The general public may not be very familiar with the Tennessee Secondary Scholastic Athletic Association (TSSAA). Coaches and administrators are very familiar with the organization that oversees the bylaws and governs high school athletics.
There is a sister organization for middle schools, the Tennessee Middle School Athletic Association (TMSAA). Warren County public schools are members of both organizations. Grant Swallows, Director of Schools for Warren County Schools is on the TSSAA Board of Control.
The TSSAA is the governing body of Tennessee high school sports, much like the NCAA is for college sports. Bernard Childress is executive director of the TSSAA, much like Roger Goodell is the commissioner of the NFL. Both Swallows and Childress say the TSSAA oversees the bylaws the schools have created, with an emphasis on the fact the TSSAA does not create the bylaws. Think of how elected congressmen make the laws that govern the USA as a parallel example.
THE MAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR BERNARD CHILDRESS
Bernard Childress is a soft-spoken man who grew up in Columbia, Tenn. Childress was a high school basketball player at Columbia Central, and he played in college at Belmont University where he has been elected into the sports hall of fame.
After graduating from Belmont and working in the private sector for three years at Union Carbide in Columbia, Childress started teaching and coaching at his alma mater, Columbia Central.
His high school coach, Hardy Loyd, was the head principal at Columbia Central and hired Bernard Childress to become a part of the staff at the high school. Loyd was more than a coach for Childress, Loyd was a mentor who encouraged Childress to focus on education as a career.
Childress had thought of getting his master’s degree in accounting or physical education, but Loyd counseled him to pursue a master’s in education and administration. In a turn of events, Childress was hired to coach at MTSU after he got his master’s at Trevecca Nazarene University.
Childress said, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. I had left high school and coached a year at MTSU. I talked with my wife about what to do. We had a couple of young kids. I prayed a lot about what to do because there was a lot of travel as a college coach. Columbia had changed the structure of the high school and added the ninth grade to the 10-12 grades. Hardy Loyd, my mentor, needed another principal for the new grade at the high school, and he hired me.”
Bernard Childress became an assistant principal at Columbia Central.
Every time Childress made a big decision as an adult, he says Loyd was involved. A few years later, Childress became principal of Whitthorne Middle School in Columbia that had 1,800 students. Childress quickly learned other middle schools did not want to play Whithorne in sports. He knew the middle schools needed uniform, governing bylaws to guide middle school athletics. That need led Childress to seek help from the TSSAA. That interaction led to the eventual decision of the TSSAA to establish the TMSAA to oversee middle school athletics.
There was only one problem. Who would be the director of the TMSAA? Loyd and others encouraged Childress to apply for the position. Parenthically, Loyd was the president of the Board of Control at the TSSAA during this time and had great influence. Childress was offered the job, and many years later, he became executive director of the TSSAA.
Childress explained some of his thinking about leaving as principal at Whithorne Middle. Childress said, “I have always had in my mind that I want to leave a job before anyone wants me to leave. Whithorne was in good shape when I left, so I felt good about the decision.”
Childress explains his passion for the past 40 years as simply “helping kids.” Childress has either been coaching, teaching, or overseeing kids and athletics since he first went back to teach and coach at Columbia Central.
Childress said, “We have 18 people working in our TSSAA office. I constantly encourage them to think that we are servicing kids. I want to help young kids through educational athletics to become outstanding citizens. The decisions we make at the TSSAA affect kids across Tennessee. It is through prayer and God giving me strength that I do this job.”
Childress said without a doubt the biggest decision the TSSAA made this week during the two-day meetings with the Board of Control regarded virtual schools. Twelve virtual schools have been developed across the state with local Boards of Education, and Childress said the decisions made by the Board of Control will help keep hundreds, if not thousands, of kids eligible for athletics during the upcoming school year.
The TSSAA released an article that explained the board’s vote “to permit the transfer of a student’s athletic record to a district-operated virtual school under the existing rules permitting transfers due to a student’s reassignment by that school district.”
Although this is not a pressing issue in Warren County, it was considered an emergency action for the upcoming school year. “The TSSAA Board voted to give virtual schools two options to choose from based on how it wants to conduct its athletic programs. The school (1) may field its own teams, or (2) allow their students to participate in any sport at the student’s zoned public school.
Virtual schools who are currently members and already participating in cooperative agreements must choose one of the above options for 2021-22 or make a special request to the Board of Control to continue their cooperative programs.”
Twelve virtual schools from across the state applied for and were approved for membership into the TSSAA. Rutherford, Lawrence, Williamson and other counties had a virtual school applying for membership.
Another major decision by the Board of Control was to allow schools to return to normal preseasons. Childress said, “This means schools can have scrimmages against other schools, jamborees, 7-on-7 tournaments and basketball teams can have their games at camps starting this summer. We will work closely with the governor’s team to decide what to do about COVID-19 regulations. We are leaving it up to school systems to decide what to do about crowd size at games.”
A decision by the Board of Control to lift Shelbyville Central High School’s football program from playoff probation in the upcoming school year may affect the teams which go to the playoffs in Warren County’s new region. Warren County will be in a region with Shelbyville, Coffee County, Lebanon and Cookeville. Four teams from each region go to the first round of the playoffs, and if Shelbyville was ineligible for the playoffs, the other four teams including Warren County would have automatically qualified.
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19
A year ago, the football season was not certain. Basketball championship games had been canceled, as were all spring sports. The financial impact on the TSSAA was anticipated to be substantial. The major source of revenue for the TSSAA are the championship games in the fall, winter and spring.
Childress was surprised at how well football did with restricted crowd size. Childress experienced more revenue from sales of football game tickets that was strangely similar to what Warren County High School football experienced with football ticket sales.
Childress said, “I was surprised at how well we did regarding revenue with the reduced ticket sales. I expected football to fall to somewhere between one-third to one-half of what we usually do. We went over our projections in football. We did not do so well in basketball.”
Childress asked the same question some people in Warren County asked about football. “Did a lot more people than we think get in for free in the past?” Crowd sizes were smaller at TSSAA playoff games, as were crowd sizes at Nunley Stadium for football games. However, revenues were not down with only 30% capacities as much one would expect when compared to previous years’ ticket sales.
The TSSAA operated at a deficit last year, but Childress was adamant the deficit would have been greater if the TSSAA staff had not diligently cut expenses.
CHALLENGE OF BEING
Although coaches are represented by members on the Board of Control who were elected by school administrators in their districts, coaches across the state become frustrated by some of the rules the TSSAA has enacted. There is also a Legislative Council which is composed of school administrators and athletic directors, and the Legislative Council reviews information from coaches and administrators in Tennessee.
Much like the American public is frustrated with Congress, many coaches in Tennessee are frustrated with some of the decisions by the TSSAA. This dynamic can create stress for the TSSAA executive director and his staff.
Childress said being criticized is to be expected. He knows some schools are going to be frustrated with their classifications. He handles criticism by remembering his main purpose. Childress said, “It is about how you approach what you do. I want to make young people’s lives better. I want to enhance their education. You must treat all people the same. I am not content. I can always get better. We have to be careful to not become like colleges. We need to change the definition of winning. I know that we look at the scoreboard. We count wins and losses. But it is about a lot more than that.”
Grant Swallows praised Bernard Childress and his staff. Swallows said, “People do not understand how much Bernard and his staff do for kids across the state, and people do not realize how highly regarded the TSSAA staff is in other states. Other states look at what they are doing to help them draft laws for their associations.”
Bernard Childress may not appear to be the most ambitious man in the room with his easy-going, friendly personality. Yet, he has risen to the highest position of the TSSAA and oversees high school athletics with passion and kindness.
It is easy to see why his mentor, Hardy Loyd, encouraged him to go into administration. Bernard Childress appears to be a natural-born leader.