Sunday, March 27, 2005

Summitt Reaches the Top, and Keeps Climbing

Let's get right to the point. Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, who on Tuesday broke retired North Carolina coach Dean Smith's record for college basketball victories with her 880th win, said in a telephone interview Thursday night she has no interest in applying for the vacant job as coach of Tennessee's men's team.

"The job I have now is my passion," Summitt said. "My goal has always been to make a difference for women. I can do that as the coach of the women's basketball team. That's what I care most about."

Summitt, 52, goes into today's Philadelphia Region semifinal with a record of 880-171, with six NCAA titles, 15 Final Four appearances and 87 NCAA tournament wins in 31 years, with a 28-4 record this season. Smith was 879-254 with the Tar Heels when he retired after 36 years in 1997, and now both of their names will be associated their schools' on-campus arenas.

"I'm happy the record is behind us," said Summitt, who remains a consultant with the WNBA's Washington Mystics "because I enjoy working with Susan" O'Malley, who runs the team.

"Pat Summitt is the greatest women's basketball coach ever," said Gary Williams, coach of the Maryland men's team. "She's the consummate coach," added Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow.

"She accomplished this record in one of the toughest leagues [Southeastern Conference]," said GW women's coach Joe McKeown, adding: "I did my part [0 for 6] in her getting the record. She gets everyone's best shot, because when you play Tennessee that's your big game of the year. But she continues to win with class and has been such a pioneer and role model for coaches.''

McKeown, whose Colonials (23-9) reached the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing to UNC on Tuesday night, said Summitt "has always been willing to stand up for women's basketball, fighting uphill battles, and gaining respect for herself, her team and the game."

These uphill battles persist, as last weekend's NCAA first-round games at Maryland's Comcast Center showed, with doubleheaders Sunday (4,062) and Tuesday night (4,483) drawing far less than the 12,000 fans the well-supported Terps men have been averaging for two NIT home games. "We can always do better," said Yow, adding the attendance for two days at Maryland doubled the turnout in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Still, some talking heads and fans of men's basketball not only avoid the women's game but become hostile in discussions. "The players are wonderful athletes," observed Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach. "It's an okay game, but I'm not a fan. At my age [86], it's too late to pick up something new."

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