Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Reaching the Summitt

Tennessee's coach can set record vs. Purdue

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- In 1974, fresh out of college with no clear idea of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, 22-year-old Pat Head accepted an offer to coach the women's basketball team at the University of Tennessee.

Not that there was much of a team to coach. With no recruiting back then, she put up signs in the dormitories advertising for players.

"At the first practice, there were about 65 kids, and about half of them decided not to come back," she recalled with a wry smile. "After running sprints, four of them went up the steps of the gym and out of the building."

Fast forward 31 years as Patricia Sue Head Summitt stands on the threshold of college basketball history. Suffice to say, she no longer has to go out begging for players. The best in the country come looking for her.

While not every great high school player ends up wearing the orange of the Tennessee Lady Vols, Summitt has attracted enough of them over the years to win 879 games against just 171 losses.

One more win tonight against the Purdue Boilermakers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and Summitt will move past retired North Carolina men's coach Dean Smith into the No. 1 spot on the NCAA's all-time victory list.

Purdue coach Kristy Curry has an enviable record (153-43 in six seasons in West Lafayette) and said she can't fathom needing 700 more just to get close. If she were watching tonight from anywhere other than the opposing bench, Curry said she would be rooting for Summitt.

"I look up to her and respect her so much, as a mom and as a basketball coach," Curry said. "We all aspire to be like her."

Summitt tied the record Sunday in a 94-43 rout of Western Carolina, a team coached by former Tennessee player Kellie Harper. As Kellie Jolly, she was the point guard on the last three of Summitt's six NCAA championship teams (1996-98).

Harper described Summitt as her mentor, friend and inspiration, and said the significance of the impending record cannot be overstated.

"She is a pioneer, a legend, all those adjectives," Harper said. "This allows her legacy to move over to basketball, not just women's basketball. I think a person like Pat Summitt needs to be a legend in the game of basketball."

Summitt has done her best to downplay the milestone achievement while humbly accepting all the adulation that is coming with it. She has barely mentioned it to her team and talks about it only when directly confronted by a questioner.

And even then, reluctantly.

"I haven't read where I scored a point. I don't have a turnover. Well, I've had a lot of turnovers; they're just not recorded," she joked. "At 22, they gave me an opportunity to be a head coach. I got a jump start on winning games."

And win she did, right from the start. Her first team finished 16-8, beginning a streak of 31 consecutive winning seasons. Her teams have produced 14 30-win seasons, with a best of 39-0 in 1997-98.

Tamika Catchings was a freshman starter on that team and scored 27 points in the national championship game. Now an All-Star with WNBA's Indiana Fever, Catchings said there is much more to Summitt than being a teacher on the basketball court.

"She cares about her players, not only as basketball players but as people. She expects you to make something of your life," Catchings said. "She tells you, 'You're here because you got a basketball scholarship, but that's not all I expect of you.'

"I think having a child of her own (son Ross Tyler, born in 1990) made her see even more the need to nurture us. Once you come under her wing, there's no way you're going to come out from under it.

"And there's no way you'd want to, either."

Catchings, who is back on campus this spring completing her degree work, said she'd love to be playing tonight and plans to be among the likely 20,000 fans who will file into Thompson-Boling Arena expecting to see history. And it's a reasonable expectation given Tennessee's 202-11 record on its home court since 1991.

Two Lady Vols who will be playing instead of watching, seniors Shyra Ely and Brittany Jackson, are well aware of what's a stake, even as Summitt has tried to shield them from it.

"We definitely want to win this game for coach," Jackson said. "As much as she does for us, we really want to help her out."

Ely, an Indianapolis native, was emotional after Sunday's record-tying win and got an affectionate pat on the shoulder from her coach as she tried to express her feelings.

"I think it's awesome. It's huge, not only for women's basketball, but for college basketball," she said. "We're just glad to be a part of it."

One thing Summitt will admit to taking pride in is that her incomparable record has come while annually playing among the most difficult schedules in the country.

"It's not like we schedule a bunch of patsies," she said. "When you look at the number of ranked opponents we have played (while posting a 352-141 record), it amazes me how successful our players have been, night in and night out, against the best competition."

Over the years, Summitt has gained the respect of her male counterparts and lists Smith, current North Carolina coach Roy Williams, former Indiana and current Texas Tech coach Bob Knight and former Louisville coach Denny Crum among her stronger influences.

Smith said recently that Summitt would have been successful in the men's game, but that never interested her. "I grew up with three older brothers," she said. "I didn't want to coach guys."

She visited by phone last week with Smith, who reminded her that he also was approaching the record during an NCAA Tournament. And he told her one other thing, too.

"He said he didn't think that much about it until it happened and then it was, 'Wow. This is a big deal,' " she said. "So maybe when it happens to me, I'll think differently about it."

Pat Summitt file

• Born: June 14, 1952, in Henrietta, Tenn., to Richard and Hazel Head

• Family: Husband, R.B. Summitt; son, Ross Tyler, 14

• Education: Graduated from Cheatham County High School in Ashland City, Tenn., in 1970; B.S. in physical education from Tennessee-Martin in 1974; M.S. in physical education from Tennessee in 1975

• As a player: Led UT-Martin to a 64-29 record in her four-year career; played on the 1975 U.S. world championship team and won a silver medal as co-captain of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team

• As a coach: Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000; got the Tennessee job at age 22 and is in her 31st season; first win was Jan. 10, 1975, a 69-32 rout of Middle Tennessee; 879-171 record includes 13 Southeastern Conference championships and 24 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament; guided 1984 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal; seven-time NCAA Coach of the Year

• Postseason: Has an 86-17 NCAA Tournament record with six national championships (1987, '89, '91, '96, '97, '98); has 17-9 record in 15 trips to the Final Four

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