Friday, March 25, 2005

Pat Summitt, then and now

Twenty years ago, Pat Summitt spoke in Fort Wayne. If memory serves, I tracked her down a few months earlier at her parents’ home in the early evening. Yes, she does give those kinds of speeches. Yes, she would be available. Yes, she does charge. We paid her air fare, her hotel and, as I recall, $200.

She was a pretty big hit at The Journal Gazette’s annual spring banquet April 8, 1985, honoring the best basketball players in the Summit Athletic Conference. After her speech – which, like almost all such speeches, wasn’t at all memorable – most of the girls being honored asked her to sign the program.

At the time, Summitt had won 222 games as the coach of the Lady Volunteers of the University of Tennessee. She was, even then, perhaps the best known and most respected women’s basketball coach. Now that she has won 658 more games and holds the NCAA record for most victories by any coach – woman or man – things have not changed in that respect. (Sadly, the topics she spoke about at a news conference before the speech also have not changed much. She expressed concern about the scandals roiling college basketball in those days: drugs, recruiting violations and point-shaving.)

But in other respects, things have changed for the better. While the attendance at the women’s NCAA tournament hardly rivals the men’s, clearly the women’s game is gaining. Competition is better; the University of Tennessee is hardly alone among the best teams in the nation. High school girls have a lot more places where they can play and win scholarships. (Notre Dame and Purdue have hugely respected programs and indeed faced each other in a memorable NCAA championship game in 2001.)

What also tells the story about change in women’s basketball is Summitt herself. Any idea that I could call the University of Tennessee, explain that I wanted her to speak, get her parents’ home phone number and then personally cut a deal with her for $200 is laughable.

Today, according to her secretary, Katie Wynn, Summitt does a lot of charity speaking locally, for which she charges nothing. She does no speaking during the season and generally likes to spend her time away from work at home.

But otherwise, she works through the Washington Speakers Bureau in Alexandria, Va. She commands $40,000 for a speech, and she does only five or so a year.

So for those of you frustrated at the pace of the march toward equity in women’s sports, keep those figures in mind. And now that Notre Dame and Purdue are out of the women’s tournament, I know whom I rooting for.

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