Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pat Summitt: The No. 1 Volunteer

Tamika Catchings was in the eighth grade the first time she witnessed "the glare."

As a young basketball player growing up in Duncanville, Texas, Catchings caught her first glimpse of the Tennessee Lady Vols on TV and remembers her first impression of Coach Pat Head Summitt.

"The camera came across her face and that glare," Catchings said. "I noticed that intensity and the way she motivated her players and thought I wouldn't mind playing for her."

Four years later, Summitt was in Catchings' living room on a recruiting visit.

"I was nervous because not everyone gets the opportunity to meet her, let alone play for her," she said. "You know when you're going to Tennessee you're going to be playing with the best players in the country and you're going to be playing for the best coach ever with the best glare ever."

Summitt and her glare come to town this week to help tip off the college basketball season. The defending national champion Lady Vols will take on Oklahoma on Thursday night in the ESPNU Invitational at the St. Pete Times Forum. In the first game of the doubleheader, South Florida plays Duke. The season begins where it will end, in Tampa, the host of the 2008 Women's Final Four.

Summitt, the all-time winningest coach in basketball history - men or women - will be seeking her eighth national championship. But she's about more than victories and titles.

"She is undoubtedly the single most influential person in our game," said Judy Southard, LSU's associate athletics director and chair of the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee. "And she uses that influence the right way. She's been enormously successful. She will give anything back to the game to help grow the game."

And she'll do anything for the University of Tennessee.

Vols football coach Phil Fulmer enlists Summitt's help from time to time for recruiting. He recalled a time a top prospect was visiting the campus. As soon as Fulmer discovered how much the player's parents loved Summitt, he knew where the tour would begin.

The group headed to a Tennessee basketball practice, where despite her regimented schedule, Summitt took the time to speak with the player and his parents.

That player committed to Tennessee.

"People are in awe of her when they first meet her, but she relieves that immediately with her demeanor," Fulmer said. "As a sports figure, she is someone you really should be in awe of, but once you get around her, you find out that's she's really just a great person."

"Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts, who developed a friendship with Summitt during her work at ESPN, hears from the coach on a regular basis. With each phone call, Roberts, a standout player at Southeastern Louisiana University in the early 1980s, finds herself spitting out her gum and sitting up a little straighter out of ultimate respect.

"Her contribution goes so far beyond basketball and the University of Tennessee," Roberts said. "It is immeasurable, her impact for women. Not just women athletes, but women period."

Her impact on Catchings remains immeasurable. Without Summitt, Catchings might still be hiding behind the embarrassment of hearing loss and a speech impediment. While at Tennessee, Catchings stopped wearing her hearing aids, even though she was missing some of the things her coach was saying. Summitt called Catchings into her office one day to talk about the problem, but not how it related to becoming a better player.

"She sat me down and talked to me about my future and how I was going to play professional basketball one day and I would have a platform to reach all these people that were hearing impaired or had speech problems," said Catchings, a four-time All-American and member of the WNBA Indiana Fever. "She got me back to wearing my hearing aids. It was just the way she broke it down for me. I knew she really cared about me."

That's what insiders know intimately about Summitt. Go past the 947 victories, the seven national titles, the glare, and there lies the heart of a coach who ultimately wants the best out of her players - on the court and off.

"There's just something about her," Roberts said. "She's such a loving soul. She's such a caring person, but one of those rare individuals that God blessed with that uncanny ability to just make things happen. People would walk through fire for Pat.

"She could coach and do anything."

This summer, Summitt proved that by coaching her son's 16-and-under AAU basketball team. Tyler Summitt's team was overmatched by more physical and experienced teams and finished the national tournament 0-4.

Think Summitt coached the boys any differently than her Tennessee players? Think again. She benched a player during one game when he came off the court complaining about his tough assignment.

"I can't guard that guy," the player told Summitt.

She replied as she would to any of her Lady Vols players.

"I can't relate to 'I can't,' so somebody else get in there and guard that guy," she said.

To learn where Summitt gets her work ethic and her desire for those around her to put forth the same effort, look no farther than Henrietta, Tenn., and the farm she was raised on. The fourth of five children, and the first daughter, Summitt's daily chores ranged from baling hay to chopping tobacco to plowing the field.

At a recent dinner in Tampa for NCAA corporate sponsors, Summitt recalled her days on the farm and how they shaped her.

"Cows never take a day off," she said.

So Summitt doesn't. This is a woman who never missed a day of school from kindergarten through high school. Not one.

"She's really committed to being the best and staying on top," Catchings said. "Everything has to be done to a T."

This is a woman who went into labor during a recruiting visit. In 1990 while recruiting Michelle Marciniak, Summitt's contractions began in Marciniak's Macungie, Pa., living room. But she stayed until the recruiting trip was over, then hopped on a plane and landed in Knoxville just in time to give birth to Tyler.

It's not all intensity with Summitt. She showed off her sense of humor and sense of adventure when she donned a cheerleading uniform, stood atop a human pyramid and sang "Rocky Top" at a Tennessee men's basketball game. It was payback to Coach Bruce Pearl for sporting body paint at a women's game.

"I've never been so nervous in my life, no championship game, no nothing," she said.

And that was after weeks of practice in front of her mother.

Those who know Summitt well notice how she's mellowed over the years and changed her coaching style to relate better to her players. What will never change is the glare, which is just as intense as ever, and her drive to succeed.

"I'm so competitive," Summitt said. "People that don't compete hard, they don't need to come to Tennessee. They know that up front and I tell them that when I make the visit because I won't be happy. And if I ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. It's having the desire to be the best you can be. That's means something to me."

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