Commentary

35 years later, Summitt still going strong

Originally Published: January 31, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Time seems to slow watching a freight train chug through Knoxville. As it passes almost into the shadow of the Sunsphere, the gold-topped landmark constructed to celebrate the 1982 World's Fair, neither the train nor the city tucked in the folds of the surrounding hills seems in any rush to find the future.

It's only upon closer inspection that the city speeds up and comes to life, most notably where the state university climbs from the banks of the Tennessee River. There, century-old academic buildings and the towering grandeur of Neyland Stadium mix with the newest of new, like Pratt Pavilion, the state-of-the-art basketball practice facility that sits next to Thompson-Boling Arena.

I'll do this as long as I go to practice and am excited about practice. Most people get excited about games, but I've got to be excited about practice, because that's my classroom. And as long as I have that feeling in my head and my heart, then I'm going to do it. When I walk in there and I'm practicing, and I'm thinking, 'I don't want to be here,' then I'm not going to cheat anybody. I'll tell the university in a heartbeat that I'm done.

-- Pat Summitt on her coaching longevity

This is the world Pat Summitt quite literally inhabits as she becomes the first coach in college basketball history to win 1,000 games. And it's a place where basketball has changed little since shortly after a 21-year-old Summitt received a letter from Helen Watson, chair of the department of physical education at Tennessee, asking her to take the coaching position. That was years before the Sunsphere graced the city's skyline.

Summitt's classroom might have changed since then, from whichever physical education building was available on a given day to a sparkling showpiece like Pratt, but she still considers herself a teacher first. She instructs both the game and the discipline she learned on her father's tobacco farm.

So asked how the 24-year-old version of herself, months removed from playing for the United States in the 1976 Olympics and beginning her third season as Tennessee's coach, would fare if handed the reins of this season's youthful Lady Volunteers, Summitt paused to ponder for a moment and eventually concluded things probably wouldn't be that different in the present.

"I know that this freshman class all chose to come here because they wanted to play at Tennessee, but they also wanted to be coached by Pat Summitt," she said in an interview a few days before Christmas. "And I respect them for it. But at the same time, when I go in, I feel like I'm just as demanding now as I was back then. I don't think I've changed that much. It's just that I think maybe how the student-athletes perceived me back then versus now would be different."

Becoming the first basketball coach in men's or women's NCAA history to need a fourth column in her win total might have seemed a more appropriate coda last season, when the Lady Vols won their second consecutive championship and the program's eighth overall. But achieving it this season is more representative of her career. After all, while no coach in women's basketball owns more championships than Summitt, she has still fallen short of that goal 25 times in 33 tries.

Pat Summitt
AP Photo/Susan Walsh Pat Summitt ranks No. 1 on the Division I men's and women's all-time wins list -- and needs just one more to reach 1,000 in her career.

And it's what was taught in those seasons that laid the foundation for the successes to come, as might ultimately prove true of the current season as well.

"This is without a doubt one of the youngest teams we've ever put on the floor," Summitt said of a team with only one senior. "I think it's a new challenge for me personally and professionally. With the coaching staff, I think it's important we have a combination of patience and persistence, because it takes time. It takes time to blend all these young players together, to get them to really understand and commit to how we do things here, on and off the court.

"There's a lot of learning; there's a lot of growing pains. So I feel as though every day when I step over the line, I feel like I've got to not only teach but reteach. And that's not a bad thing. It's actually been somewhat of a breath of fresh air, to feel like this team really needs us as a coaching staff."

And yet the very scene in which the coach imparts the same lessons to Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen that Candace Parker, Tamika Catchings, Bridgette Gordon and Holly Warlick received is evidence of how things change. That the scene unfolds inside Pratt is proof that even Tennessee can't rely simply on its coach or its brand recognition anymore.

It's ironic that the team's first two losses this season came against Virginia and Texas, two programs that frequently played the younger sibling to the Lady Vols in earlier years. It's no longer just a handful of familiar names that challenge Tennessee or Connecticut. Now it's Auburn, Baylor, California and an alphabet's worth of programs stocked from an ever-expanding pool of talent.

That increased competition is how the game evolves. But with it also comes greater pressure and greater temptation to take shortcuts. Summitt is sailing into uncharted waters when it comes to coaching victories, but it's the unfamiliar landscape she confronts elsewhere that is of more consequence for the present and future.

"I know coaches feel more pressure now than ever before," Summitt said. "I hope that no one is going to compromise because of it in the recruiting. I have seen more of it. … The men have had recruiting battles that were very intense and tough, and there's been a lot of recruiting violations, and we've seen some of that now in the women's game. It's not good; it's not good for our game. I think we should all want to have the integrity and do it the right way. But as it gets more and more competitive, that hasn't always been the case."

The only instance in which the coach contemplated the conclusion of her own story was after the 1984 Olympics, when she coached the United States to a gold medal. Her father wanted her to retire, and if she didn't share the sentiment, the wear of Olympic pressure and a tough, 22-10 college campaign the following season left her wondering if she really wanted to take on the challenge anymore.

Two years later, she had her first NCAA championship, and 24 seasons after she came to that crossroads, she still hasn't revisited the debate.

"That's really the last time I thought much about it, until people like you keep asking," Summitt said. "I told [Tennessee women's athletic director] Joan Cronan I'll do this as long as I go to practice and am excited about practice. Most people get excited about games, but I've got to be excited about practice, because that's my classroom. And as long as I have that feeling in my head and my heart, then I'm going to do it. When I walk in there and I'm practicing, and I'm thinking, 'I don't want to be here,' then I'm not going to cheat anybody. I'll tell the university in a heartbeat that I'm done."

But she can't sequester herself in her own classroom, and a game in which gray trumps orange in recruiting is one she admitted could potentially accelerate her disengagement.

"I hope not, but I have thought about it in the last few years," Summitt said of external factors. "I've really thought about it; I've thought long and hard about it because I've seen it happen. It's happened in the recruiting circles and we've been involved in situations where, you know, it's bothered me a lot. I think that's a wait-and-see."

For the time being, lore keeps piling up almost as quickly as wins. While taping a television interview before her team faced Stanford in December, there was a knock at the door of the lounge in Pratt that was doubling as a studio for the occasion. In walked Lane Kiffin, the new Tennessee football coach, who just wanted to introduce himself.

The big-name, big-money football coach seeking out the women's basketball coach. Just another typical day in the world of SEC sports, right?

Reaching the Summitt

Pat Summitt became the first coach in women's and men's Division I history to win 1,000 games.

Most Career Coaching Wins
Coach Last Team Years W-L
Pat Summitt Tennessee 35 1,000-187
Bob Knight Texas Tech 42 902-371
Jody Conradt Texas 38 900-309
Dean Smith North Carolina 36 879-254
Adolph Rupp Kentucky 41 876-190

It was in Summitt's world. She chatted with Kiffin for a few minutes and then got back to her interview -- after all, she needed to get away in time to fire up the kitchen in time to feed the legion of family and friends descending on her home for the holidays.

Maybe it's Rocky Top warping space that makes time seem to run slower in this corner of the world, but run it eventually does. And the change in women's basketball, and women's sports, that Summitt helped create touches Knoxville, bringing better players and more attention right along with bigger headaches.

What has made Summitt special isn't her ability to change with the times or live by the ethics of times gone by. What has guided her to a coaching milestone never before reached is an ability to live outside the confines of the times. Eventually, inevitably, that will cease to be the case, whether 50 wins from now or 500 wins from now.

And she'll go, because it's time.

One thing that's certain is that it didn't take 1,000 wins for us to know we'll never see another like her when she does.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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