Dr. Catana Starks, a Tennessee State University alumna who became the first African American woman to coach an all-men’s team at the collegiate level, is being remembered as a humble trailblazer whose legacy will live on in those she inspired.
The history-making golf coach, whose story was made into a movie in which Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson portrayed her, passed away Sunday at the age of 75.
“Our hearts are saddened by the passing of Dr. Catana Starks,” said TSU President Glenda Glover. “She was a trailblazer, a true champion, whose legacy will continue in all those she inspired, on and off the golf course. Dr. Starks epitomized the excellence that TSU strives to instill in all its students. The thoughts and prayers of the entire TSU family are with her family and loved ones.”
Starks coached the TSU men’s golf team from 1986 until 2005 when she led the Tigers to a National Minority Golf Championship. The team shot a record-setting 840 as a unit.
Starks returned to Nashville in 1980 to become the swimming coach for the Tigers. When TSU entered the Ohio Valley Conference, the athletic department dropped the swimming program to add golf and named Starks as the head coach.
During her time as a coach, Starks earned her doctorate degree, began teaching, and eventually became the department head of Human Performance and Sports Sciences at TSU.
Under her guidance, the team also produced Sean Foley, who went on to be Tiger Woods’ swing coach; Sam Puryear, who became the first African American men’s head golf coach in any major conference (Michigan State); and Robert Dinwiddie, an All-American who went on to play on the European professional tour.
Puryear called Starks a “true coach.”
“She was a true advocate and believer in the term student-athlete,” said Puryear. “She helped make me a better student, athlete and now coach. I am paying a lot of her messages and lessons forward.”
Former TSU golfer Eric Wilhite (1988-92) said Starks was “like a second mom for our entire golf team.”
“I have so many memories and learned a ton of life lessons that I continue to practice today,” said Wilhite. “Her dedication to the TSU golf program was amazing. But her commitment to develop us as men is what I appreciated the most. I am very grateful I had a chance to play for a special person and TSU Legend.”
In 2011, Starks’ story inspired the movie From the Rough starring the late Michael Clarke Duncan and Henson, who portrays a fictionalized version of Starks named Cassandra Turner. The character parlays a successful stint as coach of a women’s swim team at a historically Black university into a shot at building a men’s golf team. With the availability of Black players scarce, Turner scours Europe, Australia and Asia for hidden talent and constructs a uniquely multi-racial team.
Michael Critelli, a producer who helped develop the film’s story, said what stood out most about Starks when he talked to her was her humbleness.
“She was a very humble woman, who was very reluctant to talk about her many accomplishments,” said Critelli. “One of the of the biggest challenges I had constructing her life story for the film was that she would not brag about what she had done. I would have to find out about her achievements from other people.”
And it is through others, that Starks will live on, added Critelli.
“Her legacy is most pronounced in the many people she inspired, and who are inspiring others through her example,” he said.