Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Hiring of Summitt was master stroke

KNOXVILLE — The whole thing still sounds absurd to Pat Summitt even 31 years later.

She was just a 22-year-old student trying to rehab a torn ACL. She couldn't possibly be the head women's coach at a major university.

That never happens. That's for the movies. The storybooks.

If that young woman — who has never coached a day in her life — is hired, there's no way she survives very long, right? It's fantasy. Folly. Besides, she's a player. She loves to get on the court. What's all this about having to watch from the bench as a coach?

But for hypothetical purposes, if she happens to last a few years as the coach, she won't win. She certainly won't break any records. And there's no way she could become the winningest coach in the history of the sport.

That kind of stuff just doesn't happen, does it?

If the Lady Vols win tonight in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Knoxville, Summitt — the graduate student turned basketball legend — will pass former North Carolina men's coach Dean Smith as the winningest coach in the history of NCAA basketball.

''The University of Tennessee took an incredible risk on a candidate that I'm not sure was qualified,'' Summitt said, laughing. ''Then to see what's happened, it's an incredible story. But this record belongs to the university.''

A win over Western Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday brought Summitt to 879 career wins, tied with Smith. She can get the record-breaking win by beating Purdue.

''I think it just puts an exclamation point on the fact that she is an icon for women's basketball and for women's athletics,'' UT Women's Athletics Director Joan Cronan said.

Summitt and Smith are friends, and Summitt said she plans on speaking with the Tar Heels great this week.

''I am delighted Coach Summitt has had continued success based on her tremendous coaching skill and dedication,'' Smith said.

Same but different

So this former graduate assistant is going to break the record. It's not the same, is it?

In the beginning of women's basketball, it was Tennessee and … well, Tennessee. There was no parity, no competition. Smith had a tougher road to get there, didn't he?

Smith also had scholarships and money and recruiters.

The only recruiting Summitt remembers doing in her first year on the job is convincing a few of her buddies to help her pass out flyers announcing there would be tryouts for women's basketball.

''In my estimation, she would have had great success coaching in the men's game had she chosen that route,'' Smith said. ''I remember what a great competitor she was in the 1976 Olympics (as a player), and it is obvious she has maintained that competitiveness all these years directing the Tennessee program.''

Their paths to the record — which was held by Kentucky men's coach Adolph Rupp for 30 years — have been different, but the accomplishment hasn't diminished.

''Whether it be men's athletics or women's athletics, that's a feat of monumental proportions,'' said UT football coach Phillip Fulmer, who said Summitt's presence on campus has helped him in recruiting several athletes over the years.

The similarities between the North Carolina men's program and the Tennessee women's program are easy to spot — even without looking at their fabled coaches.

Former North Carolina guard Michael Jordan became a superstar unlike any the game had seen, and former Tennessee guard Chamique Holdsclaw put women's basketball onto a different plateau of national attention.

''There's a lot of players that grow up wanting to go to North Carolina and play in their program,'' Summitt said. ''There's a lot of young girls that grow up that want to play at Tennessee.''

A refined focus

Well, if this record is going to be broken, it can't happen now.

Not during the tournament. Not with all the pressure coming from every different direction. Everybody is thinking about the record. Nobody is thinking about winning a championship, are they?

''We haven't talked about (the record) at all,'' Summitt said. ''My focus is that I want to help this team get to (the Final Four in) Indianapolis.''

Smith knows the feeling. He broke Rupp's record during the NCAA Tournament.

When asked about the record, UT senior Shyra Ely had to think for a second.

''Did she get it yet?'' Ely said. ''Wait, no, she still has to win a few, doesn't she?''

One, Shyra.

The subject has come up a few times in the Lady Vols locker room, and the players admit that 10 or 15 years from now, they will all remember being a part of the team that broke the record.

But a championship is still the top priority. The Lady Vols have gone six years without a national title, and a TV spot on ESPN this month showed senior Brittany Jackson staring into the camera referring to that six-year stretch as ''unacceptable.''

''We talk about (the record), but it's nothing that we carry on day after day,'' junior Shanna Zolman said.


Smith's record will go down. Summitt's is next, isn't it? Some other coach has to find his or her way to breaking both these records. It's just bound to happen, right?

''I'm sure someone is going to come along and perhaps break her record one day,'' Zolman said. ''But it's going to be unmatched for a long, long time.''

Only nine coaches have won 800 career games, and 880 won't be Summitt's last win. Summitt, 53, has never won less than 22 games in a season, and she has won 30 or more games 14 times.

If she averages 25 wins a year over the next 10 years, she could retire at age 63 with more than 1,100 career wins. But nobody knows if she'll even stop there.

''She started so young and stayed in one place,'' Ely said. ''She's far from done. She could easily walk away today, but she's not done.

''Now with the game changing, I don't think anybody can do that. I don't think it can be reached, because the game is so different and there is competition now.''

Summitt also no longer has to hand out flyers to recruit her players. She flies to their homes. She has scholarships and money and all the benefits that the men's game had during Smith's prominence.

But Summitt isn't ready to accept the credit for surpassing a record that seemed untouchable for any coach — regardless of men's or women's basketball.

''It wasn't a personal goal, and it isn't about me personally. This to me, more than anything, just speaks volumes for what the university administration did.''

Somebody breaking this record? That would only be for the movies. The storybooks.

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