It was 1998, and her team had become celebrities. Led by the three “Meeks” – Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall – the group made news on and off the court.
It was February of 1998, and the team was undefeated and playing a delightful brand of high-octane basketball that packed the arena. It also was one season after the 1997 Cinderella one – memorialized forever by HBO when the Lady Vols lost 10 games and still managed to win a national title in Cincinnati by beating Notre Dame in the semifinal and Old Dominion in the championship game.
The program hosted a black tie film premiere of the HBO documentary at the Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville with guests arriving in stretch limousines. This gala event occurred during the 1998 season upon the release of the film that winter.
Summitt also had a book coming out called “Reach for the Summit,” which outlined her principles for success. That needed to be reported, too.
And there was still a season to cover with home and away games that chewed up the time of the Lady Vols beat writer for the local paper. That was how I came to work late one afternoon in February and ended up calling Summitt.
At the time I was a night desk editor for The Knoxville News-Sentinel on the news side after spending several years as a police and court reporter. My new position meant that I arrived to work with little time before the first deadline of the evening as the first edition of the paper headed across the state and needed to get to the trucks before the day had actually ended.
The sports department had been tipped off that Pat Summitt was going to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the news side wanted it on page one of the next day’s paper. A photo image of the cover was set to arrive soon.
Sports was covered up with, well, sports. The beat writer had games to attend and was often on the road, trying to handle daily coverage of the team, and news kept popping up that had nothing to do with the court. So, the sports side asked the news side for help ferreting out the SI story. It was early in the last week of February, a Tuesday if my memory is correct. The issue with Summitt on the cover would be for the following Monday, the March 2, 1998, one.
I arrived to work right as these discussions were taking place between the departments. The news reporters were filing their stories that had been gathered that day and would be headed home soon. I was a desk editor that funneled story copy through the night production process so a paper would be delivered the next morning but had not stopped writing when called upon to help. I also was a lifelong sports fan.
That meant I was selected to get the Pat Summitt cover story and get it fast. I had less than two hours to verify the story with SI, interview someone with the magazine, get Summitt’s reaction and file the story to meet deadline.
This was in the 1990s when news reporters called people directly. We didn’t go through a layer of spokespeople. Several prominent officeholders didn’t even have a media contact. If I needed the police chief or sheriff or a judge or the district attorney, I called their office. If it was after hours, I called them at home.
This was also before security and access tightened so much – the pre-9/11 world – and newspaper reporters walking directly into offices for interviews. I was on the night police beat for years and would take doughnuts – no, it’s not a cliché – and coffee to the detectives’ office and sit and chat about cases they were working for follow-up stories on major crimes such as homicides and armed robbers on hold-up sprees across the city and county.
So, I wouldn’t think anything about picking up the phone and calling Pat Summitt’s office to determine her whereabouts. I was aware of Deborah Jennings, her longtime media relations chief – she is recognized as the best in the business – and the fact I didn’t call her to set up the interview wasn’t an attempt to circumvent the process. I just wasn’t aware of the process. That wasn’t how the news side operated at the paper.
I also had very little time with the front page editor saving a big space for the photo – it had now arrived from Sports Illustrated and it was the classic Summitt stare – the clock ticking and my supervisor reminding me that I needed to reach Summitt soon.
So, I made the first call. She wasn’t there. Had Summitt been there I would have dashed over to her office to interview her there. I left a message. I waited maybe 10 minutes. I called back.
I wasn’t being rude. Again, this was normal for the news side. We were used to calling officeholders, appointed officials, mayors, governors, etc. Persistence was standard procedure.
Plus, I was running out of time. The business day was coming to a close and university staff members would be leaving to go home. This was before cell phones had taken over communication. People needed to be reached by landlines. The window of contact would soon close for the day.
I repeated this call-back process. About the fourth or fifth time, I detected that the secretary answering the phone was getting a tad peeved. Again, this doesn’t cause a news reporter to flinch. I just remained polite, explained it was very important for a page one story and really needed to reach Summitt.
A few minutes after the last attempt, my desk phone rang. The person on the other end sounded a lot more peeved than the secretary. It was Summitt.
When the coach confirmed she was speaking to me, a clipped voice said, “What can I do for you, Miss Cornelius?” The emphasis was on Miss and my last name, and the tone was controlled seething.
Apparently, she had been very busy that afternoon. I have since learned that Summitt scheduled her day down to the minute. Her calendar was a color-coded chart of places to be, people to see and phone calls to take. My name didn’t appear on that calendar that day to say the least.
The secretary, knowing Summitt was very busy, had apparently been alarmed enough by my repeated calls to track down Summitt and get her to call me. The conversation was something along the lines of this reporter won’t leave me alone and you really need to call her back now. Summitt, as could be expected, likes to know why people are calling her, especially ones she does not know. That is what the media relations staff do all over in all arenas, whether sports or politics – they determine who you are and what you want, how much time you need and what the topic will be.
But I didn’t have time for that. I had a front page editor asking me every five minutes if that gaping hole was going to be filled.
I had never met Summitt. In fact, we had never spoken, not even on the phone. I was a little startled by the tone and thought that cover had certainly pegged her. Of course, I now know I had panicked her secretary and Summitt had been pulled out of a previously scheduled meeting of some importance to deal with some pesky reporter.
I thanked her for the call back, said she would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, described it and said I needed her reaction. The cover was a big deal. Female athletes had been on the cover, but she would be the first female coach to grace that page.
The phone went silent. I wondered if we had been disconnected. After a few seconds, a soft voice said, “Can you repeat that?” I did, including the title words “Wizard of Knoxville,” a play on John Wooden being the “Wizard of Westwood” while at UCLA.
“Wow,” Summitt said, still with a quiet voice. Clearly, this had stunned her in a good way.
Of course, I needed more than one word for my story. So, after she got over the shock, she answered my questions in the tone that is so familiar now – straight-forward and engaging. She also credited the players and said any honor she got was shared with them. I have since learned this is common with Summitt, too. She rarely will take credit for anything.
My memories went back to that day with the news last December that Summitt had been selected, along with Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, as the magazine’s 2011 Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year.
This was Summitt’s reaction: “Obviously, this is a tremendous honor. I am so privileged to share it with such a great coach in Mike Krzyzewski. During our careers, we have both been fortunate to work with so many talented student-athletes who were driven to excel both on and off the court.
“For me, this recognition is a direct reflection of the outstanding young women who have worn the orange and white Lady Vol jersey of the University of Tennessee; the coaching staffs I have worked with throughout my career and the supportive administration at UT.”
Nearly 14 years had passed between covers for Summitt, but she was essentially unchanged. The credit went to everyone.
Time Inc. Sports Group editor Terry McDonell said, “The voices of those who have been inspired by Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski echo from everywhere and will continue for decades. What they have achieved through their coaching and, more importantly, their teaching places them among history’s transcendent figures. It is an honor to now include them in the select group of Sportsmen and Sportswomen.”
SI senior writer Alexander Wolff had this to say about the selection: “More than that – so much more – are the roads each has traveled over the course of careers that can be measured in Presidents Met on White House visits with Team (four in her case, three in his).
“For their endurance, for their adaptability, for their genius for hatching from adversity even more success, and for their willingness to take up causes beyond the comfort of their own campuses – indeed, for modeling what it means to be public diplomats as well as great coaches – we honor them as SI’s 2011 Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year.”
Both are the winningest coaches ever in their sports – NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball. Both were recognized for that achievement – Krzyzewski reached that pinnacle last December; Summitt did so in 2005; both are still adding to their win totals – and for how they conduct their lives off the court.
In Summitt’s case, she revealed last August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia and would continue to coach. She and her son, Tyler, have set up The Pat Summitt Foundation to raise awareness of the disease and funds to find a cure.
The announcement sparked a “We Back Pat” campaign at Tennessee that was adopted by the SEC for an entire week with men’s and women’s team using home games in January as a chance to promote the foundation.
Since that first cover in 1998, Summitt has continued to win. The program’s sixth national title came at the end of the 1998 season and a perfect 39-0 record, sparking another book with co-writer Sally Jenkins, “Raise the Roof.” Two more championships trophies were added in 2007 and 2008.
The current team, with four true seniors trying to reach their first Final Four, wants to add another trophy to the display case in the basketball office. That is always the goal at Tennessee, but Summitt’s medical diagnosis added a greater sense of urgency and purpose.
Summitt has handled having dementia the way she approaches everything in her life – head-on, no “pity party,” as she always says and in the open.
Her mother, Hazel Head, also probably liked the 2011 cover over the 1998 one. She had remarked in 1998 that she wished the magazine had selected a photo of her daughter that showed her smiling. She got her wish with the 2011 one as Summitt, with basketball in hand, stood beside an also smiling Krzyzewski.
I have one more Summitt story about that 1998 season.
The SEC tourney was in Columbus, Ga., that year and Summitt’s first book, “Reach the Summit,” was about to be released. The newspaper received an advanced copy, and I was asked to review it and interview Summitt. I also had handled the HBO documentary debut in Knoxville and ended up at Kansas City to cover the fans at the Final Four in 1998 for the news side of the paper. I became the go-to for Lady Vol basketball stories that occurred off the court and that is ultimately how I ended up here with this magazine.
But in 1998, I was just a person with a ticket to the SEC Tournament and an advance copy of Summitt’s book in my hand. I saw her sitting in the stands with her assistants and walked over to introduce myself. This was the last week of February, just days after I had persistently called her office about the SI cover, which was starting to reach newsstands. Fans were bringing items over for her to autograph.
I sat in a seat to the side of her and pulled out the book. She looked stunned and said, “Where did you get that?” The book was weeks away from release to the public so a seemingly random person sitting down and pulling out a copy was understandably surprising.
I explained who I was and why I had the book and, once again, her tone changed, and she smiled. I then saw the Summitt everyone else meeting her in person had described – warm, engaging, gracious.
I asked if I could interview her about the book later – I had just gotten it so I had not yet read the book – and she smiled and said, “Call my secretary to set it up.”
We both laughed.
This story ran recently in Rocky Top News magazine. It is being reprinted online.