Commentary

Tyler Summitt ready to prove himself

Originally Published: April 2, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

You certainly could say Tyler Summitt comes by his maturity naturally. And Summitt himself would credit nature and nurture for putting him in position to be a Division I head coach at age 23. But Summitt also deserves credit for the choices he's made and the path he's taken.

Some will feel that he doesn't deserve a chance to take over Louisiana Tech's women's basketball program when he's still young enough to be a fifth-year senior. But it's likely that more folks are willing to at least see how he does in this job before they toss rocks at the decision. And why is that?

 Pat Summitt, Tyler Summitt
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsTyler Summitt is looking forward to being judged on his performance and not just being his mother's son.

I think it's because of the person that Tyler has shown himself to be. Yes, he's chronologically very young. But if there's ever been a 23-going-on-35-year-old -- in a good way -- it's Tyler Summitt.

He's often said the most important lesson his mother, Tennessee basketball coaching icon Pat Summitt, taught him was the value of relationships. The respect for Pat is so gargantuan in part because it is felt so universally: by the people closest to her, and by those whom she might have talked to for two minutes 30 years ago. Pat's trademark was taking that extra second to make eye contact, to give those she encountered that moment when they were her focus.

The child whose impending birth interrupted one of his mom's high-profile recruiting visits back in 1990 might have grown up to be a lot of things: self-absorbed, spoiled, arrogant, rude, or even resentful that he will always be "Pat's son."

But he's not like that, and both his mother and father, R.B. Summitt, deserve kudos for how Tyler was raised. But along the way, Tyler had many choices to make, too. When he decided coaching would be his profession, obviously he knew that meant guaranteeing a lifetime of comparison to one of the most legendary figures in American sports.

How many kids could deal with that, or would even want to do so? Tyler took this road, though, because it didn't intimidate him. Talking to him, you can see he has a good sense of himself and who he is, independent of his genetics. Yet at the same time, he is intensely proud of his heritage, too, so he never appears to be irritated at the ubiquitous mentions of the revered figure who, to him, is mom.

All that said, we return to this: Is he ready to be a Division I head coach? When he was hired as an assistant at Marquette in 2012, Golden Eagles head coach Terri Mitchell told me she expected he'd have his own program very soon. She thought he was on a fast track that was, essentially, second nature to him.

That was actually the case even prior to the heartbreaking news of Pat's illness, when she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia in 2011. Tyler already was a mature young person before that. But the need to step into the spotlight and be even more grown-up was something he accepted with steely resolve, despite his own inner fears and pain in regard to his mom's health.

Did Tyler get this Louisiana Tech opportunity in part because his last name has such cache? Obviously it factors in, but that alone wouldn't make any difference if there was no substance to Tyler himself.

Louisiana Tech was looking for a "headline-making" hire, just as Arkansas was when it picked longtime broadcaster and long-time-ago coach Jimmy Dykes. Not everyone will think these are good risks. There is some resentment about these hires in the women's basketball coaching world, especially from those who feel they've paid more dues and haven't gotten such breaks. I wouldn't chastise anyone in the coaching profession who was, initially, sort of ticked off. All people really don't get equal opportunities, and it's human nature to grouse about that.

Ultimately, though, both will be judged on their performances. And in Tyler's case, while no one questions his commitment to the women's game -- he's been immersed in it literally since birth -- the age thing will be what prompts doubts.

Certainly, he knew all this when he pursued the job. He knew the parallels people would make to his mother taking over at Tennessee when she was 22. He knew his skin would need to be thick.

[+] Enlarge Jimmy Dykes
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesArkansas alum Jimmy Dykes was announced as the new head coach of the team after spending the last 20 years calling games for ESPN.

But, again, because of the relationships he's developed, I think people are rooting for Tyler and are intrigued by what he might be able to do.

He has his work cut out for him. Tyler will replace former Lady Techster star Teresa Weatherspoon, who was 99-71 in five full seasons and part of another as head coach. She was let go in mid-March after a 12-20 season in which Louisiana Tech was 5-11 in Conference USA.There was a time when Tennessee and Louisiana Tech were huge rivals in women's basketball, because both were so good. They met twice, in 1987 and 1998, for the national championship.

Louisiana Tech made the Women's Final Four in 1990 when it was in Knoxville, Tenn., and Tennessee had been upset in the Elite Eight. Tyler was there, too, in a manner of speaking: Pat was pregnant with him, and he would be born in September.

But Louisiana Tech is not what it used to be even a decade ago in women's basketball, and far from what it was two decades ago and before. In 1994, it took a miracle 3-pointer from North Carolina to keep the Lady Techsters from the national championship. Now, Louisiana Tech is no longer a team even talked about in regard to NCAA titles.

Can it ever go back to what it was? It seems unlikely, because women's basketball and college athletics in general are so different now. (And there are Louisiana Tech backers who'll forever lament the school not reaching an agreement with longtime assistant Kim Mulkey, prompting her to take over at Baylor in 2000).

But Tyler shouldn't be measured against Louisiana Tech's dynasty years. Too much water under the bridge. Instead, he should be evaluated by standards that are more realistic for a Conference USA team at this stage in women's basketball's development. It's a 16-team league that managed to get one school -- Middle Tennessee -- into the NCAA tournament, even though the likes of Southern Miss and UTEP were also good teams.

Yes, it's a lot for Tyler Summitt to take on, and he will face more scrutiny than almost anyone else who would have been named Louisiana Tech's new coach. But if observers are willing to give him a chance, it's not just because of the way they feel about his mother. It's also because of how they feel about him.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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