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Face of her sport

Published March 22, 2005

Pat Summitt, about to become the nation's winningest coach, almost single-handedly built women's basketball.

The countdown will not end tonight. It will merely pause.

Should Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt win her 880th game as expected, the moment will be recorded, applauded and then left behind.

There is still too much for her to do. Too many gains to be made. She will have passed Dean Smith for the most victories of any NCAA basketball coach in the land, but her successes are more meaningful than numbers in a book.

You see, Summitt has never chased records. She has not spent all of these years on the sideline just to be compared, contrasted and consumed. Summitt was here to do much, much more.

It's not that she has conquered women's basketball.

It's that she helped create it.

* * *

To understand the significance of Summitt's milestone, it is best to view it from a distance. Preferably from a perch of about 30 years.

Go back to her first victory as Vols coach. It is 1975, and she is 22. UCLA's string of domination in the men's game is about to end, and interest in the men's tournament is about to explode.

Meanwhile, in UT's Alumni Gym, there is no band. No cheerleaders. Summitt, who is making $250 a month, made sure the chairs were set up and the scoreboard was working. Then she taped the ankles of her players. When the game began, there were 53 fans in the bleachers.

Now look at her today. Tennessee's women's games regularly outdraw the men. She commands up to $20,000 a pop at speaking engagements and has been sought as a consultant for corporations and leagues.

"Pat is women's basketball as we know it," LSU coach Pokey Chatman said on a recent conference call. "It's amazing to me the period of time she has been able to excel."

For Smith, the 879 victories was a record. A number at which others could aim. There were great coaches before him, and there have been great coaches who have followed him. Bob Knight may one day pass him, as well.

For Summitt, the victories tell a story. Of how women athletes are viewed, and how the game has grown.

She has gone from a game few knew existed to a national television audience watching her team against Purdue this evening. Tennessee was the program that caught the attention of others. The Vols were the model for everyone else.

Obviously, this is not her success alone. There have been star players, at Tennessee and elsewhere, who have pushed the action on the court to new levels. There have been other quality women's programs, including Connecticut, which may have overtaken UT in prominence.

But it is not an exaggeration to say Summitt has had a disproportionate role in the growth of the game. It is not hyperbole to say she is the face of women's basketball.

And what a face it is.

Start with the eyes. A brilliant blue accentuated by a propensity to stare intently, and sometimes menacingly, at the object of her attention.

It is a serious face. A face of someone who does not suffer fools. A face that is often cranky, and occasionally, enraged. A memorable face.

Her friends can be defensive about this image. They say the feisty Summitt we have come to know on the bench is not the sum of her life. She hosts wonderful barbecues. She enjoys teasing and being teased. The farmer's daughter has softened quite a bit since her son, Tyler, was born 14 years ago.

This is all well and good, but it misses the greater point. Summitt's intensity is what makes her who she is. And it helped change perceptions.

She could be every bit as demanding as Rick Pitino. She could get just as ticked off as Knight. Just as intimidating as John Thompson.

And there was a natural curiosity surrounding her passion. If she cared so much about women's basketball, maybe there was something there worth seeing.

"I won't recount or recall all her accomplishments. Her praises are being sung and written about by others," said Beth Bass, the CEO for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "What I see in this accomplishment is that it makes women's basketball seamless. It removes the gender element. Her accomplishments help put us on equal footing.

"Dean Smith is a household name, and now so is Pat Summitt. We don't just have this healthy, popular cultlike following. We've become mainstream."

As far back as 1994, Tennessee officials discussed the possibility of Summitt taking over as the men's basketball coach. It came up again in 2001 when the university president asked her to consider the job, and it will probably be broached one more time now that Buzz Peterson has been fired.

Each time, in the past, Summitt has declined. The women's game meant too much to her, she said.

"Growing up a female in a man's world, having a chance to build this program, being part of this whole evolution of women's sports," Summitt told the Washington Post in 2002 after declining to interview for the men's job the year before. "For me, it's trying to continue to grow this sport, helping young women have the opportunities I didn't have."

Should Tennessee win this evening, the celebration is expected to be muted. That's partly because Summitt wants it that way, and partly because the NCAA, and not the university, sets the protocol for a tournament game.

When you get right down to it, a low-key ceremony is probably the way to go. There is no need to build Summitt a monument.

She already has built it herself.

[Last modified March 22, 2005, 01:22:12]

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