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As Pat Summitt grew up, her father and brothers would sit at the table, wordlessly rattling the ice in their empty glasses until some lady in the house refilled them with tea. No amount of respect for her father could snuff out how wrong Trish Head knew that to be. "That scene is the Rosetta Stone to understanding her," says Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, who collaborated on the books Reach for the Summit and Raise the Roof, which provide Summitt's voice in this story now that she no longer grants one-on-one interviews. "She'll tell you she's not a feminist. I've told her, 'So, you're a subversive.' That's more or less it."
With Summitt's unblinking mien, tailored suits, CEO's command and her rhetoric of work and sacrifice and discipline, men don't need subtitles to understand her. Women's collegiate sports have had plenty of male coaches who set themselves up as gurus, but in the end it took a woman like Summitt—with a how-dare-you-give-me-anything-less-than-your-best attitude—to regard female athletes not as some alien species, as North Carolina soccer coach Anson Dorrance has sometimes done, or as subservient Angels to his Charlie, as UConn's Auriemma has sometimes done. "It's not so much going out and changing the minds of men," says Tyler Summitt, whose AAU team was coached by his mom during the summer of 2006. "It's empowering women to do whatever they want to do."
But the men notice. The football staff has brought its recruits to meet her. "She's successful because she outworks everybody," says Mickey Dearstone, the Lady Vols' radio broadcaster. "We had a football coach who won a national championship and got lazy, and it cost him his job."
When Joan Cronan, Tennessee's women's athletic director, finds herself seated next to a businessman on a plane and chit-chat turns to work, the man always seems to have a question along the lines of, Does she stare at you the way she stares at her players? "Then of course the next thing he'll say is 'I have a daughter or granddaughter who plays this or that,' and that's how I know Title IX is working," Cronan says of the law guaranteeing equitable opportunity in institutions receiving federal funds, which turns 40 next year. "When dads as well as moms are advocating for daughters as well as sons, I'd say it's working. And Tennessee said yes to women's sports before it was cool."
Summitt led that effort, beginning with a crusade against six-on-six, a popular but patronizing version of high school basketball—three on offense, three on defense—that seemed to imply that a young woman would turn barren if she crossed half-court. Six-on-six disadvantaged girls in states like Tennessee that still played it. At the beginning of Summitt's second season, the Lady Vols' starting center had never taken a shot in competition, and Summitt soon realized that in-state recruits would be worthless as long as six-on-six survived.
She and her team suffered their own indignities, from having to sell doughnuts to pay for new uniforms, to chasing guys playing pickup off the floor of Alumni Gym so home games could start on time. As late as 1979, when the women's prelim to the men's game in Baton Rouge went into overtime, LSU men's coach Dale Brown tried to move it to an auxiliary gym. Brown didn't get his way, but the Lady Vols and the Lady Tigers had to play the extra period with a running clock.
All the while, Summitt spoke before any audience that would hear her and enticed families and casual fans with promotions, honest effort and good manners. Attendance steadily ticked up. When Tennessee executive vice president Joe Johnson summoned her to his office one day in the late 1980s to tell her to pare back her budget, Summitt dropped a counterproposal. Lady Vols athletics to that time had been supported with student fees, which she knew couldn't possibly sustain the growth the sport was poised for. She successfully urged Johnson to look to revenue-producing men's sports for support, just as nonrevenue men's sports did. Now Tennessee's president emeritus, Johnson says, "I'll always admire Pat for saying, 'I'm not just talking about my sport, I'm talking about all women's sports.'"
In 2007, when she pulled on a cheerleading outfit and sang Rocky Top during a nationally televised men's game, she intended more than a thank you to men's coach Bruce Pearl, who had painted his chest orange for a Lady Vols game. The old junior high cheerleader showed that she wouldn't be straitjacketed by some hidebound conception of women or feminism, and that men's and women's success isn't a zero-sum relationship. "Pat's a promoter, but it's always about the program and never about her," says Dearstone. "And her entire career she's promoted women's basketball. She sealed the deal with [future Lady Vol and Wade Trophy winner] Candace Parker in Chicago years ago when Candace was a little girl and went to see the team play DePaul, and Pat took the time to sign her hat."
And to those who find the "Lady" in Lady Vols retrograde, Summitt has a reply. She thinks "girl" is retrograde, because it so often comes attached to "little" or "nice." As she puts it, "At least 'Lady' implies adulthood."
Ethnographers studying the Scots-Irish who settled in Tennessee in the 18th century describe the men as scrappers, grudge-holders and score-settlers and the women as workers. "We never take a possession off because she had to work for everything," says Vicki Baugh, a fifth-year senior on this season's team. "She was the girl in that hayloft, and it's so great to know where she came from when we're in Pratt Pavilion [a $16 million practice facility used by the men and women] and have all the resources. We have no excuses."