Our Pat

Living legend" is among a sportswriter's most overused alliterative crutches, so pardon me as I pull it out of the clip file.


Tennessee is a big state, as in looooooong. There is a history as thick as blood with friction, rivalry, and partisan politics over the almost 400 miles between Memphis and Knoxville. Many local sports fans would rather have their toenails removed by hand than share a rooting interest with a Nashvillian, let alone those “hill people” in Big Orange Country. But as long as the Bluff City sits on this side of the Mighty Miss, this is one Memphian -- one Tennesseean -- who likes to claim Pat Summitt as our own.
The appreciation of a great coach requires different powers of observation than those we use to watch a top athlete in his or her prime. We, as fans, must take several steps back and view the canvas from afar; allow the subtle, individual brush strokes to blend into a larger image that, under the right hand, becomes a masterpiece. Even if its tint is distinctly orange.
“Living legend” is among a sportswriter’s most overused alliterative crutches, so pardon me as I pull it out of the clip file. The moniker fits Summitt like a pair of well-worn hightops. On January 14th, the head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols became the first women’s basketball coach to accumulate 800 career wins. (Only three men have done so, North Carolina’s Dean Smith setting the standard with 879 victories.) Summitt has won six national championships in Knoxville, second only to John Wooden’s 10 with UCLA. (The former Pat Head’s 13 trips to the Final Four are one more than the Wizard of Westwood can claim.) Considering she’s only 50 years old, my money says Summitt will be the first Division I coach to win (deep breath) 1,000 games.
In a day when loyalty in sports is measured more with a stopwatch than a calendar, Summitt’s 29 years at UT are astonishing. Hired as a graduate student to coach the Lady Vols in 1974, Summitt had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Title IX had just been implemented, opening brand new doors for female student-athletes. And UT was among the first Division I colleges to create an athletic department devoted solely to women’s sports. Backed by such an institution -- and fueled by her own competitive energy spawned as a player at UT-Martin and a 1976 Olympic silver medalist -- Summitt had the means to recruit the kind of talent that turns a basketball team into a basketball program.
Strange as it may seem now, Summitt was once seen as a coach who couldn’t win the big one. She took the Lady Vols to the Final Four three times before winning her first title in 1987. She’s since won championships she shouldn’t have (her 1996-97 team entered the NCAA tournament with 10 losses) and championships that seemed preordained (her 1997-98 squad went 39-0). She’s known disappointment, as her 1998-99 team -- with two players who would win Naismith awards as the nation’s best -- fell in the regional finals. No matter how big the win or unsettling the loss, though, Summitt has remained dignified, forthright, and Orange to the core.
“You have to understand . . . I have never lived or worked in any place but Tennessee,” wrote Summitt in her 1997 book, Reach for the Summit. “And I’ve never cared to be in much of any place but Tennessee.” This is a woman who, when she went into labor during a recruiting trip to Pennsylvania in 1990, insisted on being flown back to Tennessee so her son, Tyler, could be born in the Volunteer State. (The recruit was impressed. After matriculating at Notre Dame, Michelle Marciniak transferred to UT and was the Lady Vols’ point guard during their run to the 1996 national title.)
Another overused term for sporting greats is “pioneer.” But as women continue to gain stature in a world of sports with far too much testosterone; as the audience for women’s basketball continues to spread worldwide; as opportunities for scholarships and professional careers (in everything from women’s hockey to beach volleyball) continue to expand, the connection to Pat Summitt becomes an easy one. Your great-grandparents may tell you stories about Connie Mack and John McGraw. Your grandpa may rock on his porch touting the great George Halas. But who will you tell your grandchildren about? “There was this lady -- a legend, really -- and she sure looked good in orange.”

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