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eyes of the STORM
Gary Smith
March 02, 1998
When Tennessee's whirlwind of a coach, Pat Summitt, hits you with her steely gaze, you get a dose of the intensity that has carried the Lady Vols to five NCAA titles.
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March 02, 1998

Eyes Of The Storm

When Tennessee's whirlwind of a coach, Pat Summitt, hits you with her steely gaze, you get a dose of the intensity that has carried the Lady Vols to five NCAA titles.

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At 1 a.m. the phone jangles. It's Pat, calling a 16-year-old player a half hour after giving birth to a boy. It's Pat, whose doctor has just told her that it was only because the baby's head was turned sideways in the womb that she didn't deliver him into the hands of an assistant coach at 20,000 feet.

"Congratulations!" cries Michelle. "I can't believe this! Thanks so much for calling me! Goodbye! Congratulations, Pat!"


So Michelle signs with Pat and becomes an All-America guard at Tennessee, correct?

No. When Pat pictures Michelle, she sees so much of herself—the girl who would challenge boys to races and arm-wrestling matches and tackle football. Pat can't bear to disappoint Michelle, so she tells her that she wants her very much, but she can't promise her playing time or stardom. So Michelle agonizes, Michelle flip-flops, Michelle visits Tennessee a third time, hugs Pat, kisses the new baby...and signs with Notre Dame. And waits all of two weeks into her freshman season to break NCAA rules by calling Pat to tell her she has made the biggest mistake of her life, and how unfulfilling it is to be the star of a confused and divided 1-5 team, and how she wants to transfer rightthisveryminute.

Pat reports the violation, but Michelle, stubborn as fungus, calls her again, and...well, almost everything between this lady and this girl is going to be complicated and racked with labor pains, so let's jump forward a year and a half, leap over Michelle's transfer to Tennessee and the season that, in keeping with NCAA rules, she has to sit out as penance for the switch.

It's the fall of 1993, and Michelle finally is living her dream, and here is how the dream begins: It begins with 4:30 a.m. wake-ups, with relentless wind sprints through the dark on the Tennessee track. It begins with the frightening realization that there is no excuse, none, a fact that team manager Todd Dooley learns the morning he awakens crumpled by stomach cramps and forces himself out of bed to show up at 6:30 and tries to explain to Pat why he's a half hour late, only to hear her shout, "You don't ever be late! Next time you just bring that toilet with you!"

It begins with Michelle walking into the Lady Vols' locker room complex and stopping to stare at all the framed photographs on the National Championship Wall and the White House Visits Wall and the Final Four Wall and the All-Americas and Olympians Wall. It begins with Pat reminding her, sometimes even testing her, about who it is up there on the walls, who it is she owes excellence to. It begins with Michelle knowing that Pat kicked the 1989-90 Lady Vols out of their palatial locker room for five weeks and squeezed them into a tiny visitors' dressing room. They hadn't deserved the palace. They hadn't worked hard enough.

It begins with Michelle looking over her shoulder as she dribbles in a scrimmage and wondering what in blazes this woman is doing, three feet behind her, down on one knee and squatting lower and lower as if the view at sneaker level might reveal some hidden flaw, slapping the floor with her palm at her latest find, hanging on Michelle's next decision as if life itself were riding on it, leaning right with her as she cuts and leans in for a layup, and then, daggone it, the anguish squinching Pat's cheeks and shaking her fist if Michelle misses, the disappointment even sharper than Michelle's. And the thing is, that intensity never flags, not for a day or an hour or a minute. Suddenly, in the midst of a seemingly splendid practice, Pat might shout, "Hold it! Stop! Everyone stop!" and stride toward Michelle, the way she strode one day toward forward Lisa Harrison.


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