The Greater Washington Urban League honored Dr Catana Starks with Trailblazer Award at 42nd annual Whitney M. Young Jr. Memorial Gala on March 19, 2014 in Washington DC.
Dr. Catana Starks has distinguished herself in the field of American sports as the first African American female head coach of an NCAA Division I men’s golf team. A native of Mobile, AL, Starks was hired as the swim and diving coach at Tennessee State, her alma mater.
“They asked me to return to teach and that’s what I was doing. I was asked to take over the men’s swimming and diving teams,” Starks says. And she did that for a couple of years. Then TSU joined the Ohio Valley Conference. When that happened in 1986, Athletic Director Bill Thomas traded the school’s swimming program for a men’s golf team. Starks, an expert swimmer with no experience teaching golf, was asked to steer the new squad. What little she knew about golf she had learned while coaching high school sports in Saginaw, MI. “I had started playing golf when I was teaching and learned to play golf from other people.” But she accepted the challenge of building the golf program. In doing so she made history.
Starks had no problem coaching a men’s collegiate golf team although she was breaking new ground on the sports landscape. She says, “There were quite a number of coaches in the Ohio Valley Conference that accepted me. So, I just learned from a lot of people. I started reading a lot of things and being a member of the Golf Coaches Association. All those things really helped me understand the things I needed to do,” she says.
Starks made headlines by traveling all over the world to recruit her international dream team. Through grit and determination she managed to build a solid golf program against incredible odds such as deep-seated prejudice and took her team of golfers to an all-time record championship season.
“My first golf team consisted of two injured football players, two other guys and one girl who were permitted to play with us,” she says. At first all the golfers on her team were African Americans, but as time went on players from other ethnic groups became interested and eventually there were some international students on her team.
Starks had a diverse group of players throughout her career as golf coach. She coached Canadian Sean Foley, who currently is swing coach for Tiger Woods; Sam Puryear, the first African American men’s head golf coach in any major conference; and Robert Dinwiddie, an All-American at TSU and now a member of the European Tour. These players brought a lot of exposure to her program. Puryear played four years for Starks, becoming captain of the Tennessee State team in 1991 and then took the reins as men’s head golf coach at Michigan State in 2007. “Sam was an outstanding player,” Starks said. “He was the editor of the school newspaper. He made the dean’s list every semester. He was a wonderful student-athlete. You never know what they may end up doing.”
Puryear remembered the life lessons Starks emphasized as his coach. “It wasn’t all about golf with her. She stayed on us. At the end of the day, she was always there to support us. The biggest thing – and it happened when I first got there –she said, ‘Hey, you’re going to get a great education.’ That kind of stuck with me,” says Puryear, whose parents were educators. “Coach was great. She kept us focused. We played in good events. She fought for us to get better equipment, better tournaments and the whole nine yards.”
Foley also expressed his admiration for Coach Starks and the impact she has had on his life this way: “As I get a little older, I look back on Coach. She was so impressive. I should have spent more time trying to figure out how she did it all. To see what Coach accomplished and became a professor at the university and all that stuff is really something,” Foley said.
Starks says she would never have known Sean was going to do what he’s doing now. “He has always been a very even keel person.”
Dinwiddie had three straight top ten finishes on the South African swing of the 2011 European Tour schedule. “Robert Dinwiddie was our first All-American. I wanted to get a player invited to the NCAA tournament as an individual and that was him,” Starks says. But not all of her students made professional golf a career. “I had quite a few players who didn’t go into golf as a profession that are doing excellent in their chosen careers. I’ve had lawyers and one young man who has his own pharmaceutical business.”
The hard work paid off for Starks. In 2005, she led the Tigers to the National Minority Golf Championship, which happened to be her final year of coaching. It was a huge accomplishment. “We set a record [by shooting 840 as a team]. It was so wonderful to have this experience. … That was great for us. We had so many guys who played well over those three days.”
After her unprecedented career as golf coach, Starks became Tennessee State’s chair for Human Performance and Sports Science. She didn’t set out to be a celebrity or to receive national attention for being a pioneer. “I’m really blessed,” says Starks, a Tennessee State alumnus and classmate of Olympic track and field star Wilma Rudolph. “I thought it was a really great honor. I’ve received a lot of emails from people I’ve taught. Students have read about it. It’s a wonderful experience. I never once thought something like this would happen,” says Starks, who has raised a son, has four grandchildren and one great grandson.
Her life story inspired the movie, “From the Rough,” starring Academy Award nominees Taraji P. Henson and the late Michael Clarke Duncan and Tom Felton of the “Harry Potter” movies. “The message of this film is that poverty affects everyone. It’s not just something that happens to black people. If you want to succeed, it takes a dream. That’s how I’ve done it,” says Henson.
Puryear was very excited when he heard about the movie. “I think it’s great that they’re going to have a movie on her. She touched a lot of lives in a lot of ways,” he says. Starks believes the movie could inspire a lot of black women who are interested in moving into the coaching profession.
“I just think there is an opportunity to try to get more African Americans in professional leagues to challenge these positions that are available in high school and college. I hope people can take the initiative to develop these young ladies to become head coaches somewhere. It’s not just basketball. I think there are so many other opportunities for them besides basketball.”
Article courtesy of Greater Washington Urban League., Uplift Magazine.