Sunday, April 03, 2005

Summitt changed game, but she's stayed the same

DALLAS - Texas A&M coach Gary Blair painfully recalls his first encounter with Pat Summitt, at a North Texas State basketball camp in 1977.

Blair was fresh from winning a state title with the South Oak Cliff (Texas) girls team. Summitt, then Pat Head, had just begun her coaching career at Tennessee. The two were on opposite sides in a pickup game. Blair quickly discovered Summitt's competitive instincts.

"I got the total hell beat out of me," Blair said. "Everything was either a behind-the-back pass or an elbow in the ribs."

Since then, Summitt's win total and reputation have skyrocketed.

She has taken Tennessee to the Final Four for the 16th time and eighth time in 11 years.

The Lady Vols meet Michigan State on Sunday. When she surpassed North Carolina's Dean Smith for the most wins of any NCAA Division I coach, it became a major media event. At 52, she has become the dominant personality in her sport.

The qualities that helped her win six national titles and 83.8 percent of her games endure. She retains a steely blue-eyed stare, the one that resembles a bird of prey.

"She still has that fight, she still wants perfection and she still wants things done a certain way," Tennessee senior point guard Loree Moore said.

To understand Summitt's career is to travel back to the formative years of women's basketball.

She began as an assistant at Tennessee in 1974 and was promoted to coach two months later at 22. Then, women's basketball was more of a novelty than a sport.

Zero scholarships.

No off-campus recruiting.

Free admission to games.

"It was just a step above intramurals," Summitt said.

Summitt and Tennessee didn't grow with the game as much as they led it. Her teams were seldom flashy, even with rosters brimming with high school All-Americans. They were sound, dedicated to defense and hard to play against.

"I think you have to be tough, and that starts in practice," Summitt said. "Our practices are really tougher than a lot of our games. You get from players what you demand, not what you expect. We demand a lot from our players."

The wins started coming with regularity, although many early ones were against schools such as Tennessee-Martin and Maryville.

But Tennessee soon put together the nation's toughest schedule, playing such powers as Texas, USC, Old Dominion and Louisiana Tech anywhere, anytime.

Summitt didn't win a national title until 1987. Then five more followed in a 12-year span. She had defined the women's game.

Blair built a national-caliber program at Arkansas, and beat Summitt only once in 10 years. "And I cherish that win," he said.

Even though Tennessee is making its fourth consecutive Final Four appearance, the Lady Vols haven't won a title since 1998.

Another title is a distinct possibility, especially with recent nemesis Connecticut eliminated.

"Do I see her slowing down at all?" Blair said. "Not a bit."



Pat Summitt's record in 16 Final Four appearances as Tennessee's coach:

17 Wins

9 Losses

6 Titles

5 Runners-up

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