The week started out on a heavy note. Pat Summitt, legendary women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee passed away at the age of 64.
I remember as a kid when our family moved from up north to the Tennessee valley. It was quite a culture shock for sure, but being the new kid in a new city/state I almost immediately began cheering for “my” hometown team in college sports the UT Vols.
That ended quickly. At a young age I was turned off by the Vols. It had nothing initially to do with the teams but the fans. Still to this day I have never understood fair-weather or bandwagon fans. You know who you are. You cheer for the team when they win but after only one loss you turn on the team, the coaches and so on and so forth. My first witnessing of this was when Bill Battle was the head coach of the football team.
“Back in the day” the Vols went to a bowl game every year – unlike today where everyone seems to go to a bowl and they seem to be running out of teams to put in all the bowl games now, it was a select few that went to a bowl game. During the Battle era the Vols never went to one of the “big” bowl games but they played in ones like the Liberty Bowl and smaller ones like that. This didn’t sit well with boosters who thought “their” Vols should beat Bear Bryant and the like every season. I was put off when the news reported that moving trucks were sent to Battle’s house after the season. He didn’t order them an angry booster did.
And then there’s the hardcore fan who despite his or her team winning would cuss because “they sucked’ because they didn’t win by 30 points. I realize all sports teams have those kinds of fans but where I live I’m literally engulfed by them. And the irony of that is a lot of these hardcore fans not only did not attend UT, a lot did not even attend college.
As I got into college the intensity heated up as there was always that “little brother” feeling between Tennessee and other UT campuses like UTC and UT Martin. And the whole time no one was ever happy with the football or basketball team – except one – the Lady Vols.
I was never much a fan of ladies basketball or women’s sports in general. But I started playing attention to Pat Summitt. While every sports program in college was getting in trouble for grades, discipline and all out hooliganry. It seemed like on almost a weekly basis we would read about a UT player being arrested or kicked off the team. But not the Lady Vols and women’s team in general. Not only was Summitt a winner on court but off as well. The one shining good example of sports at UT and just about every other sports program was Pat Summitt’s.
Summitt’s team except for their wins never drew any attention outside of Knoxville except in sports circles. As the behavior in men’s sports got worse as well as the men’s GPA women’s sports – especially basketball started to get more and more popular. And there are many reasons for that.
Sure, it’s easy to cheer for a winner. We all love that and that’s what Summitt was – a winner. But she actually redefined the sport. By the 1990s men’s basketball was basically a glorified version of every man for himself. There was and is no real strategy just a bunch of individuals going for a dunk being a ball hog. Everyone wanted to be a SportsCenter highlight.
The woman’s game became so much more superior because of offensive strategies, ball handling and actually knowing how to take a jump shot – basic basketball fundamentals like pssing the ball to an open (wo)man. They play as a team not a bunch of individuals. And this shows not only on the court but the community as well. Coaches like Pat Summitt are responsible for this as they mold the young mind of the young ladies into responsible adults. I never heard of any scholastic issues with her players or any behavioral issues. There may have been one or two after they got out of school and into the real work but never on Pat’s watch.
The more and more distain I had towards men’s college athletics (trust me, I’m still a fan) the more and more I paid attention to Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols. She is one of the few people and the leader of a program that I can say nothing negative about. Pat Summitt was a class act and a winner.
I had my first encounter with Summitt in the late ‘90s as the Lady Vols were in the SEC basketball tournament I was covering. There was an aura around her. Everyone seemed to be mystified by her and she had this stern gaze as she coached. Despite the stern, ice cold gaze she was always very cordial to those around her and the press. This showed because you will never read anything negative about her or her teams.
I got to go a handful of Lady Vols games and her reception was as if the Pope or some other dignitary were present. She never seemed phased by the adoration and her ego was always in check. People could learn a lot from her by the way she treated everyone. There are not enough good words in my vocabulary to describe my admiration of Summitt.
And while at times I thought she was stoic she would do something completely out of the ordinary to show she was regular folk and one of the gals – a true sport. Back in the day when Bruce Pearl was coaching the men’s basketball team he showed up to support the Lady Vols one game painted orange cheering on the team. Summitt took note. She returned the favor showing up to a men’s game dressed as a cheerleader and sang “Rocky Top”.
We all know her accomplishments and titles and how she actually for all intents and purposed created the lady’s basketball program.
She and I do share one thing in common. I, too coached lady’s basketball and actually have a better winning percentage. I was undefeated as a coach. Granted, it was one game and I was in seventh grade.
The coach of my junior high boys and girls team was called upon to help officiate the game because of some unforeseen reason one of the officials couldn’t make it and unless one was found the game would be cancelled. Having been trained in officiating and the fact his father is actually in the NBA Hall of Fame, our coach put on the stripes. He handed me his clipboard and told me I was in charge. This was in the era when women’s basketball was played with six players with three on each side of the centerline. Very old school and archaic by today’s standards I realize. We won, so I do have one thing in common with Summitt.
Lady Vols basketball hasn’t been the same since she retired following the 2011 season. The Lady Vols have been the one UT team I have always cheered for – except when they played my alma mater. Not that I was ever a big fan of lady’s basketball but I used to pay attention to the team because of Summitt for what she meant to sports, the university and the world as a whole. There will never be another like her.
– Dave Weinthal
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