Lady Vol coach's legendary success only hinted at early on, former players say
When Pat Summitt goes after her record-breaking 880th victory tonight, no one will be cheering her on more than the former players who gave her the first 16 of those wins 30 years ago - and a coach whose team beat her in her debut.
"To have it be that the winningest coach is going to be a woman is going to be a great thing for the women's game," said Joy Scruggs, who was a senior guard on Summitt's first University of Tennessee team in 1974-75. "Every milestone reached, just as every barrier broken, just draws more attention to the women's game."
If Summitt wins tonight, she will surpass retired University of North Carolina men's coach Dean Smith's record.
"Many people may look at this and say (it's because) she started young and has the longevity," said Scruggs, who today is head women's basketball coach at Emory and Henry University in Virginia. "But this didn't happen just because she started at a young age. You have to credit her work ethic, and her willingness to be open to continue to grow and learn and change and evolve."
Summitt's beginning was good, but not spectacular.
When she was hired at UT, she was still Pat Head and fresh out of UT-Martin, where she had been a standout player. At UT she inherited a successful women's basketball program from Margaret Hutson. In three years, Hutson's "Volettes" had compiled a 60-18 record, including a 22-5 run her final year.
Summitt's career began on Dec. 7, 1974 with an 84-83 loss in the old Alumni Gym to a Mercer team led by two Sevierville natives, Myrle Huskey and Sybil Blalock. Mercer's coach was Peggy Collins, who later coached at Mississippi State.
"That game was nip and tuck, a real tooth-and-nail fight," recalled Collins, who today is director of training and standards for the Barstow County, Ga., Sheriff's Department. "I think the real reason we won is because Myrle and Sybil were determined not to get (in their home state)."
Summitt's next game was a win, on Jan. 10, 1975, in Alumni Gym over Middle Tennessee State University, 69-32. About 50 people were in attendance.
Her first-season record of 16 wins and 8 losses hinted at success to come, but not the level of success she has achieved or how much she has impacted the game and helped it grow.
Those early, tough wins came in an era of no scholarships and bare-bone budgets. Small schools competed successfully with larger ones. Teams traveled by station wagons or vans. State championship tournaments for colleges usually drew smaller crowds and less media attention than high school girl's basketball.
At 5 feet 10 inches, senior center Gail Dobson Ingram was the tallest player on Summitt's first team, and the captain. All were Tennesseans, and all but one was from East Tennessee towns such as Maryville, Cleveland and Ducktown.
"I didn't have any idea that she was going to have the impact that she has," said Ingram, who today teaches fourth grade at Dogwood Elementary School. "She was just a year older than some of us. And now, what she is about to accomplish is just a remarkable achievement. The more you think about it, the more impressive it is because she has done this by going out and playing all the best teams."
"This milestone she is about to reach is just phenomenal," said Collins. And there is no telling what's out there in the future for her."
Ingram agreed. "She's still young, she can coach another 20 years if she wants to."
Summitt is only 52.
Collins said coaches of women's basketball in its early days could only hope that some day the game would get recognition similar to the men's game.
"Pat has been one of those that has made it a reality," Collins said. "She is one of those people that come along once in a lifetime."
It may be hard for Summitt's fans of today to visualize what Diane Brady Fetzer, a senior guard on the 1974-75 team, remembers of that first game.
"I was jittery, and I remember Pat was kind of jittery, too," said Fetzer, who today teaches math at McMinn County High School. "In her pre-game talk to us, I could see a red flash kind of creeping up her neck and into her face."
Three more of Summitt's first-year losses came at the hands of Union College, a small Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. Even those losses, the players said, reflect Summitt's traits of persistence and consistency. Each time UT played Union, the game was closer. The final game was decided by one point.
"She has stayed true to her principles," said Nancy Bowman Ladd, an administrator at the University of the South who was a senior guard on the 1974-75 team, "You can tell it has paid off when you look at her success with all of the different types of personalities of her players."
"From Day One, I thought this was a very special woman," said Suzanne Barbre Singleton, a freshman on Summitt's first team. "I knew Pat was going to have some impact on the game. I thought it would get to a certain point and not any farther. But it has gone far beyond what I expected."
Ingram said she remembers the practices more than the games - "especially having to run up and down those steps."
"Oh, she was very, very tough on us, and even back then, she had that stare," laughed Sue Thomas Martin, a sophomore forward on Summitt's first team. "But she was also very personable."
Many of that team's memories and stories about Summitt have nothing to do with basketball, scores or records.
"My mom died in 2000," Fetzer said. "When Pat heard about it, she called me. That was 25 years after I played for her."
That, Fetzer said, says more about Summitt than all of the games she has won.