Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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Summing up a legendary career
Posted Mar 16, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Apr 6, 2013 at 06:39 PM
It’s appropriate that the cover of Pat Summitt’s latest book shows the “death ray stare” of the former Tennessee women’s basketball coach, the fierce look her players dreaded during her 38-year career.
Summitt epitomized tough love and a tenacious work ethic, qualities she learned from her unyielding father. She was always pushing her players to get better. Summitt could alternately apply her thunderous screams with maternal, arm-around-the shoulder heart-to-heart chats to get the most out of her players. Ask Michelle Marciniak or Abby Conklin, who experienced both extremes.
Above all, Summitt was a multitasker who knew how to manage players. That resulted in 1,098 career wins — tops among college basketball coaches (men or women) — and eight national championships, including her final one in Tampa in 2008.
Wonderful memories, but now Summitt struggles to recall them. She was diagnosed at age 57 with “early onset dementia,” and now she is coping with Alzheimer’s disease.
“On some days, I feel like a jigsaw with pieces missing,” Summitt writes in “Sum It Up: 1,098 Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses, and a Life in Perspective” (Crown Archetype; hardback, $28; 407 pages).
Never one to hide, Summitt went public with her diagnosis, and, with the collaboration of familiar writing partner Sally Jenkins, she faces it head on while reflecting on the dynasty she created at Tennessee.
Summitt and Jenkins (of the Washington Post) have collaborated before, co-authoring a pair of books in the 1990s. “Reach for the Summitt” was a technical, teaching, “how-to” kind of book about basketball, while “Raise the Roof” recounted the story of Tennessee’s unbeaten 1997-98 national championship team.
The tapes from those books were invaluable in filling in the gaps for Summitt in “Sum It Up” as she recalled her career at Tennessee.
What was interesting — and poignant — were the “conversations” preceding each chapter, in which Summitt talked about confronting and dealing with Alzheimer’s. They were generally a page long, and were presented in a question-and-answer format. Certainly, Alzheimer’s is an underlying theme in “Sum It Up,” but these pre-chapter interludes allow Summitt to face the disease without making it the main focus of her book.
“I don’t remember records, final scores, and statistics,” she writes. “Numbers have a strange slipperiness for me, a lack of specificity; they suggest nothing.
“But if you prompt me with names rather than numbers … they bring it all back.”
The book is peppered with fresh quotes from former players, family members and rival coaches. Jenkins conducted formal interviews with Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, whose relationship with Summitt was competitive and was fractured a decade ago over recruiting tactics. Summitt insists that the two rivals have put aside their differences; certainly, the respect they had for one another never disappeared.
But getting Auriemma’s perspective is refreshing, candid and shows the respect he has for his longtime adversary. When Summitt began her foundation to fund Alzheimer’s research, Auriemma was the first person to donate, writing a check for $10,000 “on the spot” when approached.
“We’re competitors and we have a lot of respect, and for anyone to expect more than that when there’s so much at stake when we meet on court, it’s just unrealistic,” Auriemma tells Jenkins. “The average person out there wants to make it this blood feud. I’m thinking ‘Come on, it’s still just basketball.’ You’ve got two competitive, strong-willed people, and some of it was blown out of proportion.
“And in the end, it came down to: the games were the games and that was that, and it’s over, and life is life.”
And, what a life Summitt has led. She grew up as Trisha Head on a farm in the small town of Henrietta, Tenn., northwest of Nashville, working shoulder to shoulder with her brothers and showing a competitive spirit in the makeshift basketball court her father constructed in the hayloft of a barn.
“I couldn’t stand to be second at anything,” she writes.
Summitt’s father said very little and was not affectionate (Summitt writes that he did not hug her until she was 43), but he was a big influence in her life. He was known as “Tall Man,” and she inherited her 5-foot-11 height from him. Summitt’s mother was a mere 5-4, but she was the family workhorse, even putting in more time and effort than her husband.
Summitt attended college at Tennessee-Martin, a shy, awkward girl who arrived with a “soup case” (Summitt says her sorority sisters claim her Tennessee hills accent butchered the word “suitcase”). She played basketball on a team where players had to sew numbers on their uniforms.
Instead of Trisha, everyone called her Pat (“Everyone just assumed that because I was enrolled as Patricia Sue Head, I went by ‘Pat,’ ” she writes. “But rather than speak up and hear the hick from Cheatham County come out, I let it go. So I became Pat. It sounded stronger, I decided.”
By age 22, Summitt had become the head coach of women’s basketball at Tennessee, and two years later (1976) she played in the first Olympics that recognized women’s basketball.
Players at Tennessee soon found out that Summitt was a hard worker who expected the same level of intensity from her players.
“Basketball is a beautiful game on so many levels,” Summitt writes. “... It’s a game that can lift kids out of wretched parks with broken swings and carry them to another plane.
“But you don’t create that beauty without the squeal of sneakers, drenching sweat, and cries of pain.”
Summitt goes into great detail about her relationships with her players, even the stormy ones. She knows she was tough; her players knew that too. But Tennessee players had a 100 percent graduation rate, and while they may not have enjoyed Summitt’s drills and in-your-face coaching style, today, they all speak lovingly about their coach.
Summitt’s son, Tyler, literally grew up on the Volunteers’ bench, and he is now an assistant at Marquette. His rise as a basketball coach is more satisfying to Summitt than any of her national titles.
Once she realized she was stricken with Alzheimer’s, Summitt confronted her fears and openly discussed her anger and confusion, her faith, and how she was going to cope.
“With or without this diagnosis, I was going to experience diminishment,” she writes. “We all do. That’s our fate.”
One can marvel at Summitt’s numbers as a coach, and they are certainly impressive. But a coach’s influence is not measured by just wins and losses.
“My Tennessee legacy is not some flat, dry record on a piece of paper,” Summitt writes, “but a beautiful tree with living branches.”
Those branches live today, a vibrant reminder of the legacy Summitt carved out at Tennessee.