Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Another legend graces Pauley Pavilion

When Pat Summitt walks into Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday night, some mouths will slack agape, some eyes will widen and some knees will tremble from sharing the same zip code with a legend.

This awestruck state won't be limited to the intimidation the UCLA women's basketball players might feel dribbling by the winningest coach in college basketball.

It also will be felt by Summitt who, while continuing her 34th season as coach of the seven-time national champion Tennessee women's basketball team, still knows to take a knee in the most hallowed of basketball churches.

“I get chills when I walk in there,” Summitt said about going in John Wooden's arena for the 7 p.m. Wednesday game between her top-ranked, defending champion Volunteers (9-0) and the UCLA Bruins (4-5). “I marvel at all the history.”

The history stretches from the hardwood to the high ceiling, in crack and crevices. Wooden's presence echoes on the sidelines and inside the locker rooms.

None of this is lost on Summitt, who has done for her corner of the sport what the Wizard of Westwood did for his.

Even after 34 seasons of dynasty building, after 956 career victories and just 180 defeats, after admission into the Basketball Hall of Fame and 26 Southeastern Conference tournament and regular-season titles, seven national titles, seven NCAA Coach of the Year awards and a Naismith Coach of the Century honor, Summitt is humbled to be in the same place where Wooden coached.

She is honored to have had her name in the same sentence as his.

“He's the greatest of all time,” said Summitt, 55, who so often has been described the same way.

Summitt knows what it's like to coach basketball with a winning reputation as a sixth man and to be measured by only national titles and a countdown to a milestone 1,000 career victories.

She is accustomed to playing beneath rafters hung with championship banners because she has decorated her home Thompson-Boling Arena back in Knoxville, Tenn., in that same fashion.

Her career began by accident. Knee rehabilitation and a desire for a master's degree led the former University of Tennessee at Martin basketball player to Knoxville to be a graduate teaching assistant in the school's physical education department.

The late Helen Watson, the physical education department head, pitched Summitt about coaching the women's team in an April 1974 letter that described “an excellent potential team, and I believe that they would be happy to have you as their coach.”

Summitt accepted the position as assistant coach. Two weeks later, she became the head coach when Margaret Huston decided to take a sabbatical.

“I was absolutely overwhelmed and scared to death,” Summitt has said about taking over the program without ever having run a practice, set up drills or planned a schedule.

A lot of her influence came from Billie Moore, the longtime UCLA coach for whom Summitt played as a member of the 1976 Olympic team. The rest Summitt eventually figured out.

Now Summitt remains the most prominent coach in women's basketball history, a Hall of Famer who stands 5 feet, 11 inches tall — not counting high heels — and measures much grander when you consider that she stands on Rocky Top.

Summitt's seven national titles are second only to Wooden's 10. Her 956 career victories are the most in college basketball — women's and men's. Her program has produced 12 Olympians, 19 Kodak All-Americans and 69 All-SEC performers.

And there will likely be more victories, titles and player greats.

Summitt has her own Web site (www.coachsummitt.com), demand as a motivational speaker, a long-term contract that has made her the first female coach to earn more than $1 million a season, a series of instructional DVDs, camps and two books.

Her attention to the game and her newest team of national-title defenders remain as stiletto sharp as her steely eyes. Talk basketball and you hear the same quickened cadence in her voice, a competitive intensity and the basketball genius that Summitt has brought to all her seasons.

“I'm obviously looking forward to our road trip,” she said about the Volunteers' upcoming four-game excursion, which includes Wednesday's game and a Saturday meeting against Pac-10 power Stanford. “It will be a test for us.”

And a time at Pauley Pavilion for one legend to walk on the sideline of another.

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