Saturday, April 02, 2005

Summitt leaves mark on game, players

Tennessee coach is driven to succeed and expects nothing less from her athletes.

Those Summitt eyes.

They are penetratingly blue and intense.

Clearly, they are not what define Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, but they leave an unforgettable impression.

Just ask any of the women who have played for her.

"Those blue eyes ... they are very serious eyes," said Deadra Charles-Furlow, a Detroit native and two-time All-American at Tennessee (1988-91) who is an assistant coach at Detroit Mercy.

"She could look at you with those blue eyes like they were piercing right through you. She just wanted you to appreciate the game like she does -- 'We're here to compete, and we're here to win.' Her players develop that mentality."

Summitt has guided the Lady Vols to their fourth straight Final Four -- and 16th in the last 24 years -- to face Final Four first-timer Michigan State in the second semifinal Sunday night at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

Summitt's remarkable résumé is a tribute to her ability to make winners out of her players.

She can make them understand what it takes to succeed. She is a product of a farming family in middle Tennessee, where she developed her work ethic, rising early and toiling long hours, still managing school and sports.

Summit, 52, began coaching at Tennessee in 1974. During those early years, when she was barely older than the players she was coaching, she washed the team uniforms and drove the team van. Her salary? $8,900.

Now she makes $824,500, which includes compensation for TV / radio and public-relations appearances and a shoe / apparel contract, and she gets the use of a Mercedes-Benz for a year every time she wins a national championship, which she has done six times. Renowned as the greatest coach in the women's game, she recently passed North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith to become the leader in career NCAA victories. Her total is 882.

Because she is so good, so successful, so linked to the women's game as its most recognized ambassador, she is asked about the disappointment of not winning a national title in six years.

Coaches dream of winning one championship. But because expectations at Tennessee are so high and winning has seemed like a given there, Summitt has to address national title droughts.

"I am proud of the teams that have been there and have played in championship games, and got us to the Final Four," Summitt said Thursday during a teleconference with reporters. "That is no easy task. I think sometimes when you are in the role we are in, people think that if you do not win a championship then you somehow fail, and that is not true.

"Last year's team (which lost to Connecticut in the final), I thought if anything, people said they probably overachieved. There is no shame to playing in a national championship game and losing to a team that has been really dominant for the last three years like a Connecticut. I think you have to accept it for what it is and try to keep getting back there, because if you get back there enough times, hopefully you will win."

Summitt and the Lady Vols keep getting back to the Final Four for a multitude of reasons. Obviously, there's the coaching. There's also the success-breeds-success motto that pretty much guarantees stellar recruiting and the best players in the country.

Al Brown, a first-year assistant at Michigan State, coached on Summitt's staff for seven years. While he was with the Lady Vols, they had a winning percentage of .885 and won national titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

Brown said Summitt's secret is that she never rests.

"When this season is over, she'll look back on it and it won't make any difference if it was the '98 season where we won by an average of 30 points, it's 'how do we get better next year?' " Brown said. "We had basically the same team back in '99, and her question was, 'How do we get better?'

"She holds everybody in the program accountable, from the custodians, to the secretaries."

But Summitt wants to make her players successful in whatever way she believes necessary.

Charles-Furlow was in her junior season at Tennessee when she one day reached a breaking point. It had been a bad day at school, but she obviously had to practice.

"Pat really hit a nerve that day," Charles-Furlow said. "She kept riding me and riding me, and I finally yelled, 'I am doing the best I can do!' The arena became silent. My teammates looked at me like, 'No she didn't (just do that).'

"Pat called me over. She was kneeling on one knee. She said, 'Not in a million years did I think you would disrespect me.' I said, 'Disrespect you?'"

The two women spoke the next day, and Charles-Furlow apologized.

"She told me, 'The day you should worry is the day I say nothing to you,'" Charles-Furlow said. "I had a better love for her after that as a person and as a friend. Once you have gone through that program, you are prepared for anything that happens to you in life. And you're not going to walk out of Tennessee without your degree. I'm glad Pat is that way. I think if she had been nice to me (on the court), I don't think I'd be the person I am today."

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