Sunday, June 16, 2024

Living as the Underdog


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Photo courtesy of Albert Gore Research Center

March Madness: A season where millions of sports fans gather to root for the team that has no shot to win. And while many brackets bust year after year, somehow these David and Goliath matchups keep fans on the edge of their seats. The question still lies, why do we constantly root for the underdog?

The answer is simple: they never bow out from a challenge.

At just 25-years old, Diane Cummings found herself sitting across the desk from then Middle Tennessee State University Athletic Director Jimmy Earle. She would become the first full time assistant women’s basketball coach in school history. Little did she know that before she could even call her family, Earle’s proposal came with a catch.

“Now Diane, we’re just so excited to have you here,” Earle said. “Did we mention we were going to let you coach volleyball too?”

Thirty-seven years later, now Senior Associate Athletic Director Diane Turnham smiled on the moment that’s since changed her life forever.

“Of course my mouth flew open, and I was like, ‘Coach Earle, there’s got to be a mistake,'” Turnham said. “I’ve never played volleyball. I don’t know much about it. I’m pretty sure it takes six players and I think it’s a white ball.”’

Former Middle Tennessee volleyball head coach Diane Cummings Turnham talking to her team during a game in 1984 in the Alumni Memorial Gymnasium. (Albert Gore Research Center)

Just a year after the NCAA sanctioned women’s volleyball as a Division I sport, Turnham had to build a program from the ground up. A one-woman coaching staff with seemingly no knowledge about the sport, Turnham made it work.

“I tell people I was the head coach, the assistant coach, the bus driver, the manager. You name it, I was it. We didn’t really have anything else,” Turnham said.

Feelings of being inadequate grew stronger for Turnham during this time. During her first two seasons as a member of the basketball staff, the Lady Raiders went 45-15. Across the street in the Alumni Memorial Gymnasium, the volleyball team was struggling just to win a game.

However, this paled in comparison to the struggles of a 18-year-old girl just 32 miles down the road in Donelson, Tennessee.

Beverly Keel woke up on the morning of April 20th, 1984, with a father but would go to sleep that night without one. After her father, Pinckney Keel, died unexpectedly of a heart attack, Keel was lost and her future plans were put on hold.

Back at MTSU, Turnham would soon fill the void in Keel’s life when she needed it most.

“I had hoped to go to Tulane University in New Orleans. But after he died, we didn’t have the money, and it was just too much to handle everything, so I decided to go to MTSU,” Keel said.

During MTSU’s week of welcome, Keel noticed a flyer during a fish fry that promoted open volleyball tryouts. Deciding to attend, Keel immediately caught Turnham’s eye.

“I showed up that day and later on, Vickey Clark had said that Coach C (Turnham) said, ‘Vickey, be nice to her. I want her to play.’ So that’s exactly what I did,” Keel said.

From that point on, Keel couldn’t keep herself out of the gym. The freshman went as far as to calling her head coach nearly every Saturday to come unlock the building for her so she could get extra reps.

“I’ve got to be honest, as a coach, anytime someone wanted to come in for extra gym time, you did not turn that down. For the sheer fact that she wanted to be a better player, I’ll be there anytime that she wanted that gym to be open,” Turnham said.

Not only was Keel’s leadership good for the team, but it gave her a positive outlet to put her energy toward.

“That was sort of like a lost summer, just in terms of what was going on with me,” Keel said. “And I never thought about it, but playing volleyball probably saved me. It took up all my time, it was healthy, it was all-consuming and I had a great coach who supported me. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t played volleyball.”

As volleyball played a key factor in finding her way at MTSU, Keel began exploring the realm of journalism. It was a passion that she shared with her late father, who was a long-time police reporter and then managing editor at the Nashville Banner.

Beverly Keel assumed the role of sports editor at MTSU Sidelines during her junior year in 1986. (Albert Gore Research Center)

Following in his footsteps, Keel painfully stepped away from volleyball to become more involved with MTSU Sidelines and later, for the Banner.

“I joined the Banner while in college, eager to view the world my father had known,” Keel wrote in an article for the Nashville Post. “Many in the newsroom knew me only as Pinckney’s daughter; I took that as a compliment. He was still there, and I felt at home.”

Upon graduation, Keel never left her roots or her father’s legacy. She spent the next seven years at the Nashville Banner before diving headfirst into the world of journalism and music business.

Meanwhile, in MTSU’s Murphy Center, Turnham was shifting roles as well.

Stepping down as both volleyball head coach and women’s assistant basketball coach, Turnham moved into a position within the compliance office. As the years progressed, Turnham stayed at MTSU, working her way up the ladder to the role of Assistant Athletic Director and the school’s first full-time compliance director.

In January of 2014, Turnham was promoted to her current position as Senior Associate Athletic Director. Under this role, Turnham oversees women’s sports in addition to handling the department’s personnel changes. She does all this while serving as the deputy Title IX Coordinator for Athletics, a position near and dear to her heart.

Dating back to her volleyball days made up of just three scholarship athletes, a team uniform that included only one pair of socks for a whole weekend tournament and a team van that had a roof held together by duct tape, Turnham was groomed for this role.

“I tell people that’s what drove me into the profession that I’m in now,” Turnham said. “I wanted volleyball to have opportunities like women’s basketball had. I wanted them to have more scholarships, I wanted them to have a real coach, I wanted them to have equipment. But we didn’t have a lot of those things, so that’s what kind of drove me into administration. I wanted to go into some type of administration so they could have the things that other programs had.”

All of these things might have seemed like burdens at the time, but they kept Turnham right where she needed to be.

Turnham will continue to put MTSU in the spotlight by serving as the NCAA Women’s Basketball Selection Committee Chair next season.

“I had all these plans laid out for all the things I was going to do, and quite frankly, God had a different plan,” Turnham said. “He drew me to Middle, and he kept me at Middle. It’s something I never regretted, and I kind of think the same thing for Beverly.”

After returning to Middle Tennessee from earning her master’s degree at Columbia University, Keel began teaching right away at MTSU. Leaving in 2010 for a brief stint, Keel took the role of Senior Vice President of Media and Artists Relations for Universal Music Group Nashville.

Her biggest accolade while at UMG was the revitalization of music legend Lionel Richie’s career, where she was in charge of his album publicity for the label. Keel was responsible for booking the Today Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, interviews with the Associated Press, People Magazine and numerous other outlets. The platinum-selling album, titled “Tuskegee,” led Richie to sold-out arena tours, commercial endorsement deals and role as a judge on American Idol.

Lionel Richie and Beverly Keel during the making of the “Tuskegee” album in 2012. (Submitted Photo)

Upon her immediate return to MTSU in 2013, she accepted the role of Chair to MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry.

“The first year I came back I got us back on the Billboard list and the Hollywood Reporter list, and we’ve been on there every single year,” Keel said. “Right now is sort of the height of our national prominence, with NBC Reporter Kate Snow’s Nightly News story on us recently.”

But through all of her personal and professional accomplishments, there’s one thing that’s closest to her.

“The most rewarding times of my life are when my students succeed,” Keel said. “My students’ success is far more satisfying than anything I’ve done personally. It’s like a mother; you just get weepy and warm inside. More than that, it’s the relationships I have with my students. I have them over for dinner, they invite me to their shows and I see them out. Just to be a part of their lives is an honor.”

For Music Business senior Sami Bicknell, Keel is deserving of all the praise.

“She’s very much like a mother figure,” Bicknell said. “She’s very caring about my education and about my future. She also cares about how my everyday life is and making sure that I’m okay.”

Each and every day, Keel still fights for the underdogs, much like her coach fought for her.

“She’s definitely helped me on a personal level of not being afraid of my own shadow and not being afraid to put myself out there,” Bicknell said. “She also does care and wants to know that I’ll end up in a place that I’m happy with and that will treat me well in terms on money and also in terms of position. She also expects good work from me and knows when I’m not giving 100 percent and will call me on it.”

“It’s like the underdogs who won’t stop,” Keel said. “I kind of still feel like an underdog now. But it’s that philosophy, so you work harder, you work smarter, you work longer. Nothing’s given. But you do it because you love it.”

Former head coach Diane Cummings Turnham (back row, far left) and Beverly Keel (back row, third from left) along with the rest of the 1984 Middle Tennessee volleyball team. (Albert Gore Research Center)

To contact Sports Editor David Chamberlainemail

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