Commentary

Catana Starks made own history in golf

Originally Published: April 28, 2011
By Donald Hunt | Special to ESPN.com

It's not every day a person has a movie made about their life. That person has to do something significant. Dr. Catana Starks is one of those special people with a great story to tell.

Nearly a quarter century ago, Starks became the first African-American woman to coach a men's NCAA Division I golf team when she took the job at Tennessee State, a historically black college in Nashville. Her trailblazing efforts will be made into a motion picture titled "From The Rough" starring Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson as Dr. Starks. The film is expected to hit the big screen in the fall.

[+] EnlargeCatana Starks
Tennessee State University Athletic ArchivesSam Puryear, left, became the first African-American to coach a major conference team when he took over at Michigan State.

"I'm really blessed," said Starks, a Tennessee State alumnus who was a 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."

Starks didn't set out to be a celebrity or to receive national attention for being a pioneer.

In 1986, when Tennessee State joined the Ohio Valley Conference, former athletic director Bill Thomas traded the school's swimming program for a men's golf team. Starks was asked to steer the new squad. As a result, she made history.

At the time of the conference change, Starks was the school's men's swimming and diving coach. She didn't have any experience coaching golf. Nevertheless, she accepted the challenge of building the program.

"I was hired to teach," said Starks, who is now the head of Tennessee State Human Performance and Sports Sciences department. "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. I did that for a couple years and [then] we joined the Ohio Valley Conference.

"I had started playing golf when I was teaching and coaching high school sports in Saginaw, Mich. I learned to play golf from other people. I learned even more once I got to Nashville.

"My first golf team consisted of two injured football players, two other guys and one girl who was permitted to play with us. I started out with that and they were all African-Americans. It continued on and then I started getting other interested players from other ethnic groups. Eventually, it evolved into having some international students."

Starks coached a diverse group of players throughout her career, including several white players. In fact, she coached Canadian Sean Foley, who is currently Tigers Woods' swing coach.

Foley believes Stark had a big impact on his life.

"Coach Starks has a Ph.D.," Foley said. "She's well educated. ... I used to sit in the front of the bus with coach. We would ride for hours and hours. She always saw something in me. She always knew I was going to do special things in some form. She didn't know what I was going to be.

"As I get 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."

In addition to Foley, Starks coached Sam Puryear, the first African-American men's head golf coach in any major conference. Puryear took the reins at Michigan State in 2007 and in 1991 he was the captain of the Tennessee State team after playing four years for Starks.

Starks also coached Robert Dinwiddie, an All-American at TSU and now a member of the European Tour. Dinwiddie had three straight top-10 finishes on the South Africa swing of the 2011 European Tour schedule.

[+] EnlargeHenson
Getty ImagesTaraji P. Henson, who will portray Dr. Catana Starks in the film "From The Rough," is an Oscar-nominated actress.

These players have brought a lot of exposure to the Tigers' program.

"Sam was an outstanding player," Starks said. "He was the editor of the school newspaper. He made dean's list every semester. He was a wonderful student-athlete. You never know what they may end up doing.

"I would have never known Sean was going to do what he's doing now. He has always been a very even keel person. 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.

"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."

Puryear was very excited when he heard about the movie. He contemplated his golf career with the Tigers, but also thought about all the life lessons Starks emphasized as a coach.

It wasn't all about golf with her.

"She stayed on us," Puryear said. "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. My parents were educators. She was telling me the same stuff my parents were telling me all these years.

"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. 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."

Starks didn't have any trouble coaching men. Although she was breaking new ground on the sports landscape, she managed to build a solid program. She also picked up a lot of knowledge from other college coaches.

"I never had a problem with it," Starks recalled. "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 and all those things really helped me understand the things I needed to do."

[+] EnlargeSean Foley
Tennessee State University Athletic ArchivesTiger Woods' swing coach, Sean Foley (kneeling, left), was coached by Dr. Catana Starks, the subject of a movie about her career at Tennessee State.

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]," said Starks, who has raised a son, has four grandchildren and one great grandson. "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."

Starks knows this movie could inspire a lot of black women who are interested in moving into the coaching profession. Her perseverance and hard work has been a big part of her career.

"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," she said. "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."

Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune and also contributes to ESPN.com's golf coverage.