How Summitt reached the top

Dan Wetzel

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt picked up career victory No. 1,000 Thursday when her Lady Vols routed Georgia 73-43.

Last week, speaking on the telephone, she couldn't recall victory No. 1. Until a staffer went and looked it up for her, she wasn't sure of the opponent (Middle Tennessee State), the date (Jan. 10, 1975) or the final score (69-32).

She could remember a great deal about her first loss, however. That was to Mercer, 84-83, and like many of her 187 defeats it "still sticks in my stomach."

What else would you expect from a woman whose drive, intensity and competitiveness have given her an unheard of 1,000 career victories and an .842 winning percentage?

"It's an amazing number, is it?" she said.

The thing she recalled most vividly about that first loss was calling her father, Richard, after the game.

She was 22 years old and uncertain about this coaching thing. He was a Tennessee dairy farmer who didn't take kindly to losing.

"He was a very stern, very competitive man," Summitt said Tuesday from her office. "I was scared to call home. Mom answered and she never even asked about the game. She probably forgot we were playing.

"I said, 'Mom, is Dad there?'

"He picked up the phone and said, 'All right.' I never heard him say hello. He said, 'Did you win?'

" 'No sir.'

"There was a long pause. I mean a looong pause. I was nervous. And finally he said, 'Well, you need to learn one thing. You don't take a donkey to the Kentucky Derby.' "

She laughed at the retelling.

"He was telling me you better get yourself some players," she said. "And let me tell you something; he was right about that."

Summitt, 56, said she never has been much for numbers or records or things like that. She likes NCAA championships, and the record eight she's won at UT through the years is the ultimate goal.

She's more concerned with getting the most out of her current team, which after consecutive NCAA titles is young and, by UT standards, rebuilding. The Lady Vols are 17-5.

"I was joking with [the team that] I just hope we get [the 1,000th victory] this year," Summitt laughed.

They did, and even for someone unconcerned about career numbers, Summitt can't brush off the magnitude of a cool grand.

She said she has spent more time in recent weeks looking at the pictures of all her All-Americans and the 18 NCAA Final Four teams and even some of the less decorated athletes that fought so hard for her.

"I think about all the players who wore the orange uniform and made a commitment to winning," she said.

She has spent 35 years bringing the best recruits from across the country to the edge of the Smoky Mountains, and that's the key to all these victories. She never had a team full of donkeys, she said.

That's only half the story, though. What Summitt did was set the standard for that commitment to winning, set a tone for competitiveness, toughness and passion in women's basketball that was groundbreaking at the time.

In 1974, when she was hired as essentially a volunteer coach, her players calling her "Pat" (they still do), women's basketball was little more than an extracurricular activity.

There still were a lot of people who didn't think women were capable of doing anything more athletic than fixing breakfast. A lot of high schools still played a 3-on-3 style of the game that prohibited players from running across half court for fear of overexertion.

Summitt didn't buy any of that. She grew up working that dairy farm ("cows don't take a day off.") In her spare time, she played basketball with her three older brothers who offered no mercy.

When she was coaching that first team, she also was rehabbing an injury as she prepared to play in the upcoming Olympics. If she was going all out, so too would her players.

"That was good for me because I've always demanded players play hard and compete on every possession," she said.

The philosophy of the program never has changed, and players from all over who sought that kind of environment came to play for Pat Summitt.

It may be her most important legacy. Even hard-headed fans who dismissed women's basketball couldn't ignore that when it came to Summitt, she proved that women can play, be coached and be challenged just as hard as men. The game may not be as fast or as high-flying, but it could be as tough.

Summitt didn't just make women's basketball matter both locally and in turn nationally. She changed opinions of what was possible. In practice and on that sideline, she was every bit as demanding as any men's coach. There never was anything soft or forgiving or weak about Lady Vols basketball.

In turn she found players who didn't just accept such a leadership style but flourished under it. Everything progressed from there. What didn't seem possible became so.

It rocked what some mistakenly had believed were the limitations in women's sports. It's not too much to say that Summitt's impact continues to be felt all over the spectrum – from soccer to softball to X Games to increasingly competitive college basketball.

"For me it was the only way I knew how to approach coaching," she said. "I think we surprised some people. I think they liked our intensity. I'm sure there were some good old boys who thought, 'I'm not going to watch women's basketball,' but when they saw it, they saw something they didn't expect.

"I'm glad it's changed."

Everything has changed for Summitt. What started as a way to make a couple of bucks while training for the Olympics has turned into a $1.4 million a year job, 22,000 fans in the stands and speaking engagements, books and commercials.

What began as something so small from an outside perspective never was from the inside. It always was a big deal to her.

That loss to Mercer, that call home to dad, haunted her then. Thirty-four years later, season after season of slow growth of a sport and career, it's still pushing her.

Richard passed away in 2005, but you can imagine what the phone call home after victory No. 1,000 would've entailed.

You only can imagine what Richard would say to his daughter now, and what his daughter would say right back.