New TSSAA director answers the call

Friday, March 12, 2010 at 2:42pm
Bernard Childress in his office. / Jude Ferrara for The City Paper

This week, chances are you will see Bernard Childress walking around with a big smile on his face.

That’s because it’s boys state tournament week. And watching as players from around the state compete at the highest level is one of the joys of his job as TSSAA Executive Director.

Other aspects aren’t so rewarding, but as Childress, 54, starts to close in on his first year, he’s very clear on how he likes his new post — “I love it.’’

The role is the Tennessee’s first for an African American and somewhat of a surprise to Childress, a product of humble, small-town roots. Asked if he ever envisioned himself one day heading the highest prep sports governing body in the state, he smiled and said, “No, certainly not.

Yet, while coming up from relatively humble beginnings, Childress says he knew his calling in life was administration.

He was a fine athlete — a two-year starter at Columbia Central High in Maury County, making All-State his senior year in 1973 and leading his team to the state tournament, before moving on to a superb four-year career at Belmont University. There, like at Columbia, he became one of the school’s career leading scorers, graduating in 1978 and later inducted into the Belmont Athletic Hall of Fame.

But Childress knew he was meant for something more than just playing sports.

“I wanted to teach and coach,’’ he said.

Childress became principal of Columbia Whitthorne Middle School, later assistant principal at Columbia Central. He began at the offices of Tennessee Secondary School Athletics Association in 1994. In recent years, he served as one of four assistant executive directors under Carter.

Then came the call to lead.

“Ronnie Carter [previous director] and our staff couldn’t have been any better or help make the transition any smoother than they did,’’ he said. “Our support staff is great.’’

Ironing out the kinks

On June 15, 2009, Childress — who is in his 16th year with the TSSAA — took over the reins shortly after Carter announced his retirement in the spring. And because of the intricacies of the new football playoff format, October and November did not go smoothly.

The new system turned three classifications into six for the 2009 playoffs. A bigger headache followed when players and coaches were left in the dark as to what teams they would be playing until a late Saturday morning announcement was made on selected radio shows around the state. Even then, confusion built as a few corrections had to be made as the day went on.

Among the glitches was a situation where teams in small districts with records as bad as 1-9 made the playoffs and teams with 5-5 or better records were left out. A 12-step sheet detailing who was in and who was out was also hard to wade through.

“No doubt about it,’’ Childress said when asked if it was the biggest difficulty he as a TSSAA administrator had to deal with. “We’re planning some upcoming meetings which will be represented by coaches and administrators and our staff to try to iron out the kinks. We still have some work to do.’’

Childress also was dealt more controversy in his first year after an ugly fight involving players and spectators erupted at Stratford High in the first round of the district basketball tournament last month. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt, but among the immediate concerns for Childress was whether the game was played without an administrator, or security, present. The subsequent cleanup left both Maplewood and Stratford girls basketball teams suspended from tournament play for a year.

A similar altercation after a game last month in Shelbyville, resulted in both the boys basketball programs at Shelbyville and Lawrence County being suspended for a year.

And just last week, a ruling disallowed Maplewood to host any tournament games next season after the school elected to play a tournament game at Dalewood Middle School [their home away from home while their new gym is being built] when told not to do so.

“Those are the situations you don’t like to have to go through,’’ Childress said. “You wish they didn’t happen. You want to make sure they don’t happen again.’’

Met the challenge’

Childress’ job performance is obviously being scrutinized since he sits atop a high and somewhat controversial perch, but he has at least one big fan that has studied his first months on the job — his predecessor.

“Bernard is doing an outstanding job,’’ Carter said. “It’s basically the story of his life; he’s very humble, dedicated and totally focused on the task at hand whether he was in the role of a player, coach or an administrator. He’s stepped up and met the challenge.

“As for the tough rulings, A.F. Bridges (the first TSSAA executive director) said it best, ‘just go by the rules, go by the book’,’’ Carter said. “That’s what Bernard’s done.’’

Carter may be his successor’s biggest fan, but there are others too, including a longtime sports editor who has watched Childress grow from boy to man.

“Bernard has carried with him through life the values he learned from his parents and church leaders,’’ said Marion Wilhoite, sports editor at the Columbia Daily Herald since 1962. “He continued along that path as a family man and in his coaching days and times as a school administrator.

“When Bernard accepted a position with the TSSAA, he was Maury County’s loss but a big gain for the state. He genuinely believes that decisions should always be in the best interest of the kids,’’ he added.

The view is shared by Childress’ high school coach and former principal at Columbia Central.

“Bernard’s character and leadership helped our school have some outstanding years,’’ said Hardy Loyd, whom Childress later worked under. “I was privileged to see Bernard’s leadership develop from another perspective as well as on the basketball court.’’

Childress acknowledges and appreciates the work of high school principals around the state.

“Every principal at any school I’ve called or worked with wants to be as cooperative as possible,’’ he said. “They don’t get enough credit. I can pick up the phone and call any principal in the state about a situation, and he will want to work through it.

“If there is a problem, they want it corrected as soon as possible. I have not had one bad dealing with an administrator since I’ve been on the job.’’

It’s close to a non-stop proposition.

“It’s literally a seven-day-a-week job. I know as soon as I come in, I am going to be on the phone most of the day. And if I have plans for something, any given phone call could totally change that,’’ said Childress, estimating he gets about 40-50 calls a day.

Taking good with the bad

When Childress reflected on the best and worst aspects of his first year, he beamed over being able to travel and watch “the kids” compete, and of attending regional and national conferences where he gathers information on strengthening the TSSAA.

“Bernard is like a sponge, he soaks up every bit of knowledge he hears at the conferences and takes the best of it back home,’’ Carter said.

But Childress is careful not become too wrapped up in the job.

“Sometimes, we spend more time with each other than we do with our wives,’’ he said, laughing. “It’s rare a day goes by that we don’t talk at least once or twice.’’

Carter agreed. “The people around the job is very much an extension of your family — the people in the office you work with and communicate with daily,’’ he said.

The worst thing about the job for Childress is dealing with domineering parents of student athletes.

“That involves some of the things parents do to get their kids eligible, [or] when they don’t like the coach their child is playing for, or over the lack of playing time [their child] is getting,” he said.

“That’s sad. Above everything else, sports should be fun. I know there are certain negative things that take away from that sometimes.’’

However, this week is not about phone calls or parents — it time for the state tournament, and that brings a smile back to Childress’ face.

“It’s something I really look forward to, watching the kids play at the highest level and giving it all they’ve got,’’ he said, before taking a stab at summarizing his first year at the top. “I love kids, I love administrative work and I love my job.’’