Summitt's impact on women's hoops exceeds 1,000-win milestone
Pat Summitt is the all-time leader in Division-I coaching wins, male or female
Summitt has played a key role in reshaping women's hoops' national perception
Summitt has captured eight titles, while presiding over a powerhouse program
This story was originally published in Feb. 2009.
Ask most women's basketball coaches to reflect on Pat Summitt's milestone of 1,000 career wins, reached Thursday night with a 73-43 win over Georgia, and I'd bet many would say the same thing Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said recently: "I've contributed way too many Ws to that 1,000."
True, Stanford has been very generous to Summitt. The two teams have met 26 times in the last 20 years, and Tennessee has won 21 times, including last April's NCAA championship game, which earned Summitt her eighth national title. But as much as Summitt has taken wins off friends and colleagues like VanDerveer, she has given back far more. More than any other individual, she has lifted women's basketball from under-funded afterthought to nationally televised prominence, setting standards for coaches' salaries, facilities, marketing and recruiting budgets, visibility, attendance, strength of schedule and level of play.
In her 35 years as Tennessee's head coach, she has been a tireless, courageous ambassador for her school -- as anyone who saw her dressed as a cheerleader and singing Rocky Top at halftime of a nationally televised Tennessee men's game two years ago might concur -- and for the women's game. As far as I know, Summitt has never refused to be miked for a televised game, and she is happy to have cameras follow her into the locker room at halftime, even when she is about to blister her team for failing to rebound or switch on defense. (As tough as she can be on her players, no station ever has to worry about her dropping an errant f-bomb.)
Many of her emissary efforts happen far from camera lights. If Summitt's schedule allows it -- when her team visits Palo Alto every other year --VanDerveer asks her to stop by and talk at the post-game Fast Break Club meeting, a gathering of the Stanford booster club. Most members would probably agree they found Pat 'scary' the first time they saw her on the visitors bench, glaring, stamping her feet and hollering at her players. "Your first thought is, 'Why would anyone want to play for her?'" says one fan. But after the game, Summitt will join the Fast Break gathering, and the Cardinal fans, stung though they might be with defeat, will melt.
Funny and self-deprecating, with an infectious laugh that's edged with seen-it-all wisdom and experience, Summitt wins the Fastbreakers over every time she visits. Three years ago, VanDerveer asked Summitt if the Fast Break Club could auction off a seat on the Tennessee bench to a Stanford fan for that year's game in Palo Alto. Not only did Summitt agree, she offered to bring the fan into the locker room at halftime and after the game. The winning bid was $5,000, handed over by Douglas Lee as an anniversary present for his wife, Kellee Noonan.
Noonan, who put aside her partisan Stanford feelings for what she called "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," made some telling observations about Summitt in the huddle that night. For one thing, Noonan probably witnessed a phenomenon that my colleague Gary Smith wrote about in his terrific 1998 SI piece about Summitt, Eyes of the Storm. Smith described an experiment a pair of Vanderbilt researchers conducted back in the '80s when they hooked up some visiting coaches to a cardiac monitor.
While Summitt's heartbeat and blood pressure were the fastest and highest of all the coaches' during the action on the court, they plummeted to the lowest of all during a timeout. "When you see Pat on TV or from the bleachers, she looks a little maniacal," Noonan told me after the game. "But on the bench she never yelled, she was never threatening. She kneeled down in front of players and gave them very specific feedback. After sitting on her bench, I have a much deeper respect for her as a coach. She gives her players everything she has. She really wants to win for them."