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A Whole New Ball Game
Andrew Lawrence
April 12, 2007
Women's basketball has made enormous strides thanks in large part to a certain mother and coach in Tennessee orange
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April 12, 2007

A Whole New Ball Game

Women's basketball has made enormous strides thanks in large part to a certain mother and coach in Tennessee orange

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Tennessee women's BASKETBALL HAS COME A LONG WAY in the three decades since Title IX occasioned its existence. What began as a glorified intramural program headed by a staff of one stands today as the institution against which all others are measured. No program boasts as many victories (947), NCAA appearances (26) or national championships. In claiming an unprecedented seventh title 20 years after its first, Tennessee became the only women's basketball team to win at least one national championship in each of the last three decades and just the second Division I basketball program, male or female, to accomplish that (the North Carolina men are the other).

Still, you can't begin to fathom the enormity of the team's achievements—or how it has affected the evolution of the sport—until you've looked at things through the crystal-blue eyes of Tyler Summitt. A native Knoxvillian, Tyler, 16, was quite literally born into the Lady Volunteers tradition. (His near birth at 20,000 feet during a 1990 recruiting trip remains the stuff of Rocky Top lore.) At the time, the Lady Volunteers' dynasty was just beginning, and their coach (a fiery ex–point guard out of Tennessee-Martin) was nowhere near achieving her dizzyingly lofty goals for the program.

Rather than set aside those goals in the name of motherhood, Pat Summitt simply made being a parent and being a coach one and the same. She carried the newborn Tyler to practices and took him on his first road trip when he was 12 days old. "I can remember flying into Chicago to play Illinois," Pat says. "He was in the backseat [of the team van]. I just told the players, 'Whatever you do, don't step on him.' "

Instead, they passed him around for good luck. What resulted was an 85–52 victory in Champaign and a pregame ritual that lasted the rest of the year. By season's end Summitt and son celebrated their first championship as a team by cutting down the nets at the 1991 Final Four.

That family tradition endured for three more title runs before Tyler (who's now 5' 8") had become big enough to climb the ladder by himself this year. In a way his growing up has come to symbolize the Lady Vols' coming-of-age as a program. The same kid who once delighted in palling around with players on the team bus now studies quietly alongside them aboard the team's chartered plane. The same kid who could once go unnoticed kneading his mother's shoulders on the sideline would have trouble re-creating that moment nine years later with a woman whose myriad facial expressions—seemingly few of them gleeful—are now broadcast in HD.

In-game masseur is just one of the many odd jobs Tyler has held on the way to becoming one of the longest-tenured members of his mother's staff. (Only a handful—including associate head coach Holly Warlick, sports information director Debby Jennings and secretary Katie Wynn—have been at Pat's side longer.) Growing up, he devoured game tape the way most kids do animal crackers. By the time he was nine, he was a ready reserve on the scout team—before there were such things as male practice players (or a movement to abolish them). He is a gifted mimic, subtly catching the smallest tics of opposing players, right down to the way former Vanderbilt guard Ashley McElhiney tossed her bangs as she brought the ball up the court. (His version of her exaggerated head fake never failed to get a laugh.)

His real skill, though, became diplomacy. He might be the only person on the Lady Vols staff who can see both the coach's and the players' points of view. The players in particular would come to regard him as a trusted confidant over the years. Most conversations between Tyler and the players start with the same question: Can I tell my mom this? Each side is always wondering what the other is doing. "The players'll ask how much my mom watches tape," Tyler says. "Then my mom'll wonder what the players are up to."

When they do want her to know something, it usually falls to Tyler to play the messenger. "Sometimes they'll say, 'Your mom needs to give us a little pep talk,' " he says. "I won't tell her what to do, but I'll drop little hints."

On some matters, though, he can take a more hands-on approach—like text messaging, for instance. When Pat got a new PDA this summer, Tyler made a priority of teaching her to use it for more than merely phoning recruits. "If you're calling once a week, it's like, whatever," he told his mom. "But if you text them, they know you're thinking about 'em and you care."

And while coaching Mom has required patience ("It'll take her a good three, four minutes to write something," he jokes), it is these shared experiences among mother, son and players that serve as the foundation of Tennessee's success. Now, 16 years later, it seems that by choosing coaching and motherhood, Pat Summitt was able to teach her son things he might never have learned otherwise—like how to grow up with 71 older sisters and not play favorites. In turn, it allowed her players to see her not just as a dispenser of icy stares but also as the nurturing soul who, after berating them in practice, rushes home to fix her son a hot supper. "It's important sometimes to let them see that other side," says Pat. "They get to see me as a mom. They got to see me as a cheerleader. Who knows what's next?"

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