In 1925 a group of high school administrators attending a meeting of the Tennessee State Teachers’ Association in Nashville organized the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA). Commonly known as TSSAA, the Association exists “to stimulate and regulate the athletic relations of the secondary schools in Tennessee.” The group elected G. C. Carney of Nashville Central High School as its first president and named A. J. Smith, superintendent of the Clarksville schools, the first secretary-treasurer. F. S. Elliott of Memphis Whitehaven, TSSAA secretary-treasurer from 1930 to 1942, and Pat W. Kerr, the Association’s president from 1930 to 1936, also provided valuable leadership during these formative years.
The TSSAA jointly sponsored the 1927 Boys’ State Basketball Tournament with the tournament’s founding organization, the Nashville Tennessean. The TSSAA assumed full responsibility for the Boys’ State Basketball Tournament in 1928. The late Blinkey Horn, sports editor of the Tennessean, initiated the Boys’ State Basketball Tournament in 1921.
The first Girls’ State Basketball Tournament took place the following year, making Tennessee one of the few states to offer interscholastic athletics for girls. The initial girls’ tournament was unfortunately short lived due to financial constraints and the variety of rules used in women’s basketball. Girls’ basketball teams, however, continued to thrive at most high schools throughout the mid-twentieth century, and in 1958 the TSSAA sponsored its first Girls’ State Basketball Tournament, which followed a six-on-six, half-court format supposedly better suited to the physical endurance of girls. Girls’ high school basketball switched to a five-on-five, full-court format in 1980.
From its beginning the TSSAA consisted of a nine-member Board of Control, in addition to the two part-time officers. Made up of elected school officials from different athletic districts across the state, the Board of Control enforces TSSAA regulations, conducts state meetings, authorizes expenses, and registers officials. In 1935 the TSSAA created a Legislative Council to make necessary amendments to the organization’s constitution and bylaws. William Osteen, principal of Millington Central High School, first served on the TSSAA’s Legislative Council and then on the Board of Control from 1942 to 1971, the last thirteen years as Board president.
In 1946 the Board of Control hired the TSSAA’s first fulltime executive officer and opened a state office in Trenton. A. F. Bridges, formerly a teacher, coach, and administrator in several Tennessee communities and last in the Covington city schools, became the TSSAA’s first executive secretary and served in that capacity until 1972. Bridges was nicknamed “Mr. TSSAA” for his dedicated leadership. In 1964 the Board of Control took a major step toward integration by accepting black schools as affiliate members. By March 1966 the first integrated Boys’ State Basketball Tournament took place at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium with Nashville’s Pearl High School, led by Perry Wallace, winning the title.
Surprisingly, it was not until early in 1969 that the TSSAA approved a playoff plan for state competition in football. The plan called for schools to be split up into three classes (A, AA, AAA) based on enrollment. The plan also divided each class into four regions with regional winners advancing to the state playoffs. The first playoff games and State Football Championship games took place in November 1969. Morristown East won the Class AAA title, while Loudon claimed the Class AA crown, and South Pittsburg captured the Class A championship. The classification of football sparked a dramatic growth in the TSSAA program. In 1969, 12 teams advanced to the state playoffs with a total attendance of 23,146. In 1995, 160 teams advanced to the playoffs in five classes with overall attendance ballooning to 290,000 people. By 1973 the TSSAA had introduced a classification system for basketball as well.
Gill Gideon of Jackson became the second executive secretary of the TSSAA in 1972 and held that post until his retirement in 1986. Gideon served as president of the National Federation of State High School Associations for 1981-82. Ronnie Carter joined the TSSAA staff in 1978 from Nashville’s Overton High School as the assistant executive secretary. Carter succeeded Gill Gideon as the TSSAA’s executive director and continues to serve in this capacity.
Perhaps the most significant change in recent years occurred in May 1996 when the TSSAA split schools into two divisions after public schools complained that private schools were offering scholarships to students based on athletic ability. The following year TSSAA sanctioned Brentwood Academy for recruiting infractions, and in turn the academy sued TSSAA for violating its First Amendment rights of free speech. The case eventually made its way to the U. S. Supreme Court, where in the decision of Brentwood Academy v. TSSAA (2001), the high court ruled five to four that TSSAA’s recruiting rules did violate the school’s free speech rights. Constitutional scholars noted that the decision set new parameters for the definition of state action in that it ruled that the private TSSAA organization was so closely related with public officials and agencies that it could be held to the same constitutional standards as any other government agency.
The TSSAA that began with 45 schools in 1925 has grown to an organization now based in Hermitage with 374 schools in its membership, approximately 110,000 participants, 5,500 teams, and an annual operating budget in excess of $1.2 million. Nevertheless, the TSSAA remains a voluntary, nonprofit, self-supporting organization which now sponsors football, baseball, and wrestling for boys only and softball and volleyball for girls only as well as basketball, track, tennis, cross country, soccer, and golf for girls and boys.