Imagine a scene for a moment, if you will. Players gather in a locker room. They pull on the familiar University of Tennessee orange and white basketball jersey. Pat Head Summitt etches her directions on a board with a piece of chalk. Pep talk already delivered, they prepare to run out of the locker room to... A crowd of thousands, right? No. Hundreds? Not quite. Try dozens. Fifty-three curious onlookers to be exact.
The scene seems impossible to today's average Tennessee Lady Vol fan, but 30 years ago, it was reality for Pat Head's 1974-75 Tennessee basketball team when they took the court at UT's Alumni gym on Jan. 10, 1975. Despite the decided lack of home-court advantage, the Lady Vols fought to a 69-32 win over Middle Tennessee State, giving first-year coach Pat Head her first career victory.
Now, 878 wins later, the scene is not as memorable as one might think for the head coach of the Lady Vols.
"I just remember losing the opening game to Mercer," Summitt said. "It is probably not a good thing that sometimes the losses stick out in my mind, but that is what brings about the excitement for the wins."
The loss to Mercer in Summitt's first game as the leader of the Lady Vols on Dec. 7, 1974 was compounded by the fact that the team had to wait for over a month before welcoming MTSU to campus after the Christmas break.
Today, players dread having a couple of days of practice following a loss. If only they could imagine a month's worth of post-loss trauma with a 22-year old rookie coach at the helm.
For the sake of the nine Tennessee players from that first season, current players can only hope that the inexperience of the first-year coach lightened the month-long practice load.
Summitt is the first to acknowledge the lack of experience that she carried into that first season.
"I never really had the training to be a coach, except as a player," she said. "It helped that I played for some really good teachers and coaches over the years."
As her experience grew, so did the crowds. Modern-day fan support tends to run a bit larger than the first crowd of 53. In fact, wherever they go to play from Athens, Georgia to Athens, Greece, the Lady Vols can count on having scores of orange-clad fans cheering them on.
At home, Tennessee plays in front of crowds regularly exceeding 13,000, each one of them as passionate and loyal as the next, providing one of the top home-court advantages in college basketball. Summitt says her players over the years have played a large part in that level of fan support.
"Tennessee fans are extremely loyal," Summitt said. "I think we have always put a great product on the floor. We've had some very talented student-athletes, we've been able to win a lot of big games playing a very tough schedule, so our fans are also very knowledgeable about women's basketball."
As for the first win, Summitt did not spend the evening celebrating with her players, friends and family. Instead, she spent it in the laundry room. With student managers still half a decade away, Summitt was left toasting her initial win with a dryer.
"I hope my washing uniform days are over," chuckled Summitt, the soon-to-be all-time winningest coach in NCAA collegiate basketball history.