Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Coaching legend still grateful UT took a chance

Pat Summitt's memories of Dr. Helen Watson belie the hiring record of the former University of Tennessee administrator.

"Such a lady," the Tennessee women's basketball coach said of Watson. "Very soft-spoken, gentle, kind and warm."

Someone as sweet as Watson hired someone as fiery as Summitt. Imagine that. Even Summitt had to laugh.

"Little did she know what she was getting into," Summitt said.

It certainly wasn't something little.

Watson, the former chairperson for the University's physical education department, was helping to create a legacy. She died last August at the age of 89. Her influence lives on in Summitt.

Tuesday night, Summitt became the all-time leader for career victories by all NCAA Division I coaches, recording No. 880. She surpassed former North Carolina coach legend Dean Smith. The rest is ongoing history.

Whenever this subject was broached during the past few weeks, Summitt was quick to point out that starting out young at Tennessee gave her a head start on joining fast company.

Just last week, Summitt said: "I started at 22, and I have said a number of times I cannot imagine anyone coming out of college as an undergrad and walking into a job that would allow them to be a head coach at 22. I just appreciate the university giving me that opportunity and supporting our program to the level that they have. They allowed us to hire a great staff and to go get some of the best players in the history of the game.''

Don't take Summitt's presence here for granted. If you don't believe me, ask Nan Elrod, the director of programs at the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1998, Summitt gave Elrod a box of memorabilia for display at the hall. Among the personal items was a letter from Watson, offering Summitt the job as a graduate assistant. The offer turned into the varsity head coach's position and the rest is history.

That box also included letters of application for Memphis State and Mississippi College for Women.

"The fact that she (Summitt) held onto those things," Elrod said of the applications. "What if she had gone in another direction?"

Watson asked Summitt to coach the Tennessee women's team in a letter dated April 30, 1974.

"We have an excellent potential team,'' Watson wrote, "and I believe that they would be happy to have you as their coach.''

Not exactly a hard sell, unless you take into consideration Watson's reputation. It was a factor in the eventual turn of events.

She was well-respected by Nadine Gearin, Summitt's coach at Tennessee-Martin, and Bettye Giles, Martin's athletic director. They conveyed their feelings about Watson to Summitt.

"Her peers had tremendous admiration and respect," Summitt said. "She managed to influence people and lead people but she did it with her own style. It was very kind, soft and genuine."

Elrod said Watson not only grew up in a different era, she also worked in a different time. Still, Elrod can vouch for her influence, having taken a class at UT with Watson and Dr. Nancy Lay.

"I was not one who would talk up much in class," Elrod said. "They made me feel so comfortable about speaking in class and sharing ideas."

Watson also helped provide a comfort zone for a young women's basketball coach to start putting down roots and notching victories.

"I didn't want to do anything," Summitt said, "but please her."

In the process, she's achieved so much more.

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