Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A conversation with Pat Summitt

Tennessee’s legendary women’s basketball coach, the subject of today’s column, spent a few minutes discussing her career and her coaching philosophy after practice Tuesday at Pauley Pavilion.

(Do you think back much on what this program was like when you got here?)

“The Tennessee program? I think, as the years come and go, you think more about the beginning. At least I do, because of where we are now and the success that we’ve had, primarily because of all the players that have made it possible.

“And the university. I’m always grateful for their commitment to women’s basketball, and we jump-started the program because of the commitment. Not only women’s basketball, but the University of Tennessee has made a tremendous commitment to women’s athletics. And it’s been incredible to watch the development and growth over the years.

“Look at our softball team, our soccer team. our volleyball team, going to the Final Four. It’s just pretty amazing. The success we’ve had in track and field, winning national championships.

“I’m just always very mindful of that. I don’t want to ever take it for granted, but I’m also very grateful.”

(What were those early days like?)

“It was a lot like intramurals. I’d call it extramurals.”

(One step above playday.)

“One step above playday is right. We didn’t charge admission. We drove in vans. Typically, I drove the van with all the equipment and my assistant drove the van with all the players.”

(What, they didn’t trust you to drive the players?)

“The players didn’t want to ride with me. (She laughs) I was kinda tough in those days. I mean, that’s no joke. They’d always go, ‘Oh, we’re not riding with coach, she’s not in a good mood today.’

“But it was low-budget, but we had a budget. I washed uniforms. They bought their own sneakers. We finally raised money to be able to buy their shoes for them. We’d sleep four to a room. Typically a big meal for us was a cafeteria, so we could get more for the buck.

“And now I look at it: We’re on charter flights, two to a room. We can afford to at least make them feel special, and make them be aware of the commitment, or allow them to be aware of the commitment we have made at the University of Tennessee.”

(Was there one point that really got it kick-started, or was it just a gradual growth?)

“It was gradual. I think (what was) big for us was how we scheduled early on. We scheduled to play, Georgia, Texas, Southern Cal, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion. Those were the teams that were strong, particularly when you look at Southern Cal and Louisiana Tech. Those were two of the very best.”

(Those were the Cheryl Miller years.)


“I made the decision to do that because I thought, first of all, it’s going to be the blueprint for where we have to be. Not where we are, but where we have to be. And it’s going to then give us a chance, if we play this nationally competitive schedule, we hopefully can eventually recruit players who play at that level. We’ll know what it looks like.

“And then obviously when we went under the umbrella of the NCAA (in the early ‘80s), we had scholarships so we could then recruit out of state. Obviously we’ve recruited from California and all over the country. To me, that’s made a big difference for us.”

(Have you changed over the years?)

“Oh, absolutely, or I wouldn’t be here.

“It’s much more about what they need from me. And if I know that right off, what do they need from me, and then I know what I expect from them … it’s more about working and managing and having the open communication. If the dialogue is there on a daily basis, and they understand you’re challenging them and pushing them because you see more in them than they see in themselves … that’s my job. That’s my job.

“And a lot of times rather than call players out, I’ll go over and speak to them one on one. That doesn’t mean … I’ll have my moments, and they know it. And when I ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. And they know that, too.

“But for the most part, I don’t have to coach another day in my life, I don’t have to win another basketball game to prove anything. I love teaching, and I love this team. I love working with them.

“Just like last year. All I wanted was to help them win a national championship. And that’s why late in the North Carolina game, in that huddle, I screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘We’re not leaving here without a national championship. Do you hear me?’

“But it’s all because I just felt like, ‘I gotta help them win.’ But I don’t know that I helped them. They took over.

“And it does become their game. It’s not your game, it’s their game. And just teaching them that ownership and leadership is critical for their own success, and their ability to take control of a situation on the court.

(That way they can take something out of it that lasts.)

“For a lifetime. It’s life skills. You’re teaching life skills on a daily basis.”

(I’ve heard coaches talk about how you’re not playing for the program, you’re not playing for the teams that came before you, you’re playing for yourselves and your moment. Do you subscribe to that?)

“I agree with that, just like the day we hung their banner. I said, ‘As we go out today and they raise the 2007 banner, you will have your place. This team will have your place in history, in this program. No one can ever take that away from you. It’s yours for a lifetime.’ ”

(Does it ever get old?)

“Not yet. Not yet. They said I was 56 today. I'm only 55. I was kidding Coach (Billie) Moore. I said, I come to California and they put a year on me.

(At this point, you quibble about those years. I know I do.)

“No, I thought it was funny. I just thought, where did they come up with that?”

(Your relationship with Coach Moore, the former Cal State Fullerton and UCLA coach, is interesting.)

“I played for Coach Moore (at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal), and I learned a lot from her. She’s one of the best and most detailed teachers in the game.

“I’d say Coach (John) Wooden, Coach Moore. I put ‘em both right there. They can break down, they can simplify and teach in a way that I feel like I’ve learned the game. It’s a whole-part-whole, their teaching. They can present the whole defense. They can bring it and break it down into the parts, simplify, and then take it back to the whole.

“It’s a special talent.”

(How well do you feel you do it?)

“I’m pretty good. I’m not as good as the two of them, but I think that’s where I’ve gotten better.

“I think when players leave here, they know the game. When our student athletes graduate and move on, if they decide they want to go to pro, a lot of pro coaches will tell me, ‘Your players understand the game.’ And that makes me proud for them, and thinking that we did the right thing.

So I think that’s important. And I guess I’ll have over 54 former players or graduate assistants that are in the game as coaches.”

(That’s a legacy in itself.)

“Well, I’m proud that they had the confidence when they left to feel like they could do that with a real strong conviction, and also (that) success has followed them.

“I like hearing success stories.”

* * *

An additional note: Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was at Tuesday's practice. I kidded him about coming out to scout Candace Parker for the Sparks, but he said he just liked to watch good basketball. (There's a one-liner there, folks, but it's less applicable now that his team is doing well.)

Anyway, I asked him if he knew Summitt, and he said he'd met her a couple of times but hadn't really had much opportunity to chat. A few minutes later, during a break in the practice, Summitt spotted Kupchak, came over to where he was sitting, apologized for interrupting and said, "Remember me? Montreal in 1976?"

They had both been on the Olympic teams that year. But that wasn't the point. The point was somebody who has achieved so much and become such an icon, acting absolutely unaffected. "Remember me?" Indeed.

The truly great ones never feel the need to remind you of it.

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