By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
When you exit the tunnel leading down into the arena of the Hooper Eblen Center, it's hard not to be awestruck by the initial sight.
Of all the things in the massive space that could catch one's attention, it's the purple and gold banners in the rafters that probably create some wonder, admiration, and, for the opponents coming in to play Tennessee Tech, a little bit of uneasiness.
And it's an impressive array – 17 Ohio Valley Conference championships, 19 postseason appearances in either the NCAA or the long-since-passed AIAW tournaments, seven retired jerseys.
But that's not the only hint in the building of the tradition surrounding Tech women's basketball. Around the concourse, among all the Tech Sports Hall of Fame inductees' portraits, there are 17 that either suited up or set the course for the program's direction. There's a massive display case in the building's lobby showcasing the many trophies, plaques honoring their academic success and leadership, and displays recognizing those who became the Department of Athletics' Female Athlete or Woman of the Year.
It's hard not to see just what women's basketball means to Tennessee Tech. From those early days in 1970 as legendary women's basketball coach Marynell Meadors led the first teams to the Bill Worrell era to today, the Tech women's basketball tradition is as rich as ever.
And when current head coach Kim Rosamond was announced as the sixth head coach in the program's history, she made it clear that keeping the Tennessee Tech tradition alive was among the top priorities on her agenda.
Now in her third season at the helm, that certainly has not changed.
"Our program is what it is because of the people who have come before," Rosamond said. "We've had a lot of success in our first two years in recruiting and one of the main reasons for that is we can walk young women into this building and they see the championship banners. It's impressive. They know that it has been done here, that it can be done here and that it will be done here again with the right combination of athletes.
"The tradition at Tennessee Tech is not just impressive here in Cookeville. This is a nationally known program. I can remember going up against Tennessee Tech as a player at Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference, the respect I had for this program and how hard it was to come here and get a win. It's because of the players and the coaches like the Marynell Meadors and the Bill Worrells who were here before us."
The history of the program has been tremendous over its nearly 50-year history. Now entering the team's 49th season of varsity competition, the names still resonate – Pam Chambers, Cheryl Taylor, Angela Moorehead, Jerilynn Harper, Diane Seng, Janet Holt, Emily Christian, and those names are really just scratching the surface.
"That is not something our players or our staff take lightly," Rosamond said. "We talk about our tradition and former players all the time. We look to our past to help create our future. There's a great blueprint here in the way Coach Meadors built this program. Coach Worrell then took it and sustained that success for over 20 years.
"That stability and consistent culture is also key. You had not only two legendary coaches at Tennessee Tech, but these coaches were also legends in the game of women's basketball. They were giants. You had the two of them here for well over 30 years. That is rare today."
Through the last two seasons, there is a marked improvement in the program and it is definitely in an upward direction. As the young players on the 2017-18 roster are a year older, wiser and more mature, there's plenty of room for optimism for the seasons to come and beyond.
"We are excited to be in year three, but we're not yet past the growing pains of trying to build this program back to a championship level," Rosamond said. "With nine new players in year two, our second year felt a lot like starting anew. That's unusual. While we are still a sophomore-laden team with more sophomores than upperclassmen, those young ladies have one year under their belt and gained valuable experience."
The biggest way to build back up is to pay attention to what brought the program to it success in the past.
"The blueprint was designed years ago and Coach Meadors and Coach Worrell built so many championship teams from it," Rosamond said. "We're really trying to follow that. We're starting in the state of Tennessee and trying to keep the best kids at home. You look at our roster – we have doubled the amount of Tennessee kids on our roster in the last two years. We've done a really good job of in-state recruiting.
"We're in a hotbed for women's basketball. Obviously, the state of Tennessee is one of the best in the entire country with some of the best coaches. We've also had success in Kentucky (with sophomores Jordan Brock and Mackenzie Coleman hailing from the Bluegrass State). You've got Georgia, Alabama – you don't have to go very far to get players who can help you win championships. Coach Meadors and Coach Worrell did a great job with keeping talent at home."
That's also one of the factors that arguably made things tougher for the Golden Eagles in recent years with the rise of other collegiate programs in the region as they started to recruit more in Tech's backyard.
"No question," Rosamond said. "The state of Tennessee has some outstanding women's programs. There has been a much larger commitment to women's basketball in general and the resources they're putting into it. The commitment to women's basketball at Tennessee Tech is one of the reasons why I came here. It means something here. It's important to our administration, they're going to make sure we have all the resources to win.
"At the end of the day, everything's about the people, but you have to have the tools to sell it – the facility, the visual. It's extremely important. You walk into the Hoop and it's extremely impressive. What (Director of Athletics) Mark Wilson and our administration have done to upgrade this facility and help make it one of the best in the whole OVC – the videoboard, the seating, our offices – it's very impressive to be able to bring a recruit here. They see how important women's basketball is here."
Even with a rough patch, the Tech program still continues to be one of the top programs in the NCAA historically. The Golden Eagles currently hold a 918-545 record all-time, which ranks 23rd in all of Division I in wins, 40th in win percentage (.627). At its peak following the 2005-06 season, Tech was seventh in wins and 14th in winning percentage (771-328, .702).
Tech also has a loyal fan base, which also speaks volumes on what the program means to the Cookeville community.
"I don't think you have to look any further than last year," Rosamond said. "We had the youngest team in the OVC and a team that was trying to find its way through some growing pains. With those challenges, we were still the No. 2 team in the conference in attendance. That speaks volumes to me and shows just where this program's going to go."
"We're on the verge of some very special, special things in the next few years and I envision this place being full for a women's game. I know we can do it here. I love the fact that people in the community care so much that there are expectations, that there are standards and we're going to do it together."
She continued, "To get the program we want, it's not just about the players. It's about the community. To get the community to invest in us, we have to invest in the community and I think our players have done a tremendous job of that in the last two years, investing and getting to know them and making a connection. I think we have an amazing group of young women that our community can say they're proud that they're Golden Eagles."
It's hard to make a direct comparison between the legends of Tennessee Tech's past with its current roster, but there are parallels, roles being filled, even striking similarities. It may be the Golden Eagles of the present and future, but it brings back some thoughts of yesteryear as it looks remarkably like some of the Tech teams of the past.
"The talent is still young," Rosamond said, "and I wouldn't compare them to the legends of the past, but there are similarities. The number one thing that you want to get when you're recruiting a young woman is that you want a winner. You want kids who know how to win and know how to compete. Having played against Coach Worrell's teams, those are things I remember. The relentlessness, the grit, the determination, the confidence and the toughness those teams played with and I think we're getting that. We're working hard to get those players. Those are the kinds of kids you want to go to war with and that you can win with day-in and day-out."
And while many may compare tradition with wins, the Tennessee Tech tradition isn't just banners and trophies. It's also the attitude, the determination, the competitiveness its student-athletes have shown through the years.
"When you look back, it's been huge having (assistant coach) Allison Clark on our staff," Rosamond said. "She is Tennessee Tech through and through. She knows the kind of kid that fits here. She knows the kind of kid that wins here and she was part of four championship teams here. She's been so instrumental in us getting the right kind of kids. It's not just the right kind of basketball players. It's the right kind of people, right kind of character, the academics.
"I've gone back and researched and I know Coach Worrell's teams, GPA wise, were some of the best on campus. I'm a big believer in if you want to win on the court, you have to win off the court first. His teams won off the court as well as on the court. It's not just about talent, it's about the whole package. I think you look at the Shawn Mondays, the Janet Holts, the Diane Sengs, the Allison Clarks – those women were the whole package and I think we're working really hard to make sure those are the kind of young people we have in our program."
Still, it's hard to win playing in front of empty seats, and that's something the Tech program has focused on, making connections with the fans in attendance, letting them know who they are and thanking them for being there, urging them to keep coming back and supporting the program.
After all, any chance of success starts with the fans.
"When you're trying to rebuild that championship piece, it all starts with connection," Rosamond said. "One thing we started doing from day one when we got here was after games, win or lose, our players are going into the stands, talking to fans, thanking them and just connecting. In women's basketball, people want that connection and want to be connected to your program, your team and your players. I think we have a group of players who want to be connected to our fans. A great relationship in anything works both ways, so we really try to give back to our community and our fans as well."
Tradition is important. It drives many things in the sport, even if it starts with a girl looking up to the names in the rafters, daydreaming that perhaps it will be her name among the others.
The struggle, however, falls to keeping the tradition going.
"You look back at the past to create your future," Rosamond said. "You want to learn from it, from the things you did right and maybe the things you could have done differently. We've had some really good teams throughout our program's history and even over the last 10, 15 years, but it's the consistency of it we have to get back to -- winning year-in and year-out. We want to consistently be in the top three teams in our league, consistently competing for the championship and being right there for an NCAA tournament berth. We've had regular-season championship teams, but the consistency of it is something we have been missing.
"We love it here. Our staff loves it here. We take pride in being here and we truly believe special things are ahead for this program."