Photo By Kelly Kline
Photo By Kelly Kline

"The stare" may have been Summitt's trademark, but it did not define her true personality

Staff Writer
April 19, 2012 - 6:16am

PAT SUMMIT PHOTO GALLERY - For those not close to the Tennessee program, the question over the years has come in repetitive fashion from those TV viewers, be they coaches, fans, reporters not involved with women’s coverage: “What’s she really like in person?

“She looks like she is really mean with that stare. She must be really tough to deal with.”

But when it comes to Pat Summitt, the longtime Hall-of-Fame coach who has set a gazillion records in her 38-year career which concluded Wednesday with the announcement that she will become Head Coach Emeritus at Tennessee, nothing could be further then the truth.

Summitt has become an American icon in the world of sports, which is appropriate considering she celebrates the date of her arrival on the planet on June 14, also known as Flag Day.

The U.S. government knows a patriot when they see one, even an individual coaching women’s basketball from the deep South.

After the deadly attacks on the Twin Towers on Sept. 9, 2011, as well as on the Pentagon across from the nation’s capital and aboard the flight whose passengers rebelled to bring it down in a Western Pennsylvania farm field and avoid a crash into the seat of Congress, it was Summitt soon thereafter the government invited to give a lecture at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. They had her return several times later to speak some more.

With the move to her new position and being able to see her former player and associate head coach Holly Warlick succeed her on the sidelines guiding the Lady Vols, Summitt will still be in position to wield influence on the success of Tennessee and the sport itself, even as she continues her courageous battle against early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, a condition she publicly revealed in late August before what became her final season with the title head coach got under way.

It was perhaps the best move Tennessee could make at this time because to bring in an outsider, and go against Summitt’s wishes, would have been disruptive and had the makings of being more harmful to the Lady Vols’ immediate future than attempting to establish legacy in Knoxville in a post-Summitt world.

“Pat has done this her way and on her terms,” said former Virginia women’s coach Debbie Ryan, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer whose own battle against pancreatic cancer has made her another profile in courage.

“She has always been a kind, giving person and her selfless move to step aside is evidence of her unconditional love for the Lady Vols.”

2007 national championship game vs Rutgers. (Photo by Kelly Kline)

On the court, no doubt Summitt was the fiercest of competitors in terms of winning, game preparation and recruiting.

But she also has always had growth of the game a prime interest because what was good for the sport was good for the Lady Vols, and not the other way around, though those who have had to compete regularly against her program might tell you otherwise.

“When you have a passion and you can pursue your passion in your job, that is what we all aspire to do,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said. “She is a role model for those of us who love to compete every day and in doing so we are able to aspire to be like her.”

From this vantage point, considering the working writer-coach relationship goes back to soon after Summitt's hire at Tennessee, if she didn’t care about the game she wouldn’t have taken the time to have all those phone conversations in the early 1980s trying to ascertain exactly all the pros and cons for schools moving into the NCAA and away from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

Considering the plentiful resources of the NCAA at that time, she warmed most to the concept that the athlete would be the initial beneficiary in terms of marketing and promoting achievement.

When what became the Associated Press women‘s poll was launched at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1976, Summitt was not among the voting panel of coaches the first couple of seasons.  (The AP poll switched to writers as voters in 1994-95).

But then she asked to join the group –- not because she thought it would be a shortcut to bettering Tennessee’s situation in the rankings (and besides, the Lady Vols took care of all that most nights themselves on the scoreboards) –- but because given the lack of media coverage back then, participating on the weekly phone calls was a chance to get a better handle as to who was who among teams elsewhere in the nation beyond Tennessee’s southern rivals.

Speaking of polls, though Tennessee’s AP ranking records as a team will continue under Warlick, the Summitt numbers in ranking history may be unbeatable.

The Lady Vols have missed just 14 of 632 polls through the end of last season as Summitt leads the coaches' list with 618 appearances.

Tennessee didn’t appear in the first-ever poll, missed a three-week stint several seasons later, and missed 10 weeks during the mid-1980s before landing in every poll since.

Though Georgia’s Andy Landers will move to the top of the active list entering at 479 poll appearances, assuming the AP season-range continues to hover at 19 weeks from preseason to final poll, which could actually be less, the fastest he could catch Summitt on the all-time list would be for the Bulldogs to be in every poll for the next seven years through 2019.

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, third on the all-time list at 426, would need to appear wire-to-wire for more than then next 10 seasons as would Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer, who weighs in with 407 poll appearances.

Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, who is the next active coach but sixth on the all-time list at 386, would need to go wire-to-wire for more than 12 years, beyond 2024.

There was no question that Tennessee postgame press conferences, especially at tournament time, were less than enthralling when players appeared until the mid-1990s.

The Knoxville media who had an ongoing day-to-day relationship because of the proximity to the program might have had a different experience than the outsiders.

It was apparent that Summitt had everyone regimented as to what to say.

It was kind of humorous in 1991 after the Vols got their revenge on Virginia in the NCAA title game to hear the Tennessee take on what the Cavaliers had done to them the previous season.

Dawn Staley and company upset the Lady Vols in the region title game, denying them a chance to play for the NCAA title in the Women’s Final Four on their own court in the relatively new Thompson-Boling Arena.   

What was conveniently left out of the dialogue was that Tennessee shot itself in the foot by misfiring on the foul line down the stretch, thereby enabling Virginia to get into overtime and shock Summitt’s troops.

In the mid-1990s there seemed to be more levity in Knoxville, in part because of the arrival of Michelle “Spinderella” Marciniak, a transfer from Notre Dame out of Allentown, Pa., about 60 miles north of Philadelphia.

Marciniak was a sort of free-spirit but her worth on the court seemed to cause Summitt to lighten the reins and allow some personality to seep through the squad.

Besides, consider that by this point, one Geno Auriemma coaching Connecticut to wins over Tennessee with a glib, quip-a-minute was drawing the media away from fawning over the Lady Vols’ longtime record of success, it didn’t hurt to have someone capable of providing levity from the uniforms in Orange.

This writer can also tell you that upon being inducted to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville in 2007, Summitt threw a party at her estate the night before the official activities of the weekend got under way.

At the time, this writer’s family had scant idea who Summitt was –- The Inquirer wasn’t the only place for a long time where an identity problem existed –- but upon arriving direct from the airport, Summitt so entertained them throughout the rest of the weekend, that they returned home singing her praises.

“Pat is the down home country girl who always offered you a place to stay and a hot home-cooked meal if you were just passing through,” Virginia’s Ryan said. “Pat is simply the best and gave everyone of us an incredible gift that will live on forever.”