Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Summitt stands tall in list of top college hoops coaches

Pat Summitt is 52 years old. We mention this slice of biography on the day of her 880th victory - barring an unexpected outbreak of Purdue or something - because it is a little jarring to put the numbers together.

Any college basketball coach with 880 wins is supposed to be found in the senior citizen's wing. Dean Smith retired with 879 at the age of 66. Bob Knight is 64 and not far back.

But she's 52. That's still young. Vivacious. Energetic. Way too early to be called old. (And the fact I am 51 has absolutely nothing to do with this appraisal.)

Add 52 to 880 and the bottom line is this lady has a chance to win a gazillion games. When she is finished, a Sherpa may be needed to find the top of her mountain of victories.

Coaching's all-time leader in wins. Assuming, of course, we are using the genderless record book.

"Maybe it is more significant and more meaningful," Summitt said Monday, "when it includes both men's and women's basketball."

One could quibble that Summitt and Smith are not exactly of the same universe, even if they are of the same game. Summitt had Tennessee way ahead of the curve in women's basketball, meaning for years the Volunteers feasted on programs yet to take themselves seriously. A shark devouring guppies.

Also, because the NCAA still allows home-court advantage in the women's bracket, it has not hurt that Tennessee has played nearly 40% of its tournament games in Knoxville.

But we nitpick.

Summitt is renowned for her willingness to play anybody anywhere during the season, and try that with the guys, who understand the most direct route to a 20-win season and probable contract extension is straight down Cotton Candy Lane.

Plus, it is to her everlasting credit she understood the possibilities of women's basketball long before most people did.

Whether Summitt's more proper name will be the all-time-winningest coach or the all-time-winningest women's coach seems irrelevant, as she closes in on 880. More pertinent are the astonishing numbers she is accumulating.

There have been 23 Final Fours for the women, but only eight without Tennessee.

This is the 24th NCAA Tournament and she has had her team invited to every one.

In 31 years she has lost 39 games at home. Overall, she has won 708 more games than she has lost.

Mike Krzyzewski, considered the most relentless competitor of his time in the men's game, has a current career winning percentage of 74.6%. Summitt could lose 125 straight games and still be better than that.

This is what can happen when someone gets a head-coaching job at the age of 22. Back then, she washed the uniforms herself, taped the ankles, and the fans got in free. What fans there were.

This year, the Tennessee women averaged 13,468 fans a game, better than all but 20 men's programs had in 2004. Pat Summitt's baby, all grown up and drawing a crowd.

About the only cloud in her sky has been Geno Auriemma. He built Connecticut to cut in on Tennessee's action. Tennessee has lost its past four tournament meetings with Connecticut, a direct reason why - while Summitt won six national championships from 1987-98 - she has won none since.

But it's still early for her. John Wooden had not yet won a national championship at 52, and there would be 10 to come.

Here Summitt is at the brink of a record. "Good luck going for the number," Smith told her last week. "I can't really remember what it is." No. 880 is only a layover. The horizon seems endless. Just like the first day she cleaned the floor as the new Tennessee women's coach.

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