She was still Pat Head when we first met. I had just secured a job coaching girls basketball, of all things. It took. I did it until 2002. But this would be my first rodeo, so to speak, so I began looking around for a clinic geared toward the women's game, which was only a few years removed from six-on-six and rovers.
Pat Head of the Tennessee Lady Vols was one of the speakers at the clinic I found. I couldn't help but notice that she spoke like George Jones sang. She had a definite twang in 1979. After finishing her presentation she opened the floor for questions. I raised my hand and asked some inane question about coaching "women."
That's when I saw "the stare" for the first time. She turned her head toward me and our eyes locked and I seriously thought she would stare a hole right through me.After a few seconds her eyes softened and the corners of her mouth turned and she said. "Don't worry about coaching 'women.' Just go home and coach 'basketball.'"
I took her words to heart and in my inaugural year as a high school girls' coach the Ravenwood Academy Lady Raiders went 26-6 and lost in the semi-finals of the state tournament. I thought I was, well--Pat Head.
That was a long time ago, but over the years I have always respected Pat Head Summitt. Simply put, she is the best there has ever been at what she does, and has the record to prove it. She has won 1,071 games. That's more than Dean Smith or Adolph Rupp or Bobby Knight or anybody else that has ever coached at an NCAA school. Her teams have claimed eight NCAA Championships and that's more than anyone not named John Wooden.
In 1985 I took my Woodward Academy girls' team to Austin, Texas, to watch the NCAA Final Four, a reward for a championship season. We got an added bonus. The Georgia Lady Dogs were playing in the tournament. My girls were all decked out in red as we found our seats for the semi-finals, high above the arena floor.
Georgia's coach, Andy Landers, also one of the best to ever ply his trade, noticed the girls in red and sent a manager up to find out who we were. When he learned that there were 20 extra Georgia fans in the house he had us escorted to prime seats right behind the Georgia bench. We were victorious in the semis and Coach Landers made sure we had excellent seats for the championship game against Old Dominion. I thought Georgia was a lock to win, but we didn't.
The next year the Final Four was in Lexington, Ky. I took my team to watch the tournament again. Georgia wasn't playing this time, but Tennessee was. Most of my kids were loyal to the SEC and showed up at the semi-finals wearing orange and pulling for Tennessee. I ran into Coach Landers at the press table before the game. He smiled at me and asked where my players were. I pointed to an orange blob, high above the court in Rupp Arena. His smile vanished. "We got to get those kids out of that orange," he told me. "Pat doesn't need any more advantage."
I kind of laughed it off, but the more I thought about it, the more I understood where Andy was coming from. Tennessee was crushed that night, by Southern Cal, but I saw something I would never forget. Late in the first half the referee blew a call. His decision went against Tennessee and Pat Summitt stood at courtside, arms folded, and gave the official "the stare," the same one I had seen firsthand at the coach's clinic. The referee came over to Pat and made an off-hand comment. Then it happened. She stuck her finger in the official's face and backed him from midcourt to the baseline.
I saw Coach Summitt that summer and asked her what the unfortunate official had said to her. She laughed and said, I am not saying, but I promise you, he won't say it again. The next year Tennessee defeated Louisiana Tech to win the school's first NCAA title.
Pat Summitt announced to the world Tuesday that, at the age of 59, she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia -- the kind that is associated with Alzheimer's disease. There is no known cure. She has vowed to keep coaching as long as she can.
As soon as I heard the news I put in a call to Betty Jaynes, founder and long-time executive Director of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, and close personal friend of Pat Summitt. Betty and I go back a long time. She still had a double first name when I first knew her. Betty Jaynes said that Pat Summitt, as much as anyone else, has brought the women's game to where it is today and that she was certain that everyone involved in the game loves Pat and is pulling for her.
You won't catch me whistling "Rocky Top" or wearing orange and I am not a Tennessee fan, but I am a fan of excellence and class and that makes me a Pat Summitt fan. I'm pulling hard for her to win this battle. I bet you are, too.