Chengelis: Summitt changed the landscape of women's athletics
Pat Summitt folded her arms across her chest, set her jaw, and looked down at me with her steely blue eyes.
She was not happy and let me know she did not appreciate the timing of the story – a feature in the Knoxville Journal on a star player who spoke about the demands of playing in the Tennessee program for the most demanding of coaches – just as the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament was about to begin.
Sheila Frost was lying on the floor and tossing a ball of socks as she spoke to me for the feature. She was honest and forthcoming, loved her team and her experience at Tennessee but there were times the practices were beyond tough. Summitt knew how to push buttons, and she had, in Frost’s mind, pushed many of hers. Common in-season frustrations of a player. I remember Sheila telling me there were times she walked off the practice court and wanted to keep walking. But she always came back. She knew she was part of something special, and Summitt was developing her into the best player and person she could be.
She then heard Summitt’s voice in a commercial on the television behind her and without hesitating turned around and whipped the sock ball at Summitt’s face.
Her head swung back around, she looked at me and said, “You can use that.”
Pat was mad. Really mad. It was the only time in three and a half years of covering the Lady Vols she got in my face. She never said anything about the story’s content, only the timing. After the first tournament game, the players laughed as they whispered that Pat said they couldn’t talk to me but assured me they would. Her bark was bad, so was her bite, but she would eventually let go.
Not long after, she resumed communications with me, and they were as pleasant and respectful as they always had been, and would be years later when I'd see her at Final Fours. And Sheila became the young woman she was meant to be under Summitt’s tutelage and guidance.
Pat Summitt was a woman of monumental force, a coach who demanded everything from her players. Over the years I’ve told a few Michigan football coaches, “You’re pretty tough, but you’re not Pat Summitt tough.” I meant it. I also have frequently told people Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins reminds me of Summitt in terms of toughness and molding women to be not only the best athletes they can be, but more importantly, the best women they can be. The response has always been the same – eyes widen and a knowing nod, because that’s the impact of being compared to a legend.
When I covered the Lady Vols in the late 1980’s, there were two beat writers, one from the Journal and one from the News-Sentinel. I don’t recall another program having two beat writers, and few had one. But this was the best team in the country, the greatest coach in the country, and the team was beloved in Knoxville.
She allowed the beat writers to watch every practice. She was about intensity, accountability, precision and repetition. She signed the best players in the country, even at one time had a “pipeline to Michigan” with Daedra Charles, Tonya Edwards and Dena Head on her teams.
Her recruits already were top-notch, but she was going to make them better, the best. And she would fine tune them as a team that always played as one and understood how much she valued defense. She stalked the court during practices as she did during games, and she was, no doubt, intimidating. But her players loved her. And that love was there long after they'd leave Tennessee.
She built a program that others aspired to be. The first year I covered the Lady Vols, 1987-1988, James Madison came to gigantic Thompson-Boling Arena on the UT campus to play Tennessee in an early round NCAA Tournament game. Those players knew they were going to be annihilated, but that didn’t matter. They produced cameras immediately afterwards and giddily took pictures with all the Lady Vols. They wanted photographic evidence of being in the presence of greatness.
Summitt’s program was the benchmark.
Every year while I covered the program, people would talk about Summitt potentially coaching a men’s team. Many of her male colleagues believed she was the only woman who could do it, and there is no doubt in my mind she would have succeeded. But coaching men was never her goal. She wanted to make women’s basketball and women’s sports important and vital, and she never abandoned that goal.
She wasn’t humorless while producing greatness. In fact, she could be pretty funny. There was a game one night at Georgia Tech, and it was boring. The Lady Vols were destroying them, and I was yawning “I’m-bored-get-me-out-of-here” yawns. Across the court, I saw Summitt – during the game -- nudging her assistants, Holly Warlick and Mickie DeMoss, and pointing my direction. They laughed and laughed.
There was a time after a game where then-News-Sentinel beat writer Mark Fainaru and I were standing with Pat for post-game comments. This was not a formal press-conference setting. It was just the three of us. Pat, who had a great fondness for clothes shopping, liked whatever I was wearing and that launched a 15-minute conversation about shopping and clothes. I remember looking at Mark, who looked pretty annoyed and stood there silent until we moved back to the topic at hand, the win.
Summitt wanted her team to be the best, so she didn’t shy from scheduling the best teams in the country and would travel to Stanford and Long Beach State, anywhere in the country. I learned a lot from that – to be the best, you must play the best. I found she always seemed to enjoy coaching after a loss, knowing she had tangible evidence why the players had to work harder, because they were not yet where they needed to be.
She played in the best conference, the SEC, against some of the best coaches. At that time she had a healthy rivalry with Georgia coach Andy Landers. After one game in Athens, she told me she thought Georgia had intentionally kept the temperature high in the arena and surmised they had practiced in that environment all week to have a conditioning edge over the Lady Vols. Armed with that information/accusation, I visited with Landers, who became incensed. I went back to Summitt and ping-ponged back and forth between the coaches, he said, she said, with nothing resolved but it was a good story nonetheless.
Summitt was pregnant in 1990 with her only child, Tyler. This was a huge deal in Knoxville. So huge that News-Sentinel beat writer Dan Fleser and I were at the hospital on Sept. 21, waiting and waiting for the birth and the story. It was surreal then and remains so that Pat had us visit her in her room not long after the delivery for an interview. She was so purely happy.
Her record speaks for itself, 1,098-208 (.840), and the Thompson-Boling Arena court is fittingly called “The Summitt.” She did so much more winning long after I left Knoxville, but for a young sportswriter just starting out in my first job after college, she became the coach to whom I compare all others. How lucky was I to have that experience covering one of the greatest coaches in the country, a woman who helped changed the landscape of women’s athletics and taught me so much along the way.
Thank you, Pat.