Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Tennessee at the Summitt of winning basketball

PHILADELPHIA - When Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt passed former North Carolina men's coach Dean Smith on Tuesday night for the most career victories in the NCAA at 880, it was not the first time the two Hall of Famers had been linked.

Despite Summitt's success in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, she was known back then as the Dean Smith of her sport for one reason - the inability to win the big one.

The Tar Heels had suffered six futile Final Four appearances before Smith claimed his first NCAA title in 1982. The seventh attempt was also the lucky one for the Vols, who beat Louisiana Tech for the title in 1987.

"Obviously, to be in the company with Coach Smith, to think about all the people that were a part of these wins, I never thought I'd live this long," Summitt said on the court after she broke Smith's mark.

"When I saw my mother, she cried, and then I started crying. When your mother cries, you cry. The longer that I'm in this profession, I see a lot of my mother in me. That's a good thing because it means I've mellowed."

She may have mellowed, but she hasn't slowed down. The struggle for that first NCAA crown is about the only thing close to a blemish in a career with a multitude of accomplishments for Summitt, whose Volunteers defeated Texas Tech, 75-59, on Sunday afternoon for victory No. 881.

Summitt's program has claimed six NCAA titles and is almost annually in championship contention. The Vols have resided in the upper portion of the Associated Press polls for three decades. Summitt's rosters have been loaded with blue-chip talent, including such all-American superstars as Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings.

Summitt led the U.S. Olympic women's squad to the 1984 gold medal - America's first in the sport. She has nurtured young coaches and become involved in rivalries with others who have sought to match her achievements.

Even the often quotable Geno Auriemma of Connecticut, who has tossed more than a few barbs Summitt's way as part of their intense national rivalry, acknowledged last week: "She's not as bad as I make her out to be."

Tennessee officials honored Summitt after her historic victory Tuesday night by announcing that the court in the 24,535-seat Thompson-Boling Arena would be renamed The Summitt.

"It really touches me," she told reporters then. "I never even thought about anything like that ever. I don't think there could have been a better gift in terms of the feeling that I had and how much I love this university."

During the years, Summitt has been cast in the image of a steely-eyed firebrand, but those she has befriended in the profession know her softer side.

Summitt, 52, is married to banker R.B. Summitt, and they have a 14-year-old son, Ross Tyler. Two weeks ago, she hosted her annual barbecue for local reporters, friends, players and almost everyone else in Knoxville, Tenn., to kick off the tournament.

"This is a big part of who we are," Summitt told ESPN.com. "On the court, it's serious. It's intense. That's our time to work.

"But I don't want them to see me just as a coach. I want them to see me as someone they can sit with, relax with, and just be at home with."

Summitt's 175-48 record in the AIAW era is included as part of her overall record. The all-time victory mark for college basketball is held by McKendree (Ill.) men's coach Harry Statham, who is 896-342 in 39 seasons at that NAIA school.

One particular tournament torment for Summitt was a loss to Louisiana Tech in the 1994 regional semifinals after the Vols finished first in the Associated Press poll and were the favorites to win the crown.

The Techsters, who were led for 18 years by coach Leon Barmore, had preceded Connecticut as a major thorn in the side of Summitt's teams, beating them 11 times.

Barmore remembered last week what a delight that win was in 1994.

"It was the biggest of all of the wins I was able to get against her," Barmore said. "Look, anytime you can beat Pat Summitt, you've done something."

That's because Summitt has done more than something.

Connecticut's recent prominence notwithstanding, the Tennessee basketball program for three decades has been the standard by which other teams in the Division I women's game measure themselves.

Understanding the importance of being an ambassador for the game, Summitt has taken the Vols across the nation to meet rugged competition to prepare for March Madness, and to meet not-so-rugged competition to give those opponents an idea of just what it takes at the next level.

Dean Smith isn't the only coach with whom Summitt has been compared from the men's game. Behind-the-scenes documentaries, specifically one several years ago from HBO, have drawn a likeness to the fiery Bobby Knight, now at Texas Tech.

"It's funny," said Debbie Jennings, the team's longtime media spokeswoman. "Now that a lot of media people have had to deal with her because of the win record, they've commented, `She's really nice. I didn't know she was that nice.'

"Of course she is - at least away from practice."

In addition to coaching the Vols, Summitt is a player consultant to the WNBA's Washington Mystics, a job that was approved by both her school and the NCAA, although leaders of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association are taking exception to her dual role.

Summitt also gives motivational speeches to top-level management in government and business. A month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, Summitt gave a pep talk at the Central Intelligence Agency.

"It was something that was scheduled before the attacks," Jennings said at the time. "Afterward, they still wanted her to appear."

Mike Flynn, who runs the nationally prominent and locally based Blue Star program in Amateur Athletic Union competition, which has had a few players go to Tennessee, put Summitt's record in perspective.

"No one is ever going to break that record," Flynn said. "One reason is you don't see schools hiring 21- or 22-year-olds to coach their teams as was the situation in the early 1970s.

"Then, every two times she's won 30 games in a season, she's gained a year (on distant challengers)," Flynn added.

"Let's say someone gets a job at age 25 and they win about 20 games or so each season for 40 years. That means that at age 65 they'll have 800 wins, and they'll still be way behind her."

No comments: