Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Just call her Pat

   In midday Aug. 22 last year, son-in-law -- Russell Smith, who is a sports talk show director/co-host in Knoxville -- sent me a text message:
     Pat Summitt has Alzheimer's.
     Stunning news. Devastating.
     Later that day, Pat made the televised announcement explaining the diagnosis she had received after a visit to the Mayo Clinic -- early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
     Certainly you know the story, and you know that Pat is still coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols' basketball team, as she has been for 38 seasons. But you have to know -- and this is just a guess -- that things are much different around the Lady Vols' program.
     I would also guess -- and again I have no knowledge of the situation -- that she won't be coaching much longer, perhaps not even past this season. At age 59, she might not be ready to step away -- and surely no one wants her to.
     I don't know Pat Summitt, only met her a couple of times -- once at the 1995 Florida state high school girls basketball tournament that I covered (for Associated Press) in Lakeland (she was recruiting); once when Louisiana Tech came to play in Knoxville and she was visiting with Tech coach Leon Barmore, my friend from when he played at Tech in the mid-1960s.
     But I know this: Leon thinks the world of her. And Pat and her teams kept Leon and Louisiana Tech from at least doubling Tech's three national women's basketball championships.
      Leon thinks she's an outstanding coach; he doesn't think that of many of the people he faced in his time as a Hall of Fame coach (several Halls of Fame, in fact). He had as much success against her as any coach (other than maybe UConn's Geno Auriemma), but her relationship with Leon is a thousand times better than hers with Geno.
      Yes, she's known for her demanding ways and rock-hard discipline with her players, her steely will for her teams to succeed. But Leon also will tell you that she's warm and gracious and family-oriented. She's sat in Leon's home and had his twin granddaughters in her lap.
      Her son, Tyler, is the center of her world; every Lady Vols fan has seen Tyler helping Pat cut down the nets since he was a little boy. He's 22 now, and he's the one most bearing the weight of Pat's present-day existence.
      While her on-court presence is that stern, serious one, she's never -- as far as I know -- treated the media with anything but respect. And just think of how many great coaches you know that can be testy or short -- or flat-out demeaning -- with the media.     
     And I know from my six years living in Knoxville how strong Pat is in the community. Her influence carries far beyond basketball. She's been out front for all kinds of causes, a true ambassador for her state, city, school -- and nation.
      The basketball numbers are astounding: 1,092 victories -- most ever in major college basketball; only 207 losses (an 84.1 winning percentage); 31 combined SEC titles (regular season and tournaments); 22 Final Fours; 8 national titles.
      An all-time home record of 353-23 (.939); a 100 percent graduation rate for the players who completed their eligibility; since 1976, every Lady Vol has played in a Final Four.
      That last fact is in jeopardy. This team, which with a 21-8 record isn't anywhere near one of Pat's best teams, must make the Final Four to continue that tradition. Don't be surprised if it happens.
     And don't be surprised if this weekend the Lady Vols again win the SEC tournament. They are the No. 2 seed, but they lost by only one point on the floor of the No. 1 seed (Kentucky) and they won by 37 in a rematch in Knoxville.
       Honestly, I've never pulled for the Lady Vols. I was partial to the Lady Techsters or LSU and now it's Baylor, where ex-Lady Techsters star and assistant coach Kim Mulkey has built a powerhouse. But how can you not have anything but respect for Pat Summitt?
       Her players simply call her Pat.      
        I call her the greatest coach in the history of college athletics.
       To take a program from scratch -- she was paid $8,900 a year when she started in 1974 and now makes millions -- in a sport which had no following -- the Lady Vols now routinely draw 19,000 or so a game at home -- and to so consistently dominate nationally, to win so much ... she's the best ever. Only John McDonnell, in track and field and cross country at Arkansas (42 national titles), comes close in my mind.
      Not Bear Bryant, not Joe Paterno, not Eddie Robinson. Not even John Wooden.
     Some would say she is women's basketball's John Wooden. I say John Wooden was men's basketball's Pat Summitt.
      She is a national treasure, the gold standard of her sport, and it always will be that way.


  1. From Brenda Chastain: Beautiful story about a beautiful woman. She took life on and lived it to the fullest, taken so early, what a loss, but what a gift to us all. She fought such a brave battle at the same time teaching us all how important life really is.

  2. From Joe Reding: My daughter met her years ago and got to spend some time with her. Kathy was the manager of the sports bar at The Embassy Suites in Little Rock. The Lady Vols were in town and they were staying there. Pat came in there looking for the use of multiple TVs and numerous channels. It was a typical sports bar and they had giant TVs all over the place and could get just about anything on them you wanted. Said she wanted to watch some basketball. Kathy spent several hours with her and said she was a real down-to-earth classy lady.

  3. From Jim Pruett: Really good blog. Pat was something else ... Alzheimer's is all around us in our Memphis friend set, an almost dehumanizing disease that tears at families.

  4. From Al Miller: She was a winner in all aspects. Had a devastating disease that no one has won against.