Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Summitt making her peak performance

PHILADELPHIA -- On Jan. 10, 1975, a 22-year-old recent college graduate with no coaching experience walked onto a basketball court in Knoxville, Tenn.

She pulled her players from campus dorms, with many wearing jean shorts to her first practices. She had no recruiting budget, no assistant coaches and no road uniforms. She drove the van on trips. She sold doughnuts to raise money.

Fifty-three people came that day and watched Pat Summitt coach Tennessee to a 69-32 victory against Middle Tennessee State. The game received seven paragraphs in the local newspaper. The rookie head coach was not mentioned.

It was victory No. 1.

Three decades later, Summitt will attempt to notch No. 882 against Rutgers tonight, with thousands in the Liacouras Center and millions on national TV watching. The game will receive much more than seven paragraphs in hundreds of newspapers, and all will mention the Tennessee coach.

Summit is the winningest college basketball coach -- in the men's or women's game -- in NCAA history after passing retired North Carolina coach Dean Smith last week. She is just 52, so there is a chance she will establish a record that will never be broken.

Already, she has reached 15 Final Fours, winning six national titles and seven national Coach of the Year awards. There is no sign her competitive drive -- one that kept her on a recruiting trip just days before giving birth to her son -- will let her stop anytime soon.

"A lot of people come to the tournament and the Final Four to see her and see her team," said Mickie DeMoss, Kentucky women's basketball coach and a Summitt assistant for 18 years. "People who don't watch women's basketball, there is one name they're going to know -- Pat Summitt."


To understand her place in the game today, you have to understand the sport in the mid-'70s, when Tennessee recruited the Tennessee-Martin graduate and Olympian to coach its team.

She was 22. Nobody that age would even be considered for a prominent college coaching job today, and Summitt said it happened then by chance.

"They had contacted me for being the assistant coach. And I said, 'I'd love to be an assistant,'" she said yesterday. "I was still training, trying to make the Olympic team, and I thought I'd have facilities for me and it would be great.

"In about two weeks they called me back to tell me (head coach) Margaret Hudson had taken a sabbatical, and we want to offer you the head job. And I really contemplated it, because when you've never even run a practice or made out a practice plan, I was absolutely overwhelmed and scared to death.

"But I said yes, and I'm glad I said yes."

This was women's athletics in its infancy, just two years after Title IX forced colleges to give female students equal opportunities. Summitt earned a salary of $8,900 a year (she makes $825,000 a year now), and had to hang fliers in the campus dorms to find players. Recruiting was prohibited, not that she had the money to leave campus.

When the female students arrived, few even had gym shorts to wear, so they used the "Daisy Dukes" jean shorts that were in style then. Suzanne Singleton, one of the freshmen who tried out that first year, said Summitt worked the women so hard, many sneaked out of the building and never came back.

Summitt had to teach them the fundamentals. Most high schools still used a six-player version of the sport for girls, in which half the players for each team stayed on one side of the half-court line.

"You couldn't cross the half-court line," said Singleton, who, like many of her teammates, became a high school coach. "It was a crazy game. When you scored, they would bring the ball to the center court circle and give it to the offensive team.

"I look back on that now, and I teach physical education, and every time I bring that up my students say, 'What?'"

Singleton had never seen a five-on-five basketball game, much less played in one, when she took the court for the first time under Summitt. The "Volettes," as they were called -- which sounds more like a Chevy muscle car than a basketball team -- lost to Mercer in her first game as coach.

"Pat kind of started out in the hole," Singleton said, "and a lot of people don't know about that."

She finished that first season 16-8, starting a string of 31 consecutive seasons without a losing record. Summitt still talks to her players on that first team regularly, and loves to reminisce about chugging Diet Coke to stay awake behind the wheel on the crowded van trips.

"I remember when we got to go to Rock Hill, S.C.," Summitt said, "and we thought we were headed for New York."

"We would stop at a McDonald's," Singleton said, "and she would give us two one-dollar bills. That was it. That was all the money we would get.

"And look at it now."


Tennessee went 28-5 under Summitt in her third season, and the school finally gave her scholarships. Soon, women's basketball came under the NCAA umbrella, and she could recruit. The school added assistant coaches, and then a trainer, and then Summitt no longer had to drive the van on road trips.

"You could see the strides she made in just three years," said Sue Thomas, a 5-8 forward on her first team. "And really, she never looked back."

DeMoss, her former assistant, knew equality was finally arriving when Tennessee starting building the 24,000-seat Thompson-Boling Arena in the mid 1980s.

"They suggested we stay in the (old) gym, and we said, 'No way,'" DeMoss said. "We said, 'We're going to Thompson-Boling, and we'll eventually fill the thing up.'"

In 1998-99, the team averaged 16,500 fans at its home games, regularly outdrawing the downtrodden men's team, which recently hired Bruce Pearl as its sixth coach in the past 16 seasons. The women, meanwhile, keep rolling along.

But even Summitt would acknowledge that her program is due to return to the top. The last of her six NCAA titles came in 1998, and Connecticut has taken over as the dominant program.

"I think at this stage of the game, it's kind of a love-hate feeling," Summitt said. "I love what I've seen, but I hate the fact that there's no easy games now. It's tough and there's a lot of people out there that can knock you out of the postseason.

"Having been in the game, and starting 31 years ago, you've got to understand... people didn't charge admission, we didn't have scholarships, we couldn't go out and recruit, except on campus, in the dorms. That was how women's basketball was viewed in terms of our sport -- just a notch above the intramural level. And look at it today. What a great game."

If Summitt stayed at Tennessee until she turned 60 and won 28 games a season, she would finish with about 1,100 career victories -- an untouchable mark, in a sport she helped build from the ground up.

"She's been a pioneer, a legacy, a legend -- all of those adjectives," said Kellie Harper, a point guard on Tennessee's three consecutive title teams from 1996-98 and the coach of Western Carolina. "And now, her tying Dean Smith allows her legacy to move over to basketball, just not women's basketball."

And to think: Only 53 people can say the were there when the ride started.

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