A remarkable career of the 1980s, remembered
“I did put myself in the game… I wasn’t trying to degrade him. It was a form of intensity.”
In a game against Alcorn State in 1984, Deborah Temple, the nation’s leading scorer at over 31 points per game, was reported to have put herself back in the game for the Delta State Lady Statesmen without waiting on her coach’s direction to do so.
Temple didn’t refute the claim.
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“I was trying to aid my team in winning,” she told The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi) in April 1984. “I felt I could best do that by being in the game.”
But Coach Lloyd Clark didn’t care that he was losing an All-American. He didn’t tolerate insubordination.
“That was the ultimate,” he said of her re-entering a game on her own, alluding to the fact that her suspension and ultimate dismissal from Delta State was the culmination of a turbulent season, not a single event.
“Irreconcilable differences” is a phrase you hear sometimes when a marriage ends, but rarely does it come up in basketball. But it was cited as the reason for Temple’s dismissal from the Delta State women’s basketball program in spring of 1984. And while it may be easy to side one way or another even on the limited information available, a broader look back at the playing career of Deborah Temple and her intersection with Lloyd Clark — a coaching legend in his own right — and the turbulence of Delta State women’s basketball in the 1980s paints a more nuanced picture.
Deborah Temple grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, quickly a standout for the Clarksdale High School Wildkittens. A multi-sport athlete, she was a frequent winner in track-and-field in the high jump, 440-yard relay and 440 dash, and the low hurdles, and she was MVP of the Delta Women’s Softball League in the late 1970s.
Beyond that, though, she was an all-around star in basketball. She was the 1979 girls basketball MVP for the Wildkittens and racked up honors as a three-year letter-winner, including All-Big Eight three years in Mississippi, All-District III, and honorable mention All-State by the time she graduated.
In her senior year, she averaged 26.2 points on 54% shooting from the field, and she added 9 rebounds per game as a 5’10 post player.
Her high school coach, Ross Surles, had nothing but praise for her. His statement at the end of her high school career stands out especially knowing the conflict to come with her future coach.
“Deborah is a once-in-a-lifetime player for a coach,” Surles told The Yazoo Herald. “She gave everything she had. Her attitude was great and everybody looked to her when things went wrong.”
Contemporaneous with her adolescence, college women’s basketball in the United States was in what would be the final years of the AIAW. Delta State took over the top spot in the Division I, displacing the dominant Immaculata College to win three straight championships from 1975 to 1977 under the “mother of modern women’s college basketball,” Margaret Wade.
Wade retired after the 1978-1979, setting in to motion what would be a decade of transition for the Lady Statesmen. Prior to the 1979-1980 season, Frances Garmon took over as head coach at Delta State, and one of her first big recruits was Temple.
“We’re happy to have her at Delta State and look forward to working with her over the next four years. She has the ability to play any position on the floor and she’s very quick,” she told The Yazoo Herald in April 1981. “Fundamentally, Deborah is a sound basketball player.”
Temple made an immediate impact. Leading the team with 18.4 points per game, she added 9.2 rebounds on average on the way to a 24-15 finish, including the Mississippi AIAW State Tourney Title. Unfortunately, a strained ligament in her knee in the semifinals hampered her the rest of the way, and Delta State ended their season in a disappointing loss in the AIAW National Tournament Quarterfinals to Villanova.
Despite the early loss, Temple’s first year at Delta State only incited hope for the seasons to come.
“I wanted to see what Delta State was all about and after one season here I have found out it has been what I thought it would be and a little more,” she told The Clarksdale Press Register.
That excitement translated to a record-setting sophomore year individually. Through the first 10 games she averaged 25 points per contest, and then she hit another level. In a win over McNeese State, Temple made 20 of her 25 free throw attempts (both records at the time) for 40 points. She followed that up with 46 points in a 84-79 win over LSU, 41 points in a 89-88 win over Alcorn State, and 33 points in a loss to nationally ranked Ole Miss.
Even beyond all that, on Valentine’s Day in 1983, in a tight win over University of Alabama-Birmingham, she set a mark that has yet to be broken by grabbing an NCAA Division I-record 40 rebounds. As if that weren’t enough, she made 15 of 37 field goals and 10 free throws for a matching 40 points in that game.
It was more than clear Deborah Temple was an all-around threat. Her fourth 40-point game of the season brought her average up to 28.2 points per game (second only to Long Beach State legend LaTaunya Pollard’s 29.3), and her rebound average was up to 14.6 per game (sixth).
Less than a month later, she outdid herself — and nearly everyone else — again. This time, the Lady Statesmen trounced University of Tennessee-Martin 96-70 on the back of Temple’s 52 points (25-32 FG) and 24 rebounds. That was second all-time only to the 53 points scored by Nevada’s Chris Starr less than a month prior.
Despite Temple’s dominance, Delta State finished the season 13-16, far below the expectation set for the Lady Statesmen each year. Temple led the team in scoring (28 points per game) and rebounding (15.6 per game) and was a third-team All-American in Women’s Varsity Sports Magazine. She was also a Kodak All-District VI honoree and a member of the American Women’s Sports Federation Fast Break All-America basketball first team, alongside the likes of Anne Donovan, Cheryl Miller, Valerie Still, and more.
Along with her 40-rebound game, that 28-points-per-game 1982-1983 season is still the all-time leader for Division I sophomores in terms of scoring average.
Clearly one of the best in the college game, Temple was named to the 1983 World University Games team for the United States, where she ultimately led the team to a gold medal game win over Romania with 24 points and eight rebounds. She stood out among the best.
“There were a lot of big names at the trials,” she told reporters. “To be one of 12 selected was special.”
Back at Delta State, it was far from a celebration. An unexpected down season and finish outside the national tournament resulted in Coach Garmon’s resignation from the head coaching position. Enter Coach Lloyd Clark.
Clark was a graduate of Delta State and highly successful high school coach at Warren Central High School in Vicksburg, Mississippi. From 1978 to 1983 he won 245 of his 287 games before being hired as women’s basketball head coach for the Lady Statesmen.
Under Clark’s leadership, the program quickly began turning back around. The team finished 20-8, with most of their losses coming to nationally-ranked Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss. In her junior year, Temple was simple incredible.
Through the first five games of the season, Temple averaged 34.8 points and 10.8 rebounds, and she stayed near that the rest of the way, broadening the extent of her game as she did so. Midway through February and nearing the end of the season, she was averaging 31.5 points (53% FG, 70% FT), 11.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 4.5 steals, and 1.2 blocks.
She finished the season as the Division I leader with 31.2 points per game and was one of 30 finalists for the Wade Trophy. She was also named to the Shreveport Journal women’s All America third team and the Kodak All-District Women’s Basketball Team for District VI, but most of the talk surrounding Deborah Temple had turned to her reported behavior instead.
“Deborah and I have different philosophies about what a Lady Statesmen (player) should be,” Clark told the Clarksdale Press Register following Temple’s announced suspension. “I sincerely regret having to make this decision, but I believe it is the most beneficial course of action for Deborah and the team.”
Ultimately, Temple was released from her scholarship, ending her time at Delta State but leaving her free to transfer and become eligible to play immediately, making it clear Clark had no intention to keep her from playing altogether. Their “irreconcilable differences of opinion,” as he was quoted as describing the situation, just proved too much to keep both of them with the same team.
While Temple didn’t deny there had at times been issues between her and the coach, she acknowledged some confusion over the way things ended.
“Just like every other player and coach, we had disagreements,” she told reporters after her suspension. “But I didn’t think they were so strong that they would lead to suspension.”
Despite the controversy surrounding her, Temple was still highly sought after. She was invited to the Olympic Trials in April of 1984 but didn’t end up making the team, but several colleges showed interest in her remaining year of eligibility for the coming fall.
Temple spoke with Garmon, now at TCU, along with Ole Miss, DePaul, Houston, and Jackson State. The reigning scoring champion in Division I chose to go where she felt she had the best chance to win, signing with Van Chancellor to compete at Ole Miss for her senior year.
“Her hustling style of basketball will mesh well with the quicker tempo style of the game that we will be playing this season,” Chancellor said of adding Temple to his nationally-ranked and SEC-leading team ahead of a season full of expectation.
Ole Miss had finished the previous season No. 10 in the nation before losing to SEC foe Georgia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They returned four of five starters, including all-SEC selection Jennifer Gillom.
Given Temple’s reputation and the uncertainty around bringing anyone new in to such a successful team, questions arose about how the rest of her teammates viewed her. Very quickly that proved to be a non-issue.
“If there’s been any resentment (by the hold-overs) toward Deborah Temple, I haven’t seen it in person,” Chancellor said to the Clarion-Ledger early in the season. “She earned their respect by jumping out there and doing it. She didn’t talk, all she did was jump out and do what it takes.”
As if out of a Hollywood script, the Lady Rebels’ first game of the season turned out to be against Delta State (scheduled before Temple’s arrival). What some saw as a revenge game turned out to be just another Mississippi matchup, as Temple was sidelined most of the game after suffering a minor knee injury early on.
Fortunately, that injury didn’t hold back Temple’s season, and she found a groove filling in gaps as a consistent scorer, though not always leading in total points. Specifically, after a loss to Northeast Louisiana, Temple stepped up big in a 80-56 win over Vanderbilt, posting a near triple-double with 13 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, and 4 steals.
“We finally got somebody to take over,” Chancellor said of Temple’s play. “I went to Deborah Wednesday and told her we needed a leader. I told her to forget about what uniform she wore the last three years, you’re bleeding red and blue now.”
What a stark turnaround from how she parted Delta State. Perhaps that exit was a wake-up call, maybe her prior coach just truly had different values, or maybe winning on a national stage has a way of smoothing things over. (Or maybe all three, and more!) However she got to this point, Temple was not a valued and important part of a top-5 team with championship aspirations.
The Lady Rebels finished the regular season 26-1 on a Division I-leading 23-game win streak. Whereas Temple was a first-option scorer at Delta State, she found a role creating more opportunities at Ole Miss, leading the team with 129 assists over the season.
“This is a fun year,” she told reporters late in the year. “I’ve found new aspects of my game that I really didn’t know I had.”
Georgia was held up in the SEC Tournament by Tennessee before proceeding to their first Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Though they got revenge on Tennessee, Ole Miss ultimately fell to Paul Sanderford‘s Western Kentucky team 72-68, ending Temple’s collegiate career.
Whether or not Temple had proven herself and overcome her past reputation can’t be said without more intimate knowledge of what really went down at Delta State, but perhaps more important is that both parties succeeded thereafter.
“I figured Ole Miss had the talent to be in the top five without me, and I hoped they could continue to be there once I got here,” she said during their SEC Tournament run. “It’s just a dream come true for me.”
Temple finished her collegiate career with 2,573 points and 1,261 rebounds, becoming just the fourth NCAA Division I player with 2,500 points and 1,200 rebounds. Her 31.2 points per game in the 1983-1984 season is still the fourth-best season all-time, and her 15.6 rebounds per game in her sophomore year ranks 20th among all players.
Temple still holds several program records at Delta State, including her 25.9 points per game over her three years there, her 20-for-25 performance from the free throw line in 1983, and her 189 free throws (on 294 attempts) that same year. Forty rebounds in a game has never been matched at Delta State, or any other Division I school, for that matter.
Where Lloyd Clark and Delta State may have struggled immediately after losing the nation’s leading scorer, the retooling was still quick and effective. Prior to the 1986-1987 season, the Lady Statesmen transitioned to Division II and the Gulf South Conference after having gone several years conference-less.
They ran through their conference immediately after the transition and by 1989 were atop Division II, winning their first NCAA championship that year. Clark and crew repeated the following year and again in 1992, and he amassed nine Final Four appearances en route to a 494-98 record with the Lady Statesmen before retiring in 2002. Winning 83.4% of his games as a head coach, Clark is seventh all-time in win percentage across all three NCAA divisions entering the 2019-2020 season.
After her playing career ended, Temple entered the social services field, where she wanted to work when she first enrolled at Delta State. In an era where professional basketball options were limited, she did get an opportunity to try out for the Harlem Globetrotters in the summer of 1985. She didn’t make the team, and her basketball career ended there. While that may be disappointing, especially with the perspective of today’s basketball landscape, and we may be left wondering what she could have done with one more year at Delta State, Temple was clearly at peace even then:
“I’m the kind of person who always knew basketball wouldn’t be my life. When that part of my life was over, I felt good about it. I felt I had accomplished the things I set out to do.”
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