Remembering Tennessee State Tigersharks

Former Tigershark Don Moody holds pictures of his teammates (left) and Coach James Bass (right). Photo by Ashley Benkarski.

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — For decades Tennessee State University’s swimming program brought the school notoriety with its trophy-winning Tigersharks, standing out alongside the college’s other famed sports programs.

Formed in the 1940s by coach Thomas H. Hughes, the Tigersharks began earning titles and consecutive championship wins, keeping that momentum going into the 1980s when the program was dissolved  near the end of the decade.

“The swim program was part of the winning tradition of the athletic programs,” said former TSU swimmer Don Moody, noting its history of producing professional athletes into organizations such as the NFL and NBA—and of course, its women’s track team, the Tigerbelles. 

The program was a beacon for athletes, Moody said, but its ranks consisted almost exclusively of students from northern states due to the segregationist history of the South, which saw many black citizens denied access to public swimming pools. 

Moody was with the Tigersharks for all of his college years in the 1980s and recalled support from the coaches and TSU’s athletic director Sam Whitmon. That support was crucial to the tremendous success of the team, Moody said. Under the guidance of Coach James Bass, a Nashville native and former Tigershark, Moody and his teammates went on to become HBCU National Champions three times between 1980 to 1986. 

So, why would such a successful program be shuttered?

The answer lies with TSU’s induction into the Ohio Valley Conference in 1986—the OVC doesn’t sanction swim programs, Moody said. That’s a move that he feels has created a loss in chances for scholarships and, in turn, opportunities for education.

Swimming isn’t just a healthy or fun activity—it’s a skill that can save lives. Moody often rides his motorcycle, stopping at dams along the Cumberland River to read the notices of drowning incidents. He can’t help but wonder how much lower those numbers would be if swimming had more prominence in sports. “We were examples for kids,” Moody said. “What if more inner-city kids had examples like we do in football and basketball?”

Now Moody serves as the head swimming coach at the Nashville Jewish Community Center, doing what he can to help people become better swimmers. He stressed the need for accessible swim programs and facilities which provide a safer swim environment than lakes or rivers.

 “There’s no reason someone should drown in a swimming pool,” Moody said.

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