Thursday, November 10, 2005

Voepel: Powers of Tenn.

After 'frustrating' season, Summitt has high hopes

“ When I retire, I won't be sitting in a rocking chair looking at trophies. I hope I'll be on the phone talking to a former player or sitting around chatting with them. Because that's what it's all about -- those relationships. ”
— Pat Summitt

Shanna Zolman says that while winning a national championship is obviously the ultimate goal as a player, it won't change anything about her as a person. And it's not even the motivation behind her playing basketball.

Right now, what Zolman is most fervent and passionate about is her faith. She might always feel exactly this way, or this might be partially a product of being 22 and full of optimism and energy about how to tackle what seems wrong in the world. She and Sidney Spencer went on Christian mission trips over the past two summers to the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.

"As serious as I am about the game, as much as I love it to death and devote a lot of my time and life to it," Zolman says, "it's still just a game. A tool that I can use to share Christ with other people.

"But I build relationships with people every day who may or may not know Christ. Even if it's just smiling at somebody or going out to eat with somebody or seeing a movie together. I don't care who you are or what you believe in, I want to build a relationship with you. Whether people believe in what I do or not, I'm not going to say, 'I'm not going to spend time with you.' "

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- You're at Stokely Athletics Center at the University of Tennessee in late October. Not too far outside this building, you could come across this intersection: Pat Head Summitt Street and Chamique Holdsclaw Drive.

Inside Stokely, you will find the namesake of one of those roadways overseeing practice for the however-many-thousandth time. She's walking around in a boot, the result of a summertime foot injury that has been slow to heal. She's watching what's surely one of the deepest teams, in terms of the talent level first player to last, that she has ever had.

She doesn't really yell. She does definitely raise her voice.

"Get your butt in a stance!" Summitt said to one player. "I know what I see, and I don't like it. So do something about it."

Of course, you can envision Summitt shouting that latter part to herself a few years ago, coming off another loss to Connecticut in the Final Four. Tennessee has six NCAA titles, but the last was in 1998. This program has made going to the Final Four seem like an annual event one can just plan for -- like celebrating Thanksgiving or paying taxes or going on vacation. Last season was the program's 16th Final Four in 24 NCAA Tournaments. But, again … no title in seven years.

Is that a drought? Can you be so good that you can use such a word to describe not winning a title in seven seasons? I guess we all know that answer, when it comes to Tennessee.

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"I know what I see, and I don't like it. So do something about it."

What Summitt did was hit the recruiting trail with the energy and purpose of a 25-year-old overachiever angling for a big promotion. Well, that times five. It's not as though Summitt had ever taken a break in the recruiting battles, but she was determined that the freshman class that entered Tennessee in the fall of 2004 was going to be an all-timer.

And, at least according to the blue-chip index, it was. Candace Parker, Alex Fuller, Alexis Hornbuckle, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, Nicky Anosike, Sybil Dosty. Landing any one of these recruits would have been cause for celebration at many -- most -- Division I programs.

To get them all? Tennessee's recruiting for this cycle was like a movie not content with just getting the Oscar for best picture, best director, best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress, best original screenplay and best music. It just had to have best editing, best set decoration, best sound, best makeup and best costume-design, too.

It was ridiculous.

However, to use another analogy, last season Tennessee resembled a Formula One race car that clearly had the engine to win it all. Unfortunately, parts of the car just kept breaking down. Parker and Fuller redshirted the entire season because of knee injuries. Wiley-Gatewood played just 13 games because of patellar tendinitis. Senior Loree Moore went through tonsillitis and a broken nose. Sophomore Sidney Spencer tore the ACL in her right knee and was lost for the season at the end of February. Also that month, junior Tye'sha Fluker missed two weeks as she dealt with the death of her grandmother, who was like a mother to her.

After all this, the car was still in the race. In fact, Tennessee looked to be streaking toward the finish line … when it was overtaken by the green car out of East Lansing, Mich., before having a shot at the other green car out of Waco, Texas.

Tennessee's loss in the Final Four to Michigan State -- after being up by as much as 16 points -- was the capper to the "Year That Wasn't Quite" for Summitt's gang.

"When you're in it and it's happening, you can never allow anyone on your team or staff to give themselves an out or make an excuse," Summitt said of dealing with the adversities that kept Tennessee from ever being at full-strength last season. "You say, 'Somebody else has to step up.' Usually, somebody does. That's how you handle it.

"However, looking back, I'll tell you: It was one of the most challenging and, at times, the most frustrating years of my career. But I don't think that I knew that until it was over."

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Summitt says all of this on a Friday afternoon. She does not betray that she knows she's about to suffer a real loss, the most painful and profound kind, the type people always say "puts sports into perspective."

In two days, Summitt's father, Richard Head, will pass away. Summitt realizes his death is coming, but carries the wrenching emotions inside her the way she does pretty much everything else: with a very sustained and controlled dignity.

It's part of how Summitt has won a record 882 games. She understands the intricacies of basketball and works very hard at every element of her job. And, she'll be the first to stress, the support staff at Tennessee is a critical element in everything this program has done.

"I think about the administration that stepped out and supported women's athletics when everyone else maybe wasn't as committed," Summitt said, being diplomatic about the fact that many other places were on another planet -- a very cold and distant one -- in terms of commitment to women's sports in the 1970s.

"So, yes, we got a jump start. However, I also think about all those student-athletes who played without scholarships, who busted their butts every day in practice. That's where the tradition started -- in those early years of my career."

Part of that was here in Stokely. It's now Tennessee's auxiliary practice facility when stuff like the circus or some big music act is booked into Thompson-Boling arena. Stokely was the program's home from 1976-1987. But it's not where it all started for Summitt. In her first two years as coach, the team played in Alumni Memorial Gymnasium.

All of the past players who've "worn the orange with pride" as Summitt says, live on as memories in any building where she's teaching basketball. Sometimes the memory reappears in her actual form, and such is the case this particular Friday, when former guard Tiffany Woosley drops by to watch practice. At one point, Summitt invites her out on the floor as the team gathers together in a circle.

"This is Tiffany Woosley, guys, she played for us in the early 1990s …" Summitt said to her current players. Later, Summitt's eyes will light up when she says, "Did you see how Tiffany immediately went into the circle, just like she was still in practice every day?"

For her part, Woosley laughs and shakes her head in almost astonishment at how good today's players look in practice compared to her time at Tennessee in 1991-95. They seem bigger and stronger and faster and able to do more. The thing that has stayed the same, of course, is Summitt.

Well, no, that's not really true, either. As Summitt stays and talks, after her team has left for the weight room, the Tennessee men's team takes the floor. There is yelling and yelling and yelling and yelling. And some more yelling.

You ask Summitt, "So, did you ever yell this much?"

"I used to. I don't think I do now," she says. "I think I've changed. I think kids have definitely changed, but I've tried to find other ways to motivate. While I want them to hear my voice, there are times that they need to hear their own voice and that of their teammates. To me, that's taking ownership on the floor. And, if you're always on them, eventually, they tune you out.

"If I hadn't changed, we wouldn't be here having this conversation. You'd be talking to someone else."

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Shanna Zolman and Fluker are the two seniors this season. They've been to the Final Four the past three years.

"There are no excuses, we just didn't win it," Zolman says. "It's frustrating when you know what it's like to be there, you've been through it all, but you can't get that last win."

Hornbuckle said she watched the Michigan State loss almost immediately on tape -- and more than once -- because, "I wanted to see what all went wrong."

But Zolman hasn't seen the tape at all. It's clear enough in her head.

"You learn from it, you move on -- but it's still there in your memory," she said. "I think that's good to have it there as motivation during the summer and coming into this season. But you don't dwell on it; it's not healthy."

Fluker has since fractured a finger on her shooting hand and will be in a splint several weeks but is able to play. But what she went through last season was a fracture no splint could help. It was a break in her heart that she talked about, as she looked ahead to her final college season.

"Basketball definitely keeps me busy, so it's not on my mind as much," she said of her grandmother's death. "More so when I'm by myself, I have time to think about it. I won't say it's easy. Her birthday was this month. It's like that with every holiday or anything: The first time I'm going through it without my grandmother. But I'm to the point now where I'm not on the court always thinking about her. Whereas last year, it was so hard to shake it. It was so fresh and new and unbelievable that she was gone."

Although much of the media and fan attention that Tennessee has already received -- and will continue to get -- is going to the younger players, Summitt still emphasizes that Zolman and Fluker are essential to everything her team hopes to accomplish this year.

"Shanna has always provided great leadership, and Tye has dialed up her leadership and her game, too," Summitt said. "In this program, you welcome the stars from high school. They're accustomed to it. They're excited. They were very instrumental in helping us get a Candace Parker. Your players have to do an awful lot to help you in recruiting. That's a part of it."

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The court at Thompson-Boling is named "The Summitt" now, a designation announced last season after Summitt's 880th victory -- in the NCAA Tournament's second round against Purdue -- broke Dean Smith's Division I coaching record.

Summitt had gone into that game dreading the added pressure she feared her players might feel because of the "880" number they were trying to achieve. But it all turned out to be, truly, a perfect night.

"For me, it was emotional when it happened. It was more than I thought it would be," Summitt said. "That's why I cried -- knowing how many people had been a part of it. When I retire, I won't be sitting in a rocking chair looking at trophies. I hope I'll be on the phone talking to a former player or sitting around chatting with them. Because that's what it's all about -- those relationships."

Still, Summitt says she looks very pragmatically at the last seven seasons. Five trips to the Final Four, but no titles.

"I just hate losing so much that it eats at me," she said. "But of those years, when did we have the best players and the best team? When did we just flat-out blow it?

"I think the year we blew it was 1999; Duke outplayed us [in the Elite Eight], but we had better players. I thought we had the best team in the country then, talent-wise.

"But beyond that, I don't know that people would say of those years, 'Tennessee had the best players and just couldn't get it done.' But, also, the best players don't always make the best team."

Provided everyone stays relatively healthy, no one's going to say Tennessee doesn't have more than enough good players to win it all this season. But whether it happens or not in 2006, there are still six trophies already in the case, there are those streets named for the coach and her great program's greatest player, and there is the strong sense -- a certainty, really -- that Tennessee will always be in the hunt.


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