I was 22 years old in the summer of 1974 and in my first year as a sports writer for The Knoxville Journal. She was 22 years old and in her first year as head coach of the Tennessee women's basketball team.
Pat Head and I would meet a few months later when The Journal decided to send the fledgling reporter to write a story on the fledgling coach. She was so intent on her players that she didn't notice when I walked into old Alumni Gym and began watching her conducting practice drills.
I had been there only a few minutes when I heard the coach's voice ring out: "Stop!" She then walked up to one of her players and said, "Where are you supposed to be on this play?"
The player thought frantically, then pointed to a spot a few feet away and said, "Over there."
The coach flashed a glare that eventually would become famous and said, "Then why are you here? Shouldn't you be over there?"
"Yes, ma'am," the player said.
"Run it again," the coach snapped.
Again the players ran the play. Again the coach's voice rang out: "Stop!" Again the coach approached the player and demanded: "Where are you supposed to be on this play?"
"Over there," the player mumbled, nodding toward the same spot she had missed on the previous try.
"Then why aren't you over there?" the coach snapped.
Too flustered to speak, the player merely shrugged.
"Damn," I thought.
Thankful I hadn't been noticed, I waited anxiously to see what happened next. After a brief pause, the coach told her players to take a break and get some water. Then she turned and saw me for the first time.
"Damn," I thought.
My fears were unfounded. The coach's face softened into a welcoming smile. As she walked toward me, she warmly said, "May I help you?"
I explained who I was and why I was there. Then I got the first of hundreds of interviews I would conduct with the woman destined to become the face of women's basketball.
I covered several of Pat Head's home games for The Journal that first year. You could count the fans at Alumni Gym on your fingers and toes back then but she coached as if the whole world was watching ... and as if the fate of the free world was at stake. Her passion spilled over into her players, who overachieved on a regular basis.
Believe it or not, Tennessee high schools played six-girl, half-court basketball at this time because females were deemed too fragile to withstand the rigors of the five-player, full-court game played by high school boys. Three girls played offense at one end of the court and three played defense at the other end. This meant that each in-state player who signed with Tennessee had to be reprogrammed from a 47-foot game to a 94-foot game ... a time-consuming process. Growing frustrated, Pat told me she was planning to stop signing in-state prospects if the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletics Association insisted on continuing six-girl basketball. I broke the story, and shortly thereafter the TSSAA announced that girls would begin competing in full-court, five-player basketball. Even then, Pat was a force.
Single-handedly banishing six-girl basketball from Tennessee high schools is just one example of Pat's devotion to elevating her sport, however. I don't remember her ever denying an interview request. I don't remember her ever ducking a question. I don't remember her ever closing a practice. Conversely, I clearly remember her having Lady Vol sports information director Debby Jennings telephone me following every road game with a recap. Once I had the pertinent details, Pat would get on the line to give me some quotes for the next morning's issue of The Journal.
|Summitt has done her fair share of net-cutting since her arrival in Knoxville.|
It took her just three years to qualify a team for the national tournament, then under the auspices of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). That 1976-77 squad went 28-5 and placed third in the Nationals at Minneapolis.
I'll never forget interviewing her prior to the trip to nationals. She asked the final question:
"Is The Journal sending you to Minneapolis?"
I shook my head, too embarrassed to speak. The Journal sent reporters to cover the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships and Wrestlemania that spring but passed on staffing the women's basketball championships.
"Do you want me to talk to your bosses?" Pat asked.
"It wouldn't do any good," I said.
She understood. In football-crazy Knoxville, women's basketball was not yet relevant. She was on the verge of changing that, however.
Over the next few years the AIAW became the women's branch of the NCAA and Pat Head became Pat Head Summitt. The winning never changed, however. She guided Tennessee to eight Final Fours in her first 12 years as a coach but each time fell short of the national title.
I enjoyed covering the team so much that, when I was made primary beat writer on Vol football in the fall of 1986, I asked if I could continue covering Lady Vol basketball, too. My bosses at The Journal agreed.
Unfortunately, trying to cover two beats of that magnitude was more than I could handle. One night I was finishing up a Tennessee football story when I realized the Lady Vols were playing a home basketball game the very next night. Since our deadline was 10 minutes away, all I could do was throw together a few paragraphs giving the basic "who, what, where and when" of the Lady Vol game.
The next day I was on campus when Pat walked by, caught site of me out of the corner of her eye, then turned and strode briskly toward me. It was my first and only time to get the famous "glare" that years later would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"Damn," I thought.
As she approached, I hurriedly launched a preemptive strike: "I know what you're going to say, and I'm sorry. I simply forgot."
Pat stopped a few feet away, paused, then said: "Don't let it happen again."
"I won't," I said. And I didn't.
Shortly thereafter I decided that would be my final year trying to double as primary beat writer for football and women's basketball. Fortunately, my final year covering the Lady Vols for The Journal was the year Pat broke through and won her first national title. I watched from press row in Austin, Texas, as her 1986-87 Lady Vols dismantled second-ranked Louisiana Tech 67-44 in the championship game.
Of course, Pat was just getting warmed up. She added national titles in 1989, 1991, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2007 and 2008 on her way to becoming the first basketball coach to notch 1,000 victories.
Honestly, none of this really surprised me. Going back to that first practice I watched in 1974, it was obvious that her passion for the game and drive to succeed were going to take her a long, long way.
It wasn't until last summer that Pat Head Summitt did something that genuinely surprised me: She announced that she was suffering from early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Like the rest of the civilized world, I had come to view her as immune to the kind of health concerns that affect us mere mortals.
I applauded Pat's decision to coach the 2011-12 Lady Vols but I rarely watched the telecasts. After years spent observing her animated sideline behavior — firing up her players and staring down the officials — it was unsettling to see her sit quietly on the bench.
Given Pat's devotion to Lady Vol basketball, I knew she would do what was best for the program. Still, it hit me hard when news broke earlier today that she was stepping down.
"Damn," I thought.