AD, Lee Fowler, assured her she’d have the full-time position when funding was available. Eventually he got the funding and offered her the job.

“I told Lee, ‘I really want this job, but only if you let me hire a real volleyball coach,’” Turnham said. 

The very next year, 1995 — the first year Turnham was an administrator and not a coach — MTSU’s volleyball team was OVC champion.

That was the highlight of Turnham’s career.

“We won a lot of championships in basketball,” she said, “but that first one in volleyball was the sweetest I’ve ever had, because I knew how far we’d come. We’d come from the cellar all the way to the penthouse.

“Seeing the success of our women’s programs is a huge thing for me. I just wanted us to have the same opportunities [as the men], and I felt like if we did, we could be competitive.”

Natural athletes

Over her 40 years at MTSU, Turnham has used every position she’s had to give female athletes opportunities to prove her right. She brought new women’s sports to MTSU, including soccer and golf, and has pushed for opportunities nationally by serving on the NCAA committees for women’s soccer, volleyball, and basketball. She chaired the basketball committee in 2019–20.

Now MTSU’s senior associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator, Turnham admits there’s plenty of work yet to do — and not just at home. That was evident last year, when a viral Instagram post revealed shocking disparities between the men’s and women’s facilities at the NCAA basketball tournaments. 

“You might think, ‘Title IX ,we’ve risen above that,’ but not totally. Because obviously the TV rights are very different, the sponsorship dollars are very different, and the sizes of venues are very different. Still, we’ve made incredible progress.”

That’s true by all objective measures. The playing field gets a little more level every year.

But a subtler measure of that progress is reflected in the athletes themselves, young women who’ve surely heard of Title IX but probably have no idea what earlier generations of determined women have done for them. They’re just playing the game they love in exchange for a good education. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Diane Turnham’s fine with that.