A memory of Summitt’s No. 8

Note: Today, April 18, coach Pat Summitt moved into a new role at Tennessee – as head coach emeritus. She finishes with 1,098 victories, 18 trips to the NCAA Final Four, and eight NCAA titles. Here is a story I wrote for ESPN.com in 2008 after Summitt’s last championship game.

TAMPA, Fla. _ Remember the old “Schoolhouse Rock” tune?

“Figure eight as double four,
Figure four as half of eight,
If you skate, you would be great
If you could make a figure eight.”

Tennessee’s Pat Summitt has made a figure eight now as a basketball coach, but she’s never “skated” a day in her life. That got reinforced from her earliest consciousness, by parents she called “the hardest-working people I’ve ever known.”

The apple, as they say, didn’t fall far from the tree. Summitt – whose program now has eight NCAA titles after its 64-48 victory over Stanford on Tuesday _ is a long way from the farm girl who wondered if she’d ever measure up to her father’s unyielding standards.

She’s the million-dollar-a-year coach, the winningest in her profession, the Hall of Famer, a booked-to-the-gills speaker, a woman who’s spoken to multiple presidents of this country, a legend in sports.

But … then again, she’s not far at all from the fields she worked in as a child. That’s where it started. That’s where a part of her will always be.

“I think my childhood made me a tough strong woman,” Summitt said Tuesday, standing outside her winning team’s locker room. “That wasn’t always the accepted thing. Women weren’t supposed to be that strong, vocal.”

Summitt has taken teams to the NCAA Final Four 18 times, and you might think after all those interviews and press conferences, it would become rote. She would repeat the exact same things over and over; there would be nothing new to hear. But it’s really not like that.

She recalls stories and lessons from her life that sound fresh because they ARE fresh in her memory. Monday, Summitt talked about the day when her father left her in a hay field to do work she’d never done before. No instruction or encouragement. Just, “Do it.”

The father of five – Summitt is No. 4 and had three older brothers _ Richard Head didn’t mince words. He passed away in 2005, but he’s still with Summitt. Always. If you’ve read the two books that Summitt wrote with author and Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, you know how much the unquenchable desire to please her father has fueled her.

What you may not realize, though, is that fuel truly burns constantly. It burns hot at times, and cooler at other times … but it always burns.

Summitt has a son, Tyler … but also many, many daughters. That’s how she views the players who have come to Tennessee and played for her. They stay in touch, they call and write, they visit. If they need Summitt, she’s there for them.

“She’s really like a mom – when you do something wrong, your mom is always there to correct you,” senior Alberta Auguste said. “When you do something right, your mom is there to cheer you on.”

Senior Alexis Hornbuckle said she arrived at Knoxville pretty sure of herself. She wondered why Summitt so frequently gave her a hard time. What was wrong with this woman? Why couldn’t just ease up? What was the big deal?

Then it began to sink into Hornbuckle what this was really all about.

“I realized if she wasn’t getting on me about improving,” Hornbuckle said, “then she’d pretty much given up on me.”

And that was far worse than any yelling.

“You know how when you’re a child, and your parents say, ‘I’m mad at you,’ and it doesn’t have the same effect as, ‘I’m disappointed in you’?”  Tennessee star Candace Parker said. “Coach will say that, and it just gets a rise out of me. Because you don’t want to disappoint Coach Summitt.”

Nobody stays this good this long without adjusting and changing. Summitt has talked over the years about the ways she’s different. If she’s “mellower” that’s really just a reflection that she’s smarter about how hard you need to push people to achieve their best without pushing them SO hard it becomes counterproductive.

Summitt has never thought she knows everything already. She’s still learning, still open to new ideas of how to do things better, still willing to listen.

Tennessee had no idea when it hired a 22-year-old to coach its women’s basketball program in 1974 that it was like striking oil. Summitt said she at the time that she didn’t even know if she COULD coach. She read books and asked for advice. She fretted about the fact that she was just a year older than some of her players. She feared she’d disappoint you-know-who.

Summitt recounted that phone call home after she’d coached her first game _ and lost. She was waiting for the hammer to come down from her father. But that’s when he said, “Let me tell you just one thing: Don’t take donkeys to the Kentucky Derby.”

He knew she could coach. Just he knew he could leave her in the field as a child and figure out how to do something she’d never done before.

“Sometimes people mistake who I am as a coach sometimes because of my intensity and my passion. But those kids – every one of them knows I love them. And every road to a national championship is very vivid and strong in my mind – each one.”

Each tournament, each team, each player. They’re all vivid. Just like the memories she has of standing in the Tennessee countryside, when she didn’t know how to do something … but figured it out.

Summitt always figures it out. She knows Dad would expect nothing less.


About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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