Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Life inside Fort Knoxville

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Down the block from where 56 cars and four satellite trucks are parked, past the end of the cobblestone driveway, around the heated pool, beside the bubbling hot tub, they're waiting.

The most famous pair of eyes in women's college basketball. They need no introduction, these steely blue laser pointers with enough venom and intimidation to make a warden proud.

But on this day, they're not searing their way into the soul of a point guard or bullying a favorable call out of a rookie ref. They're searching for a pair of tongs to put into a platter of grilled chicken.

They're not angry. They're not intimidating. They're welcoming.

"All you media folks, get in line," Pat Summitt yells. "You go hungry at my house, it's your own fault."

Summitt points to a buffet line, and the 30 or so reporters spending the afternoon at Mount Summitt line up single file as if accepting free food were the top rule in sports journalism.

This is how Summitt, the woman who has a chance to pass Dean Smith as college basketball's winningest Division I coach Tuesday night, chooses to kick off NCAA Tournament week each year. While the rest of the sports world plasters a giant bull's-eye on her team's back, while close friend Buzz Peterson gets fired as coach of the Tennessee men's team, while the athletic department runs newspaper ads selling tickets for Tuesday's potential milestone, while the other 63 teams in the NCAA Tournament search for a chink in her team's armor, a flaw in her coaching, Pat Head Summitt hosts a barbecue.

And everyone -- from players, coaches and athletic department personnel to friends, neighbors and even the media -- is invited. For the last 12 years, it has been a social highlight for this otherwise quiet Knoxville neighborhood.

"What did I tell you?" former Tennessee guard Kara Lawson says to a friend after turning the corner to Summitt's house and finding both sides of the street littered with cars. "That they'd be lined up. Lined up. Lined up! You get invited, you don't miss this."

Part of it is the food. Part of it is the friends. But most of it is the camaraderie.

"It's all about family," says Pat's husband, R.B. Summitt. "It's about her family here at the house, her family with the team, the coaches, other sports in the department, even the media she works with every day. For her, this is all family. And you take care of your family."

He pauses.

"But can you imagine something like this in the men's game?"

Like Roy Williams opening up the kitchen at 8 a.m. on Selection Sunday to grill 60 steaks, 50 chicken breasts and 15 slabs of salmon? Like Mike Krzyzewski thumbing through an old sorority recipe for jalapeño corn that his team has begged for? Like Bob Knight, in slacks and a button-down dress shirt, standing in his kitchen, making sure his two batches of steamed broccoli -- one for his son who likes it especially hard and one for his players who like it especially soft -- are cooked to perfection?

Umm, no.

"This is a big part of who we are," Summitt says. "On the court, it's serious. It's intense. That's our time to work. But I don't want them to see me just as a coach. I want them to see me as someone they can sit with, relax with and just be at home with."

The woman once referred to as the "Bob Knight of the women's game" is an anomaly in her own sport. Just look at the ESPN NCAA Women's Basketball Selection Show. There are Michigan State and Stanford, sitting alongside their coaches inside team meeting rooms. There are the LSU Lady Tigers, sitting on the floor of the 14,000-seat Maravich Center. There are the Baylor Bears, live from some restaurant in Waco.

And where were the Tennessee Lady Vols? Stretched out on leather couches inside their coach's pool house, belts busting after a belly-filling afternoon meal.

"It's not too bad to play for coach Summitt," guard Shanna Zolman says. "We've got to be the most spoiled team in America. She's just so hospitable. That's what's so unfair -- the media always seems to get her terrible, mean side. But we get to know her as a person. She's like a second mother to a lot of us."

A mother who in 31 seasons has won 878 games, more than any other woman. A mother who has won six national championships, more than any human not named John Wooden. A mother whose team has played in every NCAA Tournament since it began for women in 1982, whose team has won 23 SEC regular-season or tournament titles and, most impressive, a mother who has graduated all of her players that have remained with her for four years.

Forget the clips you see of Summitt on television. Forget the massive photos that run on the front page of America's sports sections, showing the 52-year-old screaming, yelling and going, well, Bob Knight on officials. Sure, she's competitive. Sure, she likes to win. Sure, she yells. But that's just one piece of the Pat Summitt puzzle.

This is a woman who cooks pancakes for her 14-year-old son, Tyler, every morning at 7 a.m. A woman who didn't want to get a dog (the family has a 3½ year old yellow Labrador, Sally Sue) out of fear that she'd grow too attached.

"I'm way beyond that now," she admits.

She leaves her practices open to the public. She spends 15 to 30 minutes with the print media every day after practice. When the local television news asks for its share, each gets individual 1-on-1 time with coach.

After the Lady Vols found out their NCAA Tournament fate at the barbecue, there was Summitt, shuttling from one deck chair to another, speaking with each of the local television crews that wanted an interview. At the same time, one TV reporter did a live stand-up in her driveway. Another played fetch with Sally Sue. And a photographer lounged on her patio furniture.

"She's always been somebody that gets it," R.B. says. "She was one of the first coaches to wear a microphone during a game, to let the cameras into the locker room, into the huddle. She understands the importance of selling her sport. She knows that an informed fan, an educated fan, is a better fan. And you get to the fans through the media."

Summitt's softer side is why Zolman came to Knoxville. During Zolman's in-home recruiting visit, Summitt not only helped Shanna's mom cook dinner, she helped wash dishes. Zolman couldn't believe it. Now she swears by it.

"She wants to be your coach, the person who can help you improve every day, but she also wants to be the first person you call when something goes wrong," Zolman says. "It's a special relationship."

At the barbecue, the feeling of family is everywhere. Women's track coach J.C. Clark is here, fresh off his team's indoor national championship -- the school's first non-basketball women's NCAA title. "How does it feel?" Summitt asks. "Tell them how it feels."

After Summitt implores everyone to eat, Tennessee women's athletics director Joan Cronan steps in.

"Hold on," Cronan says, stopping the players in their tracks. "Before we begin, we have to thank coach Summitt. There aren't many coaches ... "

Cronan never finishes. She doesn't have to. The players begin to applaud. And then head to the buffet, choosing from a smorgasbord of steak, chicken, salmon, ribs, escalloped potatoes, egg salad, pasta salad, deviled eggs, strawberries and of course, the famous jalapeño corn.

"I'll tell you what, it'll bite you," Summitt says. "A sorority sister of mine made it when we were out at the beach once. I'm not one for spicy food, but I kept going back again and again."

The house is a basketball paradise. There's a hoop in the pool. In the cul-de-sac. In the room where the players eat, there are three televisions: One on an NBA game, one on the Big 12 championship and one on the Big Ten title game. Next to the pool, inside the game room, there's a Michael Jordan Space Jam pinball machine.

Summitt nibbles here, nibbles there, but for the most part, makes sure everyone else is comfortable. After checking on her players, after signing a few autographs, she's back in the kitchen, double-checking that all the orange Tennessee serving platters have forks, the chicken has tongs and there's enough salmon for everyone left in line.

She's wearing black slacks, a black and white striped dress shirt with white cuffs and a white collar. There's no apron. She looks more like a real estate broker than a basketball coach, more like an accountant than a chef. But don't be mistaken.

"I love to cook -- for anybody," Summitt says. "It's a good thing to do when you have a day where you have to wait all day."

Two years ago, when Villanova was playing in the Knoxville regional during the NCAA Tournament, Summitt invited coach Harry Perretta and his team over to the house for a cookout -- with the Lady Vols. The next day, in the regional championship, Tennessee beat Villanova 73-49.

"They put their feet in the hot tub, told stories, you know, just enjoyed the company," R.B. says. "Again, imagine that in the men's game."

Which is what makes Summitt's eclipsing of Dean Smith's all-time wins record all the more remarkable. Sure, she's a driven, demanding, win-at-all-costs coach. Sure, she challenges her players in practice and pushes them to their absolute limits in games. But when you get down to it, she carries the same core values of any other conventional Southern woman. People can relate to Pat Summitt as easily as they can relate to a checkout clerk.

She might live in a big house, she might drive a fancy car, she might get $25,000 a pop as a corporate speaker, but Summitt grew up on a West Tennessee tobacco and dairy farm. She does her own laundry. She cooks her kid breakfast. And she loves having guests over for dinner.

In fact, go down the same path we started with, past the parked cars and the cobblestone driveway, around the pool and the Jacuzzi, avoid stepping on Sally Sue, tripping on Tyler and his friends, or eating too much jalapeño corn, and you quickly forget where you are. It's that comfortable.

Besides the laser blue eyes that occasionally glance over the crowd, there's but one reminder that you're standing poolside at the home of a coaching legend. It's a small rock delicately placed in a nearby flower patch. Painted blue, it features a ring of cream-colored carnations around its edge with the words, "the Summitt's" painted in the middle.

Oh yeah. Pat Summitt. One of the greatest college coaches of all time. This is her house. She's the one throwing the gathering.

"And you know what?" R.B. says. "That's the way it should be."

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