Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Summitt's trek at Tennessee nears the pinnacle: 1,000 wins

When Pat Summitt became women's basketball coach at Tennessee in 1974, she was 22 and Title IX was 2.

Not that she had a clue the legislation and her career would help revolutionize women's sports.

Nor did she have designs on collecting NCAA titles. The NCAA was seven years away from taking control of women's sports from the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

Nor did she have any notion of getting rich.

Her concerns were basic: "I was trying to figure out how to organize a practice."

The coach with eight NCAA titles, the best drawing team in the country and a million-dollar salary is on the verge of a unique milestone — 1,000 wins — which could come as early as Feb. 2. No Division I college basketball coach has won as many games.

"It wasn't like I had this grand vision: This is where we're going," says the coach who used to drive the van to away games and now charters jets. "I never thought I'd coach 1,000 games."

The scary thought is how many games Summitt, 56 and in apparently good health, will win before retiring.

"No one will do what she has done," says Tennessee women's athletic director Joan Cronan. "No one will be a head coach that young anymore."

Or will be likely to win as often or stay as long at a school.

Leon Barmore, a Hall of Fame coach for his work at Louisiana Tech and now an assistant at Baylor, equates Summitt to men's coach John Wooden, who won 10 titles at UCLA.

"She's the best of our game. There's nothing in the game she can't do. She can administrate, coach x's and o's and motivate."

And not just players. "I've said it before: she made my career," Barmore says. "Me playing against Pat Summitt, she gave me that person and program that made me reach deeper than I ever thought I could reach, if I was going to play them. I really compliment that now."

Finally winning the big one

There was a time when Summitt and Tennessee had the reputation of not being able to win the big game. Before the first title in 1987, Summitt had been to seven Final Fours — four AIAW and three NCAA — and three title games without a championship.

"Always the bridesmaid but never the bride," she says.

She figured changes were needed including better players and more enlightened tactics such as more rest late in the season. The better players came via Mickie DeMoss, lured from Auburn to work her recruiting magic for the Lady Vols, but not before asking Summitt, "Will you know what to do, if I get the players here?"

In the summer of 1986, Summitt instructed DeMoss to land Tonya Edwards, who led Tennessee to titles in 1987 and '89.

The Lady Vols have won when favored and when discounted as in 1997 with a 10-loss team, the most ever by a champion. In the title game, Tennessee took a 68-59 win against Old Dominion, which had beaten the Lady Vols 83-72 in the regular season. The biggest win in the run may have been 91-81 in the regional final against Connecticut, which had beaten the Lady Vols 72-57 in the regular season.

"That (title) stands out," Summitt says. "Everybody beat us that year."

The unlikely title was chronicled by an HBO documentary, A Cinderella Season, which opened in the locker room after the ODU loss, with players crying and kicking over trash cans in frustration.

"They were at the end of their rope and I was, too," Summitt says. "I was like 'Pull it together.' That emotion allowed me to see how much (losing) hurt them. It always hurts coaches. That day it hurt our team."

Abby Conklin, a starter on the '96 and '97 title teams, called her four seasons under Summitt "the hardest thing I ever did but also the most rewarding." She went to Tennessee in part because she wanted to coach but had a rocky relationship with Summitt, who once threw a cup of water at her, and left without resolving matters, which she hopes to rectify.

An assistant coach and grad student at San Francisco, she had to write a report on a transformational leader. She chose Summitt.

After the heavily favored 1999 team lost to Duke in a regional final, there were times it appeared the team would not win another title. "The eight-year drought," as Summitt calls it.

Then came Candace Parker, who led the team to titles the last two years. "They're all special," Summitt says.

Never afraid of the big game

Growing up on a farm in Henrietta, Tenn., Summitt was expected to chop tobacco, bale hay, milk cows and fix tractors like her three older brothers. She learned basketball in two-on-two games with them on the court her father built in the hayloft of a barn.

The cutthroat contests helped prepare Summitt as a player who started on the 1976 Olympic team that won a silver medal. She overcame a torn anterior cruciate ligament when sports medicine wasn't as advanced as it is now.

Coming from hard work, Summitt prepares her team similarly.

"Tennessee wins because, in the end, our players feel they have worked too hard not to," she wrote in her 1998 book, Reach for the Summit.

Tennessee consistently plays the toughest schedule in the country. Over the years, nearly half Summitt's games have come against ranked teams. The idea is to prepare the team for the NCAA tournament.

"It's something to admire that she has the courage every year not only to challenge her team but herself and her staff," says retired Auburn coach Joe Ciampi. "It's obvious not many of us have ever tried to schedule that way. Maybe two or three shots (per season) but not the whole schedule."

The schedule also promotes the women's game — no big-time coach is as accessible to the news media as Summitt — even if the timing of some games is disadvantageous to Tennessee. In 1995, Summitt agreed to Tennessee's first game against then-emerging power Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., though her team was coming off a tough game at Auburn.

ESPN programming executive Carol Stiff, who arranged the matchup, recalls Summitt's post-game comment to her, the coach exasperated after the loss but understanding the bigger picture: "For the good of the game."

Understanding the times, her players

Summitt still kicks players out of practice or revokes locker room privileges. Her glare still can peel the paint off the rim. But, in part because of NCAA rules, practices right after a road trip are unlikely.

"It used to be: my way or the highway," says assistant coach Holly Warlick, Summitt's point guard from 1977-80 and an assistant for the last 24 seasons. "Now she says you pick and choose battles. It's a different way of motivating today's kid. She's adjusted to it. Her work ethic, intensity and those things are still the same."

Summitt's confrontations now are informed challenges. Tennessee players take personality tests and meet with a sports psychologist so Summitt knows what buttons to push. "We didn't take any personality tests," says Warlick, one of the 70 former Summitt players, assistants or managers who have gone into coaching.

Summitt wants every edge, psychological, physical or tactical.

"The work never ends. … We are constantly trying to be more thorough, more fit, more knowledgeable," she wrote in Reaching for the Summit.

In the offseason, she and her staff typically embark on professional improvement quests such as meeting with NBA coaches Phil Jackson and Tex Winter about the triangle offense, Villanova coach Harry Perretta about his spread offense or retired Auburn coach Joe Ciampi about his matchup zone defense.

"This game is so over-coached and under-taught," Ciampi says. "What she doesn't get enough credit for is the great teacher that she is. It's a step-by-step method for you to grow in their program."

Asked which she prefers, games or practices, Summitt answers with a smile: "Practice. I love practice. That's my favorite time of the day. If you said, 'What keeps you in coaching?' I just love teaching. (The gym's) my classroom."


11: Countries in which Pat Summitt's teams have played

13: Southeastern Conference regular-season titles in 27 years

14: SEC tournament titles

18: NCAA Final Fours

27-for-27: Tennessee's run in reaching the NCAA Sweet 16

40: States in which Summitt's teams have played

46.7: Percentage of teams played that were ranked

70: The number of coaches from preps to the pros who played for, coached under or managed for Summitt

400-153: Record against ranked teams

453-44: Record in Knoxville

998-186: Overall record

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