Wednesday, March 23, 2005

At the top of her game

May 26, 1996
Tennessee's Pat Summitt credits family for her zeal for hard work

Minutes after winning her fourth national basketball crown, Tennessee Lady Vols Coach Pat Head Summitt went looking for the people who taught her about the game.

Tennessee had just trounced Georgia 83-65 in the March 31 NCAA finals at the Charlotte Coliseum in North Carolina. When Summitt got to the seats where her parents Richard and Hazel Head sat, the 43-year-old coach got a reward she'd waited for all her life. Tall, stern Richard Head wrapped his daughter in a bear hug and gave her a kiss.

"I'm glad you finally got to see one," Summitt said to the quiet Middle Tennessee farmer with a gruff voice and sometimes gruffer manner.

It was only the second hug and first kiss the 73-year-old Head had ever given this child he raised as a hard-working fourth son, the young woman he cheered for to play harder, the demanding coach he'd once worried would be fired.

* * *
Patricia Sue "Trish" Head's first basketball court was one end of a 100-foot hayloft. Her daddy hung a goal at one end and strung some lights. Her first teammate was her oldest brother Tommy, seven years older than his little sister and now a state legislator. Her first opponents were older brothers Kenneth and Charles.

Trish gave as good as she got when they played two-on-two after raking hay, milking cows, working tobacco. Summitt praises her parents, saying they protected her from her brothers. Her only sister, Linda, is six years younger than Summitt.

To hear the family tell it, Trish didn't need any protecting.

"I reckon she was just one of the boys," says Charles Head, a farmer and greenhouse operator. "In that hayloft, she was right in the middle of us. That's what made her tough."

As tough and as good as she was, she had no team to play for in 1966. The high school in Clarksville didn't have a girls' team.

So Richard Head moved his family of seven some six miles down the road, to tiny unincorporated Henrietta in neighboring Cheatham County. Then, Trish could play ball over at Cheatham County High School in Ashland City. Her first year, she caught a Trailways bus home every day.

"Everybody thought I had lost my mind," Hazel Head says. The family moved from a new home to an old, drafty house near their community grocery. "That old house was cold as kraut."

Richard Head says simply: "I just knew she wanted to play ball."

* * *

Pat Summitt coaches basketball the way she played basketball — intensely.

"The amount of work it takes to be successful does not detour Pat," says former UCLA coach Billie Moore, who coached Summitt on the 1976 silver medal U.S. Olympic team. "In the coaching game, she is not going to leave anything for granted. She was that way when I first met her."

Growing up on the family's Middle Tennessee dairy farm meant working — and working hard. "Daddy said he wanted Mama to have a girl, but he treated me like one of the guys," Summitt says.

Summitt wasn't any older than 10 or 11 when she was driving a tractor. She set and harvested tobacco, raked and baled hay, plowed fields and raised 4-H calves.

When the doors were open at Mount Carmel United Methodist Church near Ashland City, the Heads were there. Summitt couldn't date until she was 16. Living 15 miles from town, she didn't go out for pizza until her senior year in high school. "We worked, and we played basketball in the hayloft," she says.

Richard Head ran the farm and the store, built houses, served as water commissioner and on county court. "Miss Hazel" worked as hard as her husband, mowing the yard and cooking huge, country meals. The first to bring food to families after the death of a loved one, Hazel Head is "the hardest working person I know," Summitt says.

"I've often said I wish I had more of my mom in me. I think I learned a lot from my mom about being a good mother. You can always count on Miss Hazel."

Today, the Heads are likely the hardest-working retired people in Tennessee. Richard Head still works the family farmlands and does some work in Springfield, over at the tobacco warehouse. Hazel Head helps over at the family laundry in Ashland City almost every afternoon. The friendly and down-to-earth 70-year-old still fills three freezers of her own and keeps friends and family supplied with vegetables from the Heads' 10-acre garden. They still live in Henrietta, but in a newer and warmer house Richard Head built. Except for Summitt, all their now-grown and married children live within a five-mile radius.

In the Head family, good work was expected and didn't need praising. Excuses weren't accepted; laziness wasn't tolerated. Not that the Head kids questioned.

"Rebel? Are you kidding?" laughs Summitt. "A lot of discipline came as a result of fear. We had to get our own switch out of the yard. And if you got a little one, Mama would get her own. I hated that."

Trish's 16th birthday was spent on a tractor. Friends were feting her and a friend at a country club. But rain was coming and bales of hay were still in the field. Richard Head refused to let his daughter leave. She had work to finish.

"I think I wound up getting in trouble with my dad that day," Summitt remembers. "I was so mad I wasn't paying attention (to her work). I think I got a switch that day and it wasn't birthday licks."

* * *

"Richard was far more the patriarch than Hazel was the matriarch," says R.B. Summitt, Summitt's husband of nearly 16 years. "Pat didn't hear anything if things were OK. If something went wrong, boom. Pat responds to that. Most women, I think, do not."

Affectionate expressions simply weren't Richard Head's way. "I never did like that stuff," Head says matter-of-factly.

"Some families hug and kiss all the time, but we just never really did," defends Hazel Head. "It's just the difference in people. But that didn't mean you didn't love them. He'd work his toenails off for either of our five kids."

Attempting to win her father's approval helped drive Summitt early in her career as she took a program only slightly above intramurals and made it the best in women's basketball. Her teams have won four championships in 13 trips to the Final Four. For 20 consecutive years, the Lady Vols have won at least 20 games. For eight seasons, including the last three, Summitt's teams have won 30 or more games. Summitt played on the 1976 Olympic team and coached the 1984 women's team to a gold medal. She has repeatedly been named Coach of the Year by athletic organizations.

"It was obvious when he (Head) was in the stands, Pat played at a different level," Billie Moore says. "I like to kid him and say it's all a front, that he's really a softie on the inside. They are a very close, supportive family and having that is part of (having) your confidence."

The Heads and Moore tell of Richard Head yelling "Trish, Trish" at his player-daughter through one pre-Olympic game. Teammate Trish Roberts thought that man in the stands was yelling at her. Summitt knew exactly who her daddy was hollering at. "The coach said afterward she'd never seen two girls play so hard," Richard Head says.

* * *

You'd likely zip right through Henrietta up Highway 12 from Ashland City to Clarksville except for that big green-and-white highway sign proclaiming: "Home of Pat Head Summitt."

Under the green sign is a smaller, handmade one shaped something like the state of Tennessee. Fashioned and fastened by the Heads' mail carrier, that sign reads "Lady Vols #1 and Always #1 Here" in bright orange letters.

Two satellite dishes stand in the Heads' backyard, gifts from Summitt so her parents won't miss a game. She phones after contests.

"If they lose, she doesn't call right straight; she's too down," Hazel Head says. "But she likes to know what we think."

Today, her assistant coaches and husband insist Summitt is self-motivated. "I think she is pretty well content with her folks, her family, her career, her life. I think it took a while," says R.B. Summitt, who's executive vice-president of Sevier County Bank. "I think she always worried what her dad would say or think."

The first hug Summitt got from her daddy was last year, a conciliatory hug after a bitter loss to Connecticut in the NCAA championship game. The second came with a kiss after this year's championship.

"To hug me and give me a big old kiss, that was a first," Summitt says. And she says, her father has now told her he is proud — in his own matter-of-fact, understated manner.

The Heads spent a day at the Summitts' Blount County home after this year's NCAA tournament. As Richard Head was leaving, he told his daughter: "Now I don't want to hear any more about how I've never hugged you or kissed you or told you I was proud of you."

"That was Daddy's way of telling me he was proud," Summitt grins.

* * *

Consider how far she has come. Pat Head began coaching the year Title IX, which required equal athletic opportunities for women, became law.

She was a 22-year-old graduate assistant who also taught four courses. Four of her players were 21; 50 people came to see them lose their first game by one point to Mercer University. Between coaching, Summitt worked on her master's in physical education and rehabilitated an injured knee so she could try out for the '76 Olympics.

She was her own assistant, own trainer and sometimes team driver. R.B. Summitt remembers hauling team equipment to games in his Ford van after he met his future wife in 1977.

Twenty years later, it's still a family event, but the coach doesn't drive the team bus and her husband doesn't have to load equipment. Richard and Hazel Head drive 3 1/2 hours to some contests. R.B. Summitt has seats near the court where he can yell — loudly — at officials and opposing coaches.

The Summitts' only son, 5-year-old Tyler, has been Summitt's traveling companion since he was just months old. This spring, he stood on a ladder to help his mother cut the nets in Charlotte.

During this season's 18-point thrashing by Stanford, Summitt walked to the end of the bench near her son. "Mama," he said solemnly, "I'm doing all I can."

"Son," she replied, "I don't think that will be enough."

Today, Pat Summitt has coached half her life, compiling a 22-season record of 596-133. Some 8,000 fans regularly cheer the Lady Vols during home games. After working 20 years without a contract, Summitt now earns an annual $135,000. That's the highest base pay of any UT coach, male or female.

But for those first couple of years, the Lady Vols won only 16 games a season. The third season, they hit 28 wins and never looked back.

And over in Henrietta, Richard Head was trying to get his daughter to quit the coaching game.

"I felt like she might have a bad season, and they'd get rid of her. They won't now for awhile, but at one time I figured they might."

* * *

A sometimes blind, always demanding passion drives the woman who is arguably the best coach in women's basketball.

"I've always said, `Teams may beat us, but they better not outwork us. Coaches may beat me, but they better not outwork me,"' Summitt says. "I guess you have to be a little crazy to be this driven, but I enjoy working."

Says Mickie DeMoss, Summitt's assistant coach for 11 years: "She coaches with a lot of passion; she does everything with a lot of passion.

"If she owned Weigel's up the road, it'd be the best Weigel's in the city of Knoxville. Because she'd work from sun-up to sundown.

"Holly (Warwick, also an assistant coach for 11 years) and I often say we do things the hard way around here," DeMoss laughs. "If the competition is doing it one way, we're going to find a way to do it a little better."

Says Shelley Sexton, point guard on Summitt's first 1987 championship team and now women's basketball coach at Karns High School, "Nobody questions themselves harder, nobody puts themselves through more, than Pat Head Summitt. She is a perfectionist."

The slender 5-foot, 11-inch Summitt walks faster, drives much, much faster. "If Pat's not driving, putting on her makeup and talking all at the same time, she's wasting her time," DeMoss says. Warwick and DeMoss half-joke Summitt only slows down when Tyler is riding.

When she jogs, Summitt has to run two steps ahead of everyone else and has to finish at least a step ahead. "And the whole time she's running — she's talking basketball," says Warwick, a three-time All-American when she played for Summitt from 1976 to 1980.

Summitt readily admits she's not the world's most observant woman. Her narrow focus tapers to tunnel vision during basketball season. Her assistants swear Summitt comes to work not knowing if she's walked in through rain or 20-degree cold. Last spring, she jogged the same route for three weeks before realizing a building she passed daily had burned.

Current events don't get any more attention. Summitt was once to go to Las Vegas to pick up an award."Today" show host Bryant Gumbel and Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith were to attend. Summitt didn't want to go — she didn't recall who those other people were.

"I have asked her before, if she will just read one story on the front page of the paper before turning to the sports section," DeMoss says. "And it's not necessarily sports — it's basketball. It's women's basketball. It's Lady Vols basketball."

* * *

One of the best stories about Summitt's single-minded determination can be told in a true story that sounds more like a tale.

Consider the birth of sandy-haired, blue-eyed Ross Tyler Summitt.

Tyler, who can talk defense and rebounding with the best of them, was nearly born while his mother was recruiting UT point guard Michelle Marciniak.

The story goes like this:

Summitt was about two weeks away from her due date when she and DeMoss flew to Pennsylvania in September 1990 to recruit Marciniak. While there, Summitt went into labor.

But she wasn't going to have her son anywhere but in Knoxville. And it didn't matter she was states away. `You know, Pat can be pretty stubborn," DeMoss says.

DeMoss raced her boss to the UT plane. On the way, Summitt's pains increased. The pilot offered to land in Virginia.

That sounded like a great idea to DeMoss. Forget that archrival Virginia had defeated Tennessee in overtime in the NCAA East Regional that March.

"Pat told me, `Mickie, you let them land in Virginia, you're going to have a mad woman on your hands.' That was all I needed to know," DeMoss recalls.

The plane landed at McGhee Tyson Airport in a fast two hours, black exhaust fumes streaking its sides. Tyler was born a few hours later at St. Mary's Medical Center. The doctors said if the baby's head had been turned differently, DeMoss would have had an assist in his birth. "It was the longest two hours of my life," DeMoss says.

* * *

Down the sidelines she strides, pointing, yelling, snarling. Her blue eyes glare "the look" that makes an All-American cower.

In the comfort of your den, in the safety of your Thompson-Boling seat, you're very, very glad you're not wearing Tennessee orange. Even Richard Head thinks Trish is sometimes too hard on those girls.

"I think Daddy's gotten more relaxed since his children have married ... since he's got nine grandkids and two great-grandkids," Summitt says.

Watching Summitt, it's hard to imagine this woman was once so reserved she dreaded taking college speech classes. The nickname "Pat" stuck when she was too shy to tell college classmates everybody called her "Trish."

Gracious one-on-one, Summitt keeps in touch with and often advises former players. Involved in community causes, she's chairing the 1996 local United Way campaign with men's basketball coach Kevin O'Neill.

So maybe, just maybe, those flashes of sideline temper aren't as bad as they seem. Or maybe the end justifies the means. Summitt makes no excuses.

"I'm not really concerned about what people say about the way I coach or my style," Summitt says. "Because unless you are really on the inside, I don't think you can totally understand and appreciate communication.

"My volume can be on 10, but my message can be very positive. My volume may be a two and it can be one of constructive criticism. I can't spend my career trying to please everybody. When I concern myself with people, it's the people right here."

Through the years, 13 players have transferred out. "I'm sure my personality, my expectations for us, had something to do with it," she says.

Those around her say Summitt today yells more selectively, having adapted to changes in players and differences in teams' chemistries. She's still tough.

"Now she still gets in their faces and she expects a lot out of them, but I think she has really made an effort to compliment them when they do well, tell them how proud she is of them," DeMoss says. "There's never been a question that she cares about her players."

Says former Lady Vol center and current University of Richmond assistant coach Sheila Frost: "Pat will drive you to the brink, but she won't break you. I was just a little farm girl when I got to Tennessee. She took me under her wing and she kicked me in the rear too."

The idea of playing for a demanding basketball icon with a temper can be intimidating not just to 18-year-olds. DeMoss works to "humanize" Summitt to recruits and parents. "I tell them up front, `Yes, she's tough, she's demanding. ... She expects nothing but your best. And if you come here, basketball needs to be important to you because it's very important to Pat."'

* * *

Call it maturity. Call it security. Don't call it mellow.

"Pat hates it when people use that word," DeMoss says.

Summitt agrees she's more apt to ask for input from DeMoss, Warwick and assistant Al Brown and from her players. "I'm more flexible today than I was at 27, more tolerant. Starting out I guess I was kind of a dictator type. I thought I had all the answers."

There's no question who's in charge, but Summitt is more comfortable letting players make some decisions. "I've heard her ask the players during a time-out, `You want to play zone or man-to-man?"' DeMoss says. "I think she knows now you can laugh and have fun and still win. Used to, she didn't think the two ever could go together."

She gets help laughing from practical jokers DeMoss and Warwick. Once, Summitt was ragging the players about her playing days. The coach swore she always rebounded and never tossed fancy passes. DeMoss and Warwick showed the team a grainy, black-and-white video of Summitt's playing days.

"She threw hook passes, she didn't rebound. The whole team had to wait for her to get down the court," Warwick laughs. "But she took it very well."

Summitt can slip in a joke herself. Tennessee was to play Louisiana Tech in April in the 1988 Final Four semifinal. Summitt called Warwick and DeMoss with the worst of news — UT star Bridgette Gordon had severe food poisoning.

"She really had us going. And then she said, `April Fool.' Ninety percent of the time she is so serious, she can really get you," DeMoss says.

* * *

Mellow or mature, Summitt remains one very poor loser.

"She's more like her daddy. I want them to win, but he really is disappointed if they don't," Hazel Head says. "I try to tell her, `When you go out there, you know one's going to lose, and one can't do it all. You can't always be on top."'

Says R B. Summitt, "If we should have lost, Pat's not a good loser and it's not any fun. But if we should not have lost, if the team didn't give effort, if we sort of gave the game away with mistakes, then it's worse."

"I get really sick inside," Summitt says, putting one hand to her chest. "I just have a terrible feeling. I cannot get it off my mind. I replay every play. I always feel there something I could have said or done to make the difference."

She is hard on herself and on her players. Game mistakes are replayed in hard practices. "I'm sure the players get sick of hearing it. But that's OK. Then they'll remember how they felt when they lost," she says.

* * *

If you really want to feel the Summitt wrath, be lazy or dishonest.

Team policy is sacred. Going to class and being on time are not mere suggestions. You don't go to class, you don't step on the court. All players who remained at Tennessee four years have graduated, a fact the coaches are as proud of as those national championships.

Players who break team rules get suspended. Most recently, Lady Vols center Tiffani Johnson was not allowed to make last Monday's team trip to the White House because of an undisclosed rules violation.

Word is that Summitt knows everything."She just looks at you and says, `I know what you've been doing' and you just confess," Warwick says.

Summitt suspended point guard Tiffany Woosley for three games her senior year after Woosley made comments reportedly criticizing some teammates. "It doesn't matter who you are, if you do one thing wrong, you get punished. It's Pat's way or no way," Woosley, now coach at Fayetteville's Lincoln County High School. "That's the way it should be. She's tough. But I learned from it, the good and the bad."

Says Sexton: "There's a price to be paid to be a part of that program. You have got to be above reproach. It's a responsibility, a commitment on and off the floor."

Recruits ask DeMoss "`Can I play for Pat? Can I handle Pat?' I tell them, `Two things will keep you out of the doghouse. Work hard and be honest,"' DeMoss says.

Says Summitt, "I think I have very little patience with people that are not motivated to work hard. It's hard for me to understand."

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