Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Lady Vols coach has no peer in the business

Summitt best active court boss — and second-best all time

With a victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — a foregone conclusion — Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt will tie Dean Smith for the most victories all time.

We often debate who’s the best coach in college basketball, which isn’t a surprise — people have been arguing about the best of everything, from recipes to destinations to politicians to brake pads from the beginning of time. What is a surprise is how seldom Pat Summitt’s name comes up in those debates.

I’m as guilty as any andro-centric sports geek. If you had asked me that question last week, I’d have put forward John Wooden as the best of all time and offered a short list of Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun and Bobby Knight as the leading candidates for the best coach still pounding the sideline.

But word is just leaking out that with a victory — a foregone conclusion, in this case — over Western Carolina in the first round of the NCAA women’s tournament, Summitt, who has already passed Adolph Rupp, will tie Dean Smith for the most victories of all time. A second-round win — again, you can carve it in granite — will put her on top of the heap as the winningest college coach ever.

It’s impossible to say anybody active is better, and difficult to say anyone ever was better other than Wooden, who’s in a league by himself.

It’s hard to describe how remarkable this achievement will be. It took Smith 36 years to win 879 games; Summitt’s about to do it in 31. The Dean’s powers were eroding when he got the record, and retirement followed immediately; Summitt, at 52, is still at the top of the game, her Tennessee Lady Vols seeded first in the Philadelphia region of the tournament, where she is aiming for her 16th Final Four and her seventh national championship.

That’s an incredible record, better than any other active coach. You can say that she started when the women’s game was young and the talent pool was shallow, which she did. But Rupp coached in the nascent years of the men’s game, and no one holds that against him.

Besides, the women’s game has caught on, and the number of great players and deep teams multiplies every year. And Summitt just keeps on winning — nine of her last 11 seasons have produced 30 wins or more. The gap between her and the rest of the game has narrowed, and Geno Auriemma, the UConn coach, has ruled the game recently, but there’s still a gap, and Auriemma, not Summitt, is the one who has to close it.

She’s still the queen of the court, the tall working mom with a sideline stare that could wither John Chaney, the coach who defines her profession.

Even Dean Smith is in awe of her. “In my estimation, she would have had great success coaching in the men’s game had she chosen that route,” Smith recently told the Associated Press.

“I truly think she’s the best coach to ever coach the women’s game and probably one of the best, period, to ever coach basketball,” said Chamique Holdsclaw, a former Lady Vol and voted in one poll the player of the 20th century, of her former coach.

There’s no denying that truth. Coaching basketball is the same, no matter the gender of the players. And when women play the game, it’s purer than the men’s game because it’s played below the rim, where there are no easy buckets and slam dunks.

Only Wooden, with 10, has more titles than does Summitt. And he had Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, two of the greatest centers ever to play the college game, to help him there.

Summitt has had great players, too. But she’s had to coach the game the way it was played in basketball pre-history — under the rim.

So don’t even dare to suggest a male coach has some advantage over her. No matter what facet of the game you look at — defense, rebounding, passing, motivation, strategy — she’s as good as they come.

When her teams take the floor, you get a clinic in finesse and movement and crisply run plays; in setting picks, blocking out, playing defense, being tough; in spacing, passing, moving.

She’s never failed to make the NCAA Tournament and never failed to advance to at least the third round. Her winning percentage in the playoffs, including the old AIAW that preceded the NCAA for women, is .807; her overall winning percentage is .837.

If that winning percentage is a bit bloated from her early years when she could sweep up the best of a small talent pool, it’s still extraordinary. It’s not what she did when she was a 22-year-old head coach that makes her great. It’s being able to continue to attract top players as the women’s game has gotten increasingly competitive and cut-throat. To still get the best after 31 years, she has to be the best.

And that’s what she is. The best coach in the business, and after Wooden, the best ever.

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