Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Tiffany D. Tucker didn’t start out wanting a career in sports, even though she stood almost six feet tall by middle school; grew up hooping with the best around Petersburg, Va.; and racked up a storied career as a basketball standout at the University of North Carolina. But none of that factored in when she thought about life after graduation.
“I wanted more than anything to be a motivational speaker. I was enthralled by Oprah Winfrey and Les Brown,” she says. “I wanted to write books and teach people about being their best and being successful.”
She hasn’t penned her first book yet, but she can definitely check the box on motivating people to success. Tucker has established a legacy as a beloved coach with runs at Allegheny College, Radford University, Francis Marion University and Claflin University. She’s worked in athletic administration at Elizabeth City State University, Hampton University and South Carolina State University. Currently, she’s the deputy athletic director at UNC Wilmington.
“Having a seat at this table, and a voice, and being able to articulate and fight for the needs of our female sports programs and athletes is definitely a personal best for me,” Tucker says.
In the Tucker family, education and intellect eclipsed sports and street credibility. Her parents were intentional about helping her become culturally, socially and politically aware. The backyard of her childhood home bordered the campus of Virginia State University, and Tucker says she spent a lot of her early teen years at the HBCU.
“After basketball practice at my high school, I’d go over to Virginia State and play pickup games with the boys,” she says. But it was the time she spent on campus with her parents that helped shape her and her life goals.
Tucker attended events where she listened to and learned from a bevy of Black icons, including two of her favorites: renowned author and women’s advocate bell hooks, and Dr. Juanita Bynum, the most prominent Black female televangelist in the country.
Looking back, that exposure helped align everything for her career. In 2006, Tucker graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and quickly landed a job as a mental health counselor. She was convinced she was on her way to a fulfilling career in motivational speaking and counseling until she took a side gig coaching AAU Boys Basketball.
“That’s when the coaching bug bit me,” Tucker says. She left her counseling position to work full-time as the assistant women’s basketball coach at Allegheny College. For the next decade, Tucker would dedicate herself to leading, mentoring and motivating college athletes as she coached her way along the East Coast.
“I focused on teaching them three tenets: to be open, because you never know where your next opportunity is coming from; to be authentic, because you don’t have to put on a mask to get where you want to go; and to invest in themselves,” she says. “Investing in yourself might be the most important one because you can’t pour into others from an empty cup. We need to understand that what’s in the cup is ours to keep. God requires us to pour from the overflow.”
By 2014, Tucker was playing a dual role coaching several women’s sports at Elizabeth City State College and working, for the first time, as an athletic administrator. In her new leadership role, she didn’t have the same one-on-one connection with the players, but she knew moving into an executive position was important for her to be able to create opportunities for them at a higher level down the road.
“I realized with the power I have now, I’m able to bring our young women into my space to help them,” she says, “whether we work on their public speaking, professional development or teach them more about women in athletics.”
That’s especially important now as the U.S. is approaching the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Women make up nearly half of all college athletes, which means the next decade could yield a dramatic shift in gender dynamics and equality in college sports. Tucker plans to help lead the conversation to challenge traditional ways of thinking.
“It’s a good thing to say I want equal rights or I want gender equality, but I’m going to be honest: There are some women who are better than men,” she says. “And I don’t believe a woman should settle for equal when she’s better. Equal just isn’t enough.”
Tucker says that applies to the disbursement of college scholarships, team equipment and travel, coaching salaries and much more. “I want my students to know, I want my coaches to know, I want my administrators to know, that if I put in the work and make the sacrifices to earn more or receive more—I want my more.’”
And Tucker is fixed on training college athletes to want more than just a highlight reel. When the NCAA changed its rules to allow players to capitalize on their name, image and likeness, her department immediately laid out a primer to help them understand their value as amateur athletes so they could make sound decisions instead of a quick money grab.
“We saw this as an opportunity for them to learn about entrepreneurship, business, law, contracts and what it means to really ‘adult,’” she says. “When you’re 18 years old, that money looks great. But we wanted them to consider who and what they were aligning themselves with, before jumping into a contract that, a year down the line, would leave them with regrets.”
It goes without saying that Tucker feels responsible for the total development of her college athletes and keeps a close watch over them, which for some, could be a little intimidating. “I’m six-foot-five-inches tall with a seven-foot wingspan,” she says with a laugh. “It took a long time to own it, but I understand my presence, and it’s powerful, but I don’t use it for negativity. When people see me, they see an authoritative figure, but I want them to also see my heart, because I lead from a place of caring and transparency. And I believe they do see that. Even though it’s wrapped in a six-foot-five package.”
Madelyne Woods is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.