We had seven trips to the Final Four and four trips to the finals before we won it all. We just kept working very hard at it. We made our own breaks. We had to really visualize ourselves that entire time getting to the top of the mountain, and we finally did.
Pat Summitt, the winningest basketball coach in NCAA Division 1 history, passed away today, June 28, 2016, at the age of 64. The head coach for the University of Tennessee Lady Vols for 38 years, she retired with a record of 1,098–208. She led the Lady Vols to eight NCAA championship titles, and they were the runners-up five other times.
Summitt was known for her stony glare on the court sidelines, but players remember her for the impact she made on their lives, education and athletic careers. In addition to her coaching record, Summitt also boasted a 100 percent graduation rate among players.
In the March/April 2003 issue of American Spirit, which Hammock publishes with our client, The Daughters of the American Revolution, writer Dennis McCafferty spoke with Summitt about her life, accomplishments and coaching philosophy. Continue reading:
How’s this for a travel itinerary? Head out to Los Angeles for a meeting, then take the red-eye to make it back home to Knoxville, Tenn., by 10 a.m. Then catch a flight later that afternoon for a business trip to West Virginia. Finally, get on yet another flight that night back to Knoxville. Climb into bed sometime around midnight.
Sound like an impossible routine? If you’re Pat Summitt, the legendary basketball coach for the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols, it’s just another day in the life. The L.A. “meeting” was actually a December match-up against the University of Southern California (which the Lady Vols won, 71–39). The “business trip” to West Virginia was a recruiting opportunity, as she caught a high school game there. During her down time this day, she relaxed—her words—long enough to whip up a great, home-cooked meatloaf meal for her family and also take part in a lively, insightful conversation with American Spirit.
It’s the kind of natural energy and drive that has vaulted Coach Summitt to the peak of her profession. On January 14, 2003, she became the first woman (and only the fourth Division 1 coach) to win 800 career games. Summitt, 50, has packed much accomplishment into her three decades at Tennessee. Her six NCAA titles rank her just below the all-time winningest coach—former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, who won 10 championships.
She has led her teams to a dozen seasons of 30-plus wins. In 1998, she and the Lady Vols achieved the ultimate, going undefeated at 39–0 to win a third consecutive national title. She also served as head coach when the U.S. women’s basketball team won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. A four-time winner of the Naismith College Coach of the Year, Coach Summitt was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and also named Naismith Coach of the Century.
Somewhere between preparing to race off to another appointment and giving a quick hello/goodbye hug to her son, Tyler, 12, Summitt discussed with American Spirit the secrets to motivating young people; the increasing opportunities for women as athletes and scholars; and how, in growing up with three brothers, making a grab for chicken at the dinner table sparked her lasting competitive fire.
You might never have become a coach if you hadn’t seriously injured your knee as a player at the University of Tennessee-Martin. How did things evolve from there?
Coaching came more by chance than anything else. I never really thought about doing it before the injury. I always thought I was going to be a teacher. I loved history. At Tennessee-Martin, I started off as a history major, and then I wanted to teach phys-ed. But then I tore up my knee and the University of Tennessee offered me the opportunity to be an assistant coach and earn my graduate degree at the same time. It as a great opportunity. Then the head coach position opened up.
Did it always feel right, that this would be your life’s vocation?
No! (Laughs) It took a long time before I realized it was the right profession for me. Don’t get me wrong, I always loved the teaching. I always loved the opportunity to go to practice every day and work with the young players. I still enjoy practices more than the games. That’s where you really get to teach and connect. That’s where you see the daily improvement in the lives of your players. That was my niche from the start.
But the other stuff took a while. It really turned around when Title 1X came along in the 1980s. It leveled the playing field for women’s sports. We were finally able to provide lots of scholarship opportunities for female athletes. That changed everything. People finally saw women’s sports as a priority, as every bit a competitive team sport as men’s athletics. The community started really supporting our program.
Yet you didn’t leave playing basketball entirely after the injury. You rehabbed the knee and earned a spot on the women’s team in Montreal, winning a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics. People always associate your greatest career moments as a coach, but where did this one rank?
It’s one of my very proudest moments. For me, it was the pinnacle of my career as a player, coming off that injury. It was a great recovery against all the odds. Back then, that kind of injury was considered a career-killer. The surgeons said, “Give up basketball.” But I came back, and was very inspired to be a part of that Olympic team. That was the first women’s basketball team in the Olympics, you know.
“There’s really no one in this profession who hasn’t tried to be the best and failed over and over again, who hasn’t questioned themselves or lost confidence. But I never thought about quitting. I knew if you fall short but put out your very best you have to recognize that and not beat yourself up over it.”
You’re obviously very competitive, as a person and professional. What is your philosophy of competition, in the purest and highest sense of the word—not winning necessarily, but just competing?
When a person really understands what it means to compete, they understand what it means to give their all. I always hated to lose. I still do. But when you step on the court, competing means doing all the things you were taught to do that lead to this moment, and doing so with great intensity. It’s trying to get our players to understand how we, as competitors, have a great deal of influence over how we perform. Those who aren’t competitors don’t focus upon getting better and better every day. But that’s what we strive to do here at our school.
I take it that growing up with three older brothers had a lot to do with being so competitive.
(Laughs) Yep, I had to compete all the time. It could have been reaching for that chicken bone on the kitchen table. Even deciding who could eat the most was part of being competitive. But, in a more serious sense, we had a mom and dad who really inspired the needed work ethic for us to successfully compete. They made sure we understood our chores and our responsibilities. We had to do these things before we could play, and that’s what we did. At the time, on a farm, we milked the cows. Then, my dad bought a grocery store, so we made sure the shelves were stocked. We pumped the gas. We walked bags of groceries out to people’s cars. We raised all of our own vegetables. My dad always said hard work never killed anyone. That stayed with me throughout my entire life.
Dealing with players and their potential, how do you know when to be like Coach Bobby Knight, the consummate disciplinarian, and when to be like Coach John Wooden, the ultimate teacher?
That’s interesting, and I do think about it. When you’re looking to be the best manager—the best leader of young people—it’s all about recognizing who the people really are. It’s not about you. It’s about them. At first as a coach, I was emotional and high-strung. It was more about what I was feeling and not what they were feeling and what they needed. As I gained more experience, and had more interaction with different kinds of personalities and types of people, I developed a better sense of how to handle them. It’s different, really, with every team. It’s different with every individual.
I have a vision about how the game should be played. But I also have a vision for every player. I have an idea of where they are and where they should be, and where the game can take them as a student athlete. I’m looking for ways to constantly improve them and raise the bar for them. There’s far more to that than their athletic skills. I want to see them communicating well on the court, and taking their talent and meshing it so that they improve the performances of others on the court with them. That’s what a great team is.
As a coach, you wear a lot of hats. You’re a role model. You’re a counselor. You’re a psychologist. You’re a disciplinarian. Sometimes, you have to be a friend, to help them with life issues. But the important thing is to keep your door open. You’re there to help them, not just as players. I was fortunate that I always had coaches who cared about me, as a person with feelings. That meant a great deal to me, and I try to model that myself to this day.”
“At first as a coach, I was emotional and high-strung. It was more about what I was feeling and not what they were feeling and what they needed. As I gained more experience, and had more interaction with different kinds of personalities and types of people, I developed a better sense of how to handle them. It’s different, really, with every team. It’s different with every individual.”
In retrospect now, people associate you with only success and routine national championships. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, your road to the first one was almost Sisyphean—you kept getting so close, but not claiming the prize.
That’s true. The interesting thing is how little people know about me and our program. It took a long time to cut down that net. We had seven trips to the Final Four and four trips to the finals before we won it all. We just kept working very hard at it. We made our own breaks. We had to really visualize ourselves that entire time getting to the top of the mountain, and we finally did.
But don’t get me wrong: There’s really no one in this profession who hasn’t tried to be the best and failed over and over again, who hasn’t questioned themselves or lost confidence. But I never thought about quitting. I knew if you fall short but put out your very best you have to recognize that and not beat yourself up over it.
You’ve obviously had a great influence on young women’s lives off the court. Your 100 percent graduation rate for four-year players is a testimony to that. How are you able to keep this up?
Education, to me, is first and foremost. It’s the reason I have a job today. It’s the real reason my players are here—to be students. I grew up in an era where you went to school every day, and that was that. You did your homework the minute you came home. I never missed a day of school in 12 years.
So we have the “Upfront/No Miss” rule: The players sit in the first three rows, and they don’t miss a class. The players are good about keeping the rules. But we’re upfront with them about that in recruiting them. They figure it out for themselves. If class isn’t for them, then the University of Tennessee may not be the best place for them.
You made a big difference in the life of one very special player, perhaps your best—Chamique Holdsclaw. As a college player, she was selected as the Naismith Player of the Century. But she struggled terribly as a pro in Washington until last season, when you stepped in. She went on to have a fabulous season. What did you do?
I think I’ve gotten far too much credit for what she did. It took the individual commitment from her. But I’ll be the first in line to tell her what she needs to do to improve and challenge her to be the kind of professional she can be. I told her she wasn’t playing up to her potential. She had to be in better shape. She had to be a better leader. I knew all along that she wanted to be a great competitor. She had to figure out how to get that way—hard work and discipline. It’s a daily commitment and she made it.
How much do you stay in touch with your former players?
Once you join this team, you join a family. It’s four years of your life with teammates and coaches who impact you for a lifetime. You develop great friendships and memories. There are so many who do so well once they leave the university. It’s a long list. Our kids leave and become coaches, nurses and doctors. Or they join some other part of the corporate world and do well. I’m proud of them all.
What’s your management philosophy? Not with the players, but the staff around you?
I’m personally a very self-motivated person. With my staff, I look for people who are very loyal and focused on their careers. You find out what their strengths are and what they can bring to the table, and then you allow them to go out there and do their best. Trying to control everything? That’s not right for me. Some coaches think this is the best way, but I’m not one of them. I’m not watching anyone to see when they punch the clock. We’re about getting the job done here.
I look for people who are very loyal and focused on their careers. You find out what their strengths are and what they can bring to the table, and then you allow them to go out there and do their best. Trying to control everything? That’s not right for me.
Your motivational speaking is in much demand. You spoke to CIA employees just a month after the September 11 attacks. What was that like?
I was honored. They all have to support themselves and those around them, just like a basketball team. But they don’t get any recognition. They don’t get to cut down any nets. They face far more adversity than just losing a basketball game. So it was very special to share with them any experiences that I could about handling different roles well. What struck me about that is that they were very genuine people but very focused.
In just our conversation, you’ve gone through so many milestones for women and sports. Do you think these opportunities will continue to grow?
Definitely. We still are expanding these opportunities. The whole evolution in the last five years has been exciting and the next five will be even better. Certainly young women have benefited from being able to compete, and that’s translated into more opportunities for them in education and corporate America and even the political arena. This is important for our society as a whole, not just for women.
Your schedule today sounds overwhelming. How do you get through that kind of week?
I exercise. Six days a week, about 45 to 50 minutes on the elliptical machine. It’s a big way of releasing stress in my life. I take vitamins. And I like to cook a lot. Cooking is another way of releasing stress for me. I just cooked a big meal today: Beans and meatloaf and cabbage and potatoes. The whole home-style country cooking thing.
And now you’re getting ready to take off, yet again. How do you kill all of that time in airplanes?
I catch up on correspondence. I watch game tape on the DVD. I’ll read too. I’m reading My Losing Season right now by Pat Conroy He’s a great writer. I like his style.
Have you ever had a losing season?
No. (Laughs) And I’m not planning on having one anytime soon either.