|Heach Coach Jinx Cockerham talks to the team during a timeout in 2009. She recently announced she is retiring as Ryan’s volleyball coach after building the program from scratch and winning five state championships. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio.
Jinx Cockerham arrived at Father Ryan High School as a brand new teacher in the fall of 1970 along with the school’s very first female students. In the 46 years since, she not only helped build the school’s women’s athletics program to the success it is today, but was an advocate for all of Father Ryan’s girls.
“Part of my role was being an advocate for females,” said Cockerham, who recently announced she is retiring as Ryan’s volleyball coach after building the program from scratch and winning five state championships. “I feel good about that.”
In her early years at Father Ryan, when the number of girls, though growing, was still smaller than the number of boys, “Sometimes you had to speak for them,” Cockerham said. “I kind of took it on.”
Today, you can find girls at the top of their class at Ryan, among the school’s top athletes, and leaders in the school. “So they have earned their place,” Cockerham said.
Cockerham herself has earned her place as a coaching legend at Ryan and beyond. In 23 years as head coach, she led the women’s basketball team to 516 victories, 16 20-win seasons, 10 regional championships, five final eight appearances in the state tournament, four final fours, and two state runners-up finishes.
She started Father Ryan’s volleyball program in 1976, even though she had never played the sport herself, and led the program to five state championships, including her final title last fall.
Cockerham has a long list of awards and honors, including being named the National Federation Coach of the Year in 1993 for volleyball and being inducted in the Metro Nashville Schools Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
She coached her final volleyball match for the Division II-AA state championship in November. Cockerham had already decided to retire from coaching before the state tournament began, but she hadn’t told her players. At the start of the tournament, “as they’re playing the National Anthem the tears were rolling down my eyes knowing it was going to be my last time.”
Her team had a magical run to the title, losing their first match in the double-elimination tournament, and coming back from the brink of elimination several times before finally prevailing over Briarcrest to claim the title.
“The kids rose to the occasion. It was them,” Cockerham said. “They got on this roll. And they fed off each other.”
As her team inched closer to the championship, Cockerham sat on the bench with her hands covering her face. “I did not see the last two points. … I didn’t think I could bear watching,” she said. “I went back and watched it later. I was overwhelmed.”
It was only after the team banquet at the end of the season that Cockerham told her players that she was retiring from coaching. With a roster of good returning players and good new players coming into the program, “I thought it would be a good opportunity for someone new to come in,” Cockerham said.
“The hardest thing I ever had to do was give up basketball. This was the second hardest,” Cockerham said. “You feel like you’re giving up part of your family.”
Creating those relationships with players, their families and other coaches, was among the best parts of coaching, Cockerham said. “If you don’t have those relationships and it’s all about numbers, you’re not really getting the true meaning of it.”
Cockerham’s athletic career started at Hillsboro High School where she was an All-City guard on the girls basketball team. Her senior year, she was named the Nashville Scholastic League Most Valuable Player and the Tennessean Player of the Year.
After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, she took her first teaching job at Ryan. “I didn’t go into education with coaching in mind,” Cockerham said.
During her second year at Ryan, John Gorham, the girls basketball coach, “recruited to me to come and watch,” Cockerham said. “I got suckered in and it became a 40 something year career.”
She served as Gorham’s assistant and then succeeded him as head coach for the 1981-82 season.
In 1976, the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association sanctioned volleyball as a new sport for girls. Cockerham convinced the school administration to start a volleyball team. “I just felt like Father Ryan needed a team,” she said. “I wasn’t really prepared to coach it as far as knowledge, but I felt the females needed another sport because we had grown in female population.”
“I encouraged girls to try to play because I was so interested in more opportunities for females. I didn’t want kids to be a one sport athlete. At Ryan we needed multi-sport athletes,” Cockerham said. “A lot of the volleyball girls played basketball,” and in the spring many would play softball or run track or participate in another sport as the athletic program grew, she said.
To coach volleyball, Cockerham first had to learn the sport. She read what she could and attended coaching clinics and camps, talked to other coaches, “And then by playing a lot. We just played a lot,” Cockerham said.
She also had to educate the fans. “That was big. They didn’t really know the sport,” Cockerham said. In the early years, she would pass out a copy of the rules to the fans in the stands, she said.
She grew to love the sport. “Volleyball has so many great benefits,” Cockerham said, and athletes of all sizes can find a place on the court. “You don’t have to be the tallest member. You do have to be pretty savvy, pretty quick.”
It took awhile for volleyball to become established in the state. Deciding to have a team meant a school had to have coaches, uniforms practice space, in short, the commitment of the school administration, Cockerham said.
But as more schools fielded teams, the level of competition improved and more players started moving on to play in college. The sport has taken off, Cockerham said. Today, Father Ryan is one of the few schools with a varsity, junior varsity and ninth grade teams, she said. “It just grew and grew to what it is now, which is amazing.”
The passage of Title IX in 1972 required colleges and universities to provide more opportunities for women to participate in collegiate sports. Its impact has been dramatic, not only for college athletics, but also at the high school, middle school and youth sports levels.
“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for females” before Title IX, Cockerham said. After its adoption, “everything started flourishing. Schools were looking for what we could offer.”
Today, “Girls are starting earlier and they’re playing more” in a wide variety of sports,” Cockerham said.
Although there are more opportunities for women to continue their athletic careers in college, that wasn’t the focus of Cockerham’s coaching, she said. “I wanted kids to have a really good high school experience.”
She was a demanding coach, Cockerham admitted. “But I love the kids. I try to look beyond where we are right now” and teach lessons that will prepare them for adulthood.
That meant setting standards for her teams. “But the standard is not just about winning. The standard is all encompassing about what you want out of a high school experience,” she said. “It included good discipline, life lessons, things they can use in their lives afterwards, becoming great citizens and giving back. … For me that’s how I wanted the program to be.”
Family was ‘totally involved’
Athletics have been a family affair for the Cockerhams. “We were all involved, totally involved,” she said.
Her daughter Kelly Cockerham Reilly played volleyball and basketball for her mother and was on the school’s first state championship team in 1992.
Coaching her daughter “was tough at first,” she said. “We had a pact, we didn’t discuss games and practices on the way home.” But she was eager to coach her daughter, Cockerham said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wanted to do it.”
Her son Josh played basketball for Ryan and later at Rhodes College in Memphis. And in the stands supporting all three was their husband and father, Jim. “My husband would always be there,” Cockerham said. “He’s the number one reason for our success.”
Now that her coaching career has ended, Cockerham will move from the bench to the stands to watch Ryan’s teams and her five grandchildren. “I’m not going to be an obnoxious fan,” she joked. “I’ll be well behaved.”