Girls' AAU basketball excels in Tennessee

What do Pat Summitt, a former Lady Vol and a Brooklyn native have in common? They are all part of the reason why AAU basketball in the state of Tennessee has become so successful. Go inside for this free read from Inside Tennessee.

Three teams from the Volunteer State have won national AAU championships in the fifth, sixth and seventh grade divisions this summer – the Tennessee Lady Trotters, which is coached by Jeff Kyle and based in Jefferson County; the Tennessee Fury, which is coached by former Lady Vol Shelley Sexton Collier and based in Knoxville; and the Tennessee Flight Select, which is coached by Brent Stallings, and is based in Sevier County.

Additionally, Tennessee Team Pride, which is coached by John Clay and based in Murfreesboro, finished third in the nation in the fifth-grade division.

The seventh-grade version of the Lady Trotters – the fifth-graders won the national title – placed fourth in the country and are coached by Jerry Codispoti, who played football and baseball at Carson-Newman College and makes his home in Dandridge. Third and fourth-grade teams from Tennessee – Murfreesboro and Lawrence County areas – are in a national tourney next week and also have an excellent shot at a title.

Codispoti oversees AAU girls' basketball in the state of Tennessee – he is also district chairperson for the Southeast, which adds Alabama to his duties – and is the lieutenant governor that oversees all AAU sports, girls and boys, in Tennessee and Alabama.

He has witnessed a lot of girls' basketball success for one state of late, especially a smaller one like Tennessee, and there was a push to raise the level of play across the state from length of quarters to timeouts to get players ready for the national format.

That was a nuts-and-bolts approach, and it has worked well. The pipeline of players is flowing and their skill sets get more advanced as they age.

"I see a level of commitment from a number of coaches in our area who see what a difference it makes for young girls to participate in athletes and particularly basketball," Collier said. "There are a number of good youth programs. I am impressed having three Tennessee teams from three different organizations being national champions. That is pretty amazing if you think about it.

"That was exciting to see those young ladies representing Tennessee. I want to congratulate those coaches that are staying involved in the game."

A significant impact also came from the success of Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols.

"Pat has been so vocal in every community (in promoting the sport)," Codispoti said. "We have kids in third and fourth grade and that is what they want to do, and we give them an opportunity."

Collier noted the television exposure of the Lady Vols and packed arenas caused the effect of Summitt to filter to the grassroots level of the sport.

High-profile Lady Vols such as former player Glory Johnson and current player Isabelle Harrison also bring attention to AAU basketball.

"We were fortunate to have both of them coming from the AAU circuit that are Tennessee girls that have played for Pat," Codispoti said.

Codispoti cited the fact that girls are getting involved in sports at a younger age, structured play, coaching and support from parents as other factors in the success.

"You allow them to learn basketball the right way with the same rules, traveling and double dribble, and you call it, they see the level that you can get to," he said. "It has to do with everyone involved."

The key to sustained success is keeping the older players in the state on the circuit, but the elite ones also are prime targets for the exposure circuit. Tennessee AAU basketball offers opportunities for the elite players and those who will earn scholarships to Division II colleges.

"We have a lot of anchor clubs that will continue from Memphis to Bristol and from Chattanooga to Clarksville to keep people involved," Codispoti said, among them the Tennessee Fury, Flight Select, Lady Trotters, Team Pride, Memphis Elite, Jackson Flash and Tennessee Xtreme and A Game.

The point also is to develop the players overall – the girls get more confidence, perform better in school and become more self-assured.

"That is actually what you strive for," Codispoti said.

Summitt's son, Tyler Summitt, got some of his coaching experience on the AAU level, though his first stint on the bench came when he was just 10 years old.

"I was a head coach at my mom's camp," Summitt said with a laugh. "I was a 10-year-old coaching 6 year olds. I coached every year at mom's camp."

Starting when he was 16 years old, Summitt, who went to Webb School of Knoxville, handled an AAU team made up mostly of girls from Webb Middle School and also was on the sideline for Adidas Team Hustle and a Tennessee Fury team that was made up of rising high school seniors.

Summitt just graduated from Tennessee – he did so in three years – and now is a first-year assistant for the Marquette women's basketball program. He coached AAU basketball throughout his three years in college, served one season as a male practice player for the Lady Vols and walked on the Vols basketball team, playing for Bruce Pearl and then Cuonzo Martin.

"I'd always seen mom coach and I always knew it was my passion, and the passion that God gave me," he said.

Lady Vols Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, upon hearing that Tyler Summitt scored a 31 on the ACT – he later took it again and scored even higher – told the Tipoff Club last season that he told Tyler that people with scores that high don't enter the coaching field. Instead, they own things. But Summitt was embedded with the coaching gene, and the AAU experience solidified a path already started.

"It was a chance for me to confirm my passion, gain confidence," Summitt said. "Mom would tell me, ‘You should do this or do that' in whatever scenario. It's one thing to be told something. It's another thing to get your own experience.

"So it was great for me to be the head coach of different teams, try different philosophies and try to mesh my mom's philosophy with Bruce Pearl's philosophy and Cuonzo Martin's philosophy into mine. It was a chance to mesh those three into one. The last team that I coached for the Fury we ran Cuonzo Martin's defense, Bruce Pearl's transition and my mom's offense.

"It was a blend of the three and it was great for me to make my own philosophy from the people that I learned from."

Summitt stays in touch with the players from his last AAU team to keep up with how they're doing as they prepare to enter college and adulthood. He also talks to his mother on a regular basis.

"I talk to her usually twice a day, at the very least once a day, around lunchtime and before she goes to sleep," he said.

Summitt is both checking on his mother, who ended a 38-year coaching career last April after being diagnosed in 2011 with early onset dementia and running stuff past her as he embarks on his first job out of college. Tyler Summitt was recruiting in the state of Indiana when he took a brief break this week to call Inside Tennessee.

"You already know what she is going to say because she is always going to tell you to do the right thing," Summitt said. "That was her ESPY speech, and that wasn't on the teleprompter at all. That is just mom. She is always going to do the right thing.

"When I call her if I ask for advice I kind of already know what she is going to say, but it helps to hear her say it again."

Summitt has been asked how he is handling being away from his mother because of her illness, but he noted the ESPY appearance when she went off script to make her speech and showed millions that she was doing OK.

"All you have to do is go talk to her or watch her speak or have her answer your questions and you realize she is fine," he said. "She is still teaching me things every day. Nobody is stopping Pat Summitt. She is still the boss, period."

Tyler Summitt is excited about his first coaching job in college – ironically the announcement of his hiring at Marquette was the same day his mother officially stepped down at Tennessee – and it speaks to his capabilities that he went directly to a college sideline. Marquette also wasn't his only offer.

"They are giving me a lot of freedom," he said. "I am in charge of the point guards. I am kind of the offensive coordinator, if you will, and do a lot of recruiting obviously. It has been everything that I wanted. I will bring a championship mentality every day because that is what I grew up with. Every single day we're preparing for a championship.

"That's just how it is. That's how it needs to be. That's how mom did it."

Pat Summitt's philosophy has filtered down to her son, and that same tenacity has affected basketball across the state of Tennessee.

Now that Summitt has moved off the bench and into the role of head coach emeritus – she will still attend practice and can chat with recruits on campus, among other things – the eyes of the state turn to Holly Warlick, who has been by Summitt's side for 27 years and is now the head coach.

"There are a lot of people looking at Tennessee," Codispoti said. "I think if they can continue the recruiting that Pat has been able to do – the structure is going to be there; it's the recruiting."

"Holly is a product of Pat," Collier said. "I am sure she will continue that legacy. Hopefully, I can be one of those that continue to honor Pat and be passionate about what I am doing."

Codispoti is a native of Brooklyn who came to Tennessee to play two sports at Carson-Newman and won a national title in football before graduating in 1988. He met his future wife, Kathryn, who is from Dandridge, and they lived in New York before returning to her home state to raise their two daughters, Ashley and Julia.

"I coached my (youngest) daughter and that is how it actually started," he said of his involvement in AAU.

Ashley just graduated from Jefferson County High School, where she played tennis, and will attend East Tennessee State. Julia is on the Lady Trotters team that Codispoti coaches now.

Codispoti cited the family commitment among the state's leaders in AAU for the success, among them Coach Jeff Kyle, wife Pam Kyle and daughters Whitney, who plays for Morehead State in Kentucky and Ashley, who played at Carson-Newman. Both girls played AAU basketball for their father. Ashley helped her father with the Lady Trotters and now coaches on her own within the organization.

"They are all totally dedicated to the children," he said. "That is the only way to make this happen."

Collier, who also coaches girl's basketball at Webb School – the alma mater of Johnson (Tennessee); Faith Dupree (Chattanooga); and Marjorie Butler (Georgia) – takes the same approach to her Fury team. Among the players is her daughter Casey Collier, who has grown up immersed in the game, much like Tyler Summitt did.

Her assistants are Shane Wells, Ray Christian and Rob Wampler, who are all involved in the sport locally. The team finished the season with a 38-5 record, including an 8-0 mark at the national tournament.

Her success and that of the other teams are an indication of the strength of the sport in the state.

"It shows how strong basketball is in the state of Tennessee," said Collier, who was on the Lady Vols first national title team in 1987. "It's exciting to grow up here and be a part of it. Girls grow up wanting to play for the University of Tennessee."

What is the legacy of Summitt in terms of girls' basketball in Tennessee?

"Gosh, I don't know how to put that into words," Collier said. "There is no question. The respect when you go out of state from people wanting to know what it's like to be from Tennessee, what is it like to play for her."

Collier's team honored Summitt by wearing "We Back Pat" shirts as their warm-ups at the national tourney.

"We talked about that before we left, about how we wanted to honor her," she said. "We wanted to wear the ‘We Back Pat' shirts. We were going to put our Fury logo on the sleeve and we decided not to do that. We just wanted to honor her.

"We wanted to recognize her and the fight that she has now and to represent her."

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