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It Put Us on the Track: The Title IX story of former Harpeth Hall Athletic Director Susan Russ

By Mary Ellen Pethel, Ph.D.
An excerpt from “Title IX, Pat Summitt, and Tennessee’s Trailblazers: 50 Years, 50 Stories,” available through University of Tennessee Press in fall 2022

"My story is like many others during this time,” recalled Susan Russ, but most would beg to differ. This women’s sport pioneer ushered in a new era of track and field at Memphis State University (today’s University of Memphis). After graduating from Murray State in 1966 with a master’s in physical education, Russ taught at the University of Tennessee-Martin for a year before making the move to Memphis. In 1967, Susan Russ accepted a teaching position in physical education at Memphis State University. A year into the job, Susan and her husband, Kent, had a conversation that would shape the rest of her life. When she told him that she wanted to coach, they ticked off the short list of sports open to females at the university: gymnastics, basketball, and volleyball. Kent, who was a track standout at Vanderbilt University, said, “What about track and field? That’s what you should do, you should start a team.” “And that’s how I got into track,” Russ recounted.

Russ approached Elma Roane, the director of the women’s division of physical education, who said, “Sure! Great idea. Go for it.” Susan put up posters around the student center, calling for any interested female students to sign up and attend tryouts. The lack of funding or pay seemed to motivate rather than deflate Russ as the fledgling program took flight. The men’s track coach saw Russ in the hall one day and said, “Hey, I heard you’re starting a women’s track team, I think that’s great.” “And it was great,” continued Russ, “until I showed up on the track with the girls.” The coach told Russ that her team was not allowed on the track to practice with the men’s team, which was a sanctioned NCAA sport. She went to the Director of Athletics and Dean of Students, and they gave her the same answer — no, she could not use the track if the men were practicing.

The university’s track had no lights, and many times it was dark by the time the men’s team finished. Undeterred, Russ took to the fields — practicing in nearby pastures in the afternoons. When the team needed to work on intervals or use equipment, they would practice at 6-7:30 a.m. “and watch the sunrise.” They traveled to nearby schools, such as Austin Peay and Murray State, to compete against other women’s teams. Racial integration at Memphis State began in 1959, and Russ’s success was due, in large part, to the team’s diversity. Russ fondly remembers those early years and teams: “They were an incredibly hard-working group of young women who loved to run and jump and throw.” After three years of building a track program without a track, Russ was elated when Title IX was passed: “What did Title IX mean to me and my girls? It put us on the track.”

With Title IX winds at her back, Susan Russ built a powerhouse program from 1972 to 1979, and she also established a cross country team. Title IX had an immediate impact for Russ’s teams as they became part of the university’s athletic program and, though funds remained tight, she could recruit and offer scholarships to runners such as All-American Wanda Hooker. In addition, Russ was relieved of most teaching duties and became a salaried coach. Her efforts were aided by the construction of a new athletic facility, the Kennedy Center, and the appointment of Glenn Hayes as the men’s track coach. When she asked if the women’s team could practice with the men, Hayes said, “That’s no problem, there’s plenty of room, come on over.” In 1973, Russ organized the Memphis State Invitational that attracted nationally ranked teams such as Ohio State (Coach Mamie Rallins) and Tennessee State University’s Tigerbelles (Coach Ed Temple). The invitational meet was so successful that Glen Hayes asked Russ to expand it to a co-ed format. Russ obliged.

In 1979, the family moved to Nashville after Susan’s husband accepted a position in Governor Lamar Alexander’s administration. Harpeth Hall School, an independent all-girls school, had first drawn Russ’s attention when she recruited future Olympian Margaret Groos (Harpeth Hall class of 1977). Groos did not come to Memphis State, but Russ would coach her sister Katie Groos Nelson ’80 after accepting a position at Harpeth Hall. With the coaching skills she had gained at Memphis State, Russ established a track and cross country dynasty at the high school level.

Over the next 33 years (1979-2012), Harpeth Hall would win the TSSAA team championship for track and field 12 times between 1980 and 2004, with five consecutive championships between 2000 and 2004. Just as impressive, in 28 of her 33 years coaching, at least one Harpeth Hall athlete won an individual state championship in track and field. In cross country, Russ coached the team to six TSSAA team championships. Jack Henderson coached alongside Susan for a decade and succeeded her as the head cross country and track and field coach at Harpeth Hall. “I always enjoyed watching her in action,” Henderson said, then continued, “At coaches meetings, before a meet or during the off-season, Susan would start off standing next to me in the back. But before it was over, she was front and center, with everyone in the room deferring to her knowledge of the sport and its history.” Henderson concluded, “She knew how and when to take charge.”

In addition to coaching and teaching, Russ also served as the school’s athletic director from 1986 to 2005. During her tenure as an administrator, other sports also captured state championships — swimming, basketball, golf, lacrosse, volleyball, and tennis. Russ said she was “just glad to be a part of it,” but noted that “[a]s an all-girls school, Harpeth Hall celebrated the value and the importance and potential of the female athlete.”

Before the state cross-country championship meet in 1981, Russ called the TSSAA office and asked what was the lowest score ever recorded (lowest score wins). Russ gave the girls the number and challenged them to beat it. They did. Susan demanded much of her athletes, but she also knew how to motivate and inspire. “I know how to push, but I also know when too much is too much,” she said. The proof is in the pudding— there are too many “coach-of-the-year” awards to count. By the time Russ retired, in 2012, she’d already been inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, University of Memphis Hall of Fame, and TSSAA Hall of Fame.

In the 1990s, Russ accompanied one of her qualifying runners to the TSSAA State Pentathlon & Decathlon Championship held at Brentwood Academy just outside of Nashville. She looked up and “Lo and behold the former men’s track coach from Memphis State was there.” She said hello and asked, “What are you doing here?” He replied, “I’m here to watch my daughter who is competing.’” After the meet, Russ saw his daughter and said, “It’s so nice to meet you. Your father did me a huge favor many years ago, he taught me early in my career to stand up for myself.” The chance meeting brought Russ a sense of closure and satisfaction. She had helped to put women’s track and field on the Tennessee map, and the former coach, who had denied Russ and her team access to the track, cheered as his daughter competed. But Susan Russ credits the passage of Title IX as the most consequential event of her coaching career: “It changed everything for me and my sport.”