Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Summitt may be best college basketball coach ever

LOS ANGELES - To understand why Tennessee's Pat Summitt just may be the best college basketball coach ever, regardless of gender, you need to go beyond her record.

Past the seven national championships, more than anyone not named John Wooden. Past the 957 career victories, which happen to be 71 more than men's record-holder Bob Knight. Past her seven national Coach of the Year awards, or even her place in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

To truly understand, it's necessary to go back to the beginning.

It was 1974, and Patricia Head, 22 and an All-American player at Tennessee-Martin, was hired to coach a Tennessee women's team that, to be fair, was one step up from intramurals.

"I'd call it extramurals," Summitt recalled Tuesday at Pauley Pavilion, where the Lady Vols practiced for tonight's game against UCLA.

"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. The players didn't want to ride with me."

She laughed.

"I was kind of tough in those days," she said.

Of such humble origins are legends forged. From washing jerseys, assigning four players to a hotel room and scouting cafeterias for road trip meals, Summitt now oversees a program that draws 14,000 fans a game, flies charter on many of its road trips and is high-powered enough that even elite recruits can be tongue-tied.

"At the beginning, I couldn't even talk to her on the phone when she was recruiting me, I was so in awe of her," junior forward Candace Parker said.

Summitt's reputation is similar to that of most great coaches: demanding, detail-oriented, intense.

"When she asks for something, you gotta get it done right then ," said Vicki Baugh, a freshman forward from Sacramento. "There's no slacking in this program. Every day, every second, you have to work hard."

But Summitt has tweaked her approach, subtly, to reflect changes in the women's game and the athletes who play it.

"She's grown with the game," Parker said.

"A lot of coaches wanted to be stuck in their ways and stay (with) their same principles. She's realizing players are getting bigger and stronger and able to do more things."

Parker is the classic representation of that growth in the women's game, a sublime blend of grace and force who comes as close as any woman to having an above-the-rim game. She almost certainly will be the No. 1 pick of the WNBA draft by the Sparks if she decides to turn pro after this season.

But the changes Summitt has made aren't just about adjusting to the differences in the game.

"It's much more about what they need from me," Summitt said. "It's more about working and managing and having open communication. If the dialogue is there on a daily basis, and they understand you're challenging 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. (But) 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 and I don't have to win another basketball game to prove anything," she continued. "I love teaching, and I love this team. I love working with them."

It hasn't gotten old, and Summitt, 55, doesn't expect it to for a while. There will be more players matriculating to the pros or becoming coaches, using the principles they've learned in Knoxville to build their own programs.

In the meantime, her Vols (9-0 going into tonight's UCLA game) will remain in their sport's top tier. And that career victory total figures to reach four digits in the next couple of years.

"She's definitely one of the pioneers of the game," Parker said.

"When you play for Tennessee you play for the program, because it has so much history behind it. The players of the past still come back and still support the program, and that's what Pat Summitt has built."

It is a long way from those van rides in the Tennessee night.

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