Saturday, March 12, 2005

Summitt nears Smith's all-time win mark

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - For someone as competitive as Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, it's no surprise she remembers the games she's lost more than the games she's won.

It's also easier to keep track of only 171 losses, compared with 878 victories.

But Summitt's next two wins might be tough for even her to forget.

Now in her 31st season with the Lady Vols, Summitt needs one victory to tie Dean Smith's record for the most wins in NCAA history and two to set a new mark.

Summitt reached No. 878 when Tennessee beat No. 1 LSU 67-65 for the Southeastern Conference tournament championship last week.

The Lady Vols will host the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament, and Summitt says her main focus is on winning a seventh national title. But even she recognizes the next two games are special.

"I don't think anyone is going to ignore the fact that there is an opportunity there to break a record. I'm just thinking about if that happens we're going to a Sweet Sixteen," she said.

Smith, who retired in 1997 after 36 years at North Carolina with an 879-254 record, offered her some encouragement.

"In my estimation, she would have had great success coaching in the men's game had she chosen that route," Smith said. "I remember what a great competitor she was in the 1976 Olympics, and it's obvious she has maintained that competitiveness all these years directing the Tennessee program."

Smith's record was surpassed this year by an NAIA coach. Harry Statham of McKendree College in Illinois finished this season with 896 wins.

Some have questioned whether Summitt's win total belongs in the same list with Smith and Kentucky's Adolph Rupp (876). After all, there has been less parity in the women's game, where only a handful of teams have dominated.

But Summitt, already a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, has six championships, more than any other college coach but John Wooden, who won 10 at UCLA.

"She is basketball," said Beth Bass, CEO of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "What she's done is universal."

Summitt is known for "The Stare," a fierce, blue-eyed laser that reflects a determination so intense she once demanded a pilot keep flying to Knoxville despite bad weather so her son, Tyler, could be born in her home state.

"I truly think she's the best coach to ever coach the women's game and probably one of the best period to coach basketball," said Chamique Holdsclaw, the Lady Vols' career scoring leader. "Generations kind of change and players get even more talented, and yet year in and year out she gets it done."

Hired at 22 as a graduate assistant and physical education teacher, Summitt has seen the sport grow from the days when she washed uniforms and drove the team van.

But some things haven't changed - like Summitt's dominance in the NCAA tournament. The Lady Vols have been in every tournament since it began for women in 1982, and have reached the Final Four 15 times.

Breaking Smith's record couldn't come at a more fitting time, her husband says.

"It just seems like it ought to happen. The sky ought to be blue and the sun yellow and the grass green, and Pat ought to break the record during the NCAA tournament," R.B. Summitt said.

She has never lost in the first two rounds of the NCAAs, but the Lady Vols have been surpassed in recent years by archrival Connecticut.

Led by the brash Geno Auriemma, Connecticut has won three national championships in a row and has beaten Tennessee in the title game three of the past five years.

"While the losses were hard to stomach at the time, they have been so rewarding in the end, because they have brought out our character and competitiveness as a program," Pat Summitt said.

Summitt has never shied away from a difficult schedule. Every year she faces powerhouse teams such as UConn, Texas, Stanford, Duke and LSU.

"Tennessee created every single rivalry that's worth anything in this country," former Lady Vols player Kara Lawson said. "She didn't have to play Connecticut, but she did."

Summitt, 52, grew up helping her parents, Richard and Hazel Head, work a tobacco and dairy farm in the rural west Tennessee town of Henrietta. Like many girls who play basketball in college or the pros, she got her start by playing against boys. She and her three older brothers played in the hayloft of their family's barn.

She played basketball at nearby University of Tennessee-Martin and made the 1973 national team as a junior. Summitt tore her ACL at the end of her senior season in 1974, but hoped to recover for the 1976 Olympics.

She came to Knoxville to get a master's degree in physical education.

The head of Tennessee's P.E. department, Helen B. Watson, who died last fall, hired Summitt. Watson gave her a graduate teaching position and put her in charge of the women's basketball team, which then was similar to a club sport. It had no scholarship players and held games at UT's old gym with free admission. The Lady Vols nickname didn't yet exist.

Summitt took classes, taught P.E. and coached. She was 16-8 and 16-11 in her first two seasons while playing on the U.S. teams in the 1975 Pan American Games and '76 Olympics.

"Probably the worst part for the players was I had to be the trainer and tape their ankles," Summitt joked.

Meanwhile, UT decided to make a bigger commitment to women's athletics and offer some scholarships even before Title IX was enacted. A full-time coach was the top priority.

So when Summitt got home from the Olympics, Gloria Ray, UT's first women's athletic director, was there to convince her to stay in Knoxville.

"It was a time of the university having faith in a young person, and a young person having faith that it was going to be different than it had been and had the potential to be big time," said Ray, now head of the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp.

That season Summitt reached her first Final Four - albeit in the now-defunct Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, or AIAW.

"I've said a number of times I can't imagine anyone coming out of college as an undergrad and walking into a job that would allow them to be a head coach at 22. I appreciate the university giving me that opportunity and then supporting our program to the level ... that allowed us to hire a great staff and go get some of the best players," Summitt said.

There has been talk over the years of Summitt leaving the women's game and coaching men. It crops up every time Tennessee needs a new men's coach, the last time in 2001 when she turned down the university president's offer.

"There's not a doubt in my mind she could be a successful men's coach," Tennessee women's athletic director Joan Cronan said. "Her goal is to make a difference in young women's lives."

Once there were even discussions of Summitt quitting altogether.

In 1984, Summitt went from losing to Southern California in the national title game to coaching the U.S. Olympic team, which won the gold medal in Los Angeles. She had no time off for the approaching collegiate season. The Lady Vols went 22-10, losing in the 1985 regional semifinals. Richard Head suggested his daughter quit, which made her want to stick with it, R.B. Summitt said.

Summitt has said she won't retire until she no longer enjoys her job. By then, she might be well past 900 wins.

"One of her teams might struggle, but I think it's more of a challenge to her," said former Lady Vols star Tamika Catchings. "Some coaches might be like, 'I've already won six championships and about to break this record. I can quit at any point in time.' As long as she sees coaching as a challenge then she'll continue to do it."

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