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VIProfile: Diane Turnham

Born in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, Diane Turnham only intended to stay at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) as a coach for a few years, then she planned to go back to Mt. Juliet and teach elementary school. Instead, she stayed at MTSU and is now in her 40th year at the university serving as the senior associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator. 

As an only child who was close to her father who played basketball, she picked up his love of the game and it has stayed with her for her whole life. “I played basketball for Mt. Juliet High School and then in college at Vol State and Lipscomb. There were few school with organized women’s basketball teams at that time.”

Graduating from Lipscomb in 1980, she went on the become an assistant coach at Austin Peay State University while she completed a Master’s Degree. Offered a job at MTSU by a former coach, she discovered from then Athletic Director (AD) Jimmy Earle that she would not only be the only assistant coach for the women’s basketball team, but she’d also be the first coach of the new women’s volleyball team. “You’ll do great,” said Earle. “I have confidence in you.”

Turnham admits that she had to learn the ins and outs of volleyball, but she built the volleyball team from the ground up. During that same time, her basketball team earned eight Ohio Valley Conference championships and six trips to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. According to her bio, “she was responsible for recruiting possibly the best women’s basketball player, Kim Webb, to ever don a Lady Raider uniform. Webb’s jersey is retired and she is a member of the Blue Raider Hall of Fame.”

Those first years were lean, as there was not a lot of money for women’s sports, but it got better over time. However, she was determined to make things better for women athletes from the start. When she was asked if she’d join the administrative team, her number one condition for taking the job was that the university had to hire a “real” women’s volleyball coach to take the team to the next level.

A “real” volleyball coach was hired, and the year Turnham moved on to administration, the volleyball team won a conference championship. “It was amazing,” said Turnham, “I am very proud of that!” 

Her first administrative position was another first, she became MTSU’s first full-time compliance director. Her job was to oversee the policies and procedures of the athletic department’s compliance to all NCAA rules.

She was given more responsibility as acting athletic director in March 2004 when, then, AD Boots Donnelly had heart surgery. When he resigned in January 2005, she was called on again to take the reins of the department until Chris Massaro was hired on April 8, 2005.

In January of 2014, Turnham was promoted to her current position as a senior associate athletic director. Once again, she wears many hats. She oversees the day-to-day administration and logistics for MTSU Athletics, is the associate athletic director of women’s sports, serving as administrator for women’s basketball and volleyball, as well as serving as the deputy Title IX Coordinator for Athletics.

The NCAA has asked Turnham to serve on many different committees, including the Division I Women’s Soccer Committee, of which she was chair one year; the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Committee, serving as the chair for her last two years of service on that committee; and in 2020, she finished serving her fifth of five years on the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee as its Chair. Because of the pandemic, the finals that year were cancelled.

“On March 12, we had headed to Indianapolis to start the process,” said Turnham. “We were supposed to have a meeting that day at 3:00 p.m., but we were called in earlier. I knew it was not good. All the work we had done that year ended…the girls were supposed to play that day, but they were pulled off the court and the tournament was cancelled. Then they cancelled the men’s tournament.” 

Yet, through all of it, she always felt supported, by the NCAA and from MTSU President Sydney McPhee on down. All they were interested in after the cancellation was getting the athletes somewhere safe, and then, the next fall keeping them and those they played with safe. 
During the pandemic, Turnham, like everyone else, became aware of the psychological effect quarantine had on her athletes. And, in turn, their overall mental health. 

“One of the hardest things for our athletes was being alone,” said Turnham, “being away from friends and family. It was hard for them to accept.” 

What she learned from the experience of coordinating care of the physical and mental health of MTSU’s athletes during COVID-19 was that “we are stronger than we think, and we can work together – even using ZOOM.”

Coming out of pandemic mode, Turnham says that she has lots to celebrate, especially for female athletes. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Title 9 law prohibiting sex and gender discrimination in all programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. No one has to coach two college sports today. And, female athletes are now able to receive the same training and conditioning, tutoring and scholarship opportunities as male athletes. 

“I see my time at MTSU as 40 years of making a difference in kid’s lives,” said Turnham. “It is why we do what we do. Athletics is not the most important thing, it is just another tool for preparing kids for the future… We also want our athletes to use college as a time to prepare for the career that they want to learn how to succeed in that career…We have been able to develop some incredible leaders who have done some great things.”

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