The Icon In Winter


Originally published in SLAM 154

by Nicole Powell | @GoDucksNP

It makes sense that great basketball coaches become icons; after all, Dr. James A. Naismith, the inventor of the game, was a coach, first and foremost. Through distinct contributions, but most importantly through the accumulation of wins, a handful of the most important coaches have earned one-name or even nickname recognition.

Red was known for cigars and Championships. Riley gave us Showtime. Knight’s winning strategy incorporated thrown chairs and the occasional use of a choke hold. Phil brought Zen and the Triangle. Coach K implements military-like  discipline. And then there’s Pat, a woman who has brought an unprecedented level of winning and grace to the game. Heading into this season, the Tennessee Volunteers coach has accumulated 1,071 wins in her 37 seasons in Knoxville, more than any other NCAA coach. She has also won eight National Championships, only two fewer than John Wooden’s all-time record of 10.

“Her ability to win separates her from the rest,” says Chamique Holdsclaw, winner of three NCAA Championships during her time as a Tennessee Vol. “As the players have changed, [Coach Summitt] has still found a way to win and be the most successful coach—men’s or women’s—of our time.”

Thirteen and a half years ago, in March of 1998, under the playful headline  “The Wizard of Knoxville,” the cover of Sports Illustrated asked: “Is Tennessee’s Pat Summitt the best college basketball coach since John Wooden?” In the ensuing years, by dint of win after win after win, compliment after compliment, Coach Summitt has proven again and again to be worthy of that flattering query.

This past August, Summitt, 59, divulged to a stunned world that she was suffering from early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, an incurable brain disorder. In truly Summitt-esque fashion, the legendary coach announced that, despite the seemingly damning diagnosis, she would remain the Vols coach.

We hope to watch Summitt on the bench this year—and for years to come. The announcement, the diagnosis, the coach’s will to keep on coaching and everything surrounding the situation, though, made us decide that now was the time to reflect on her unmatchable legacy and unparalleled impact on the game.

The standard of excellence Coach Summitt has demanded from her student-athletes for 38 seasons and counting at Tennessee is the basis for her team’s continued success. There are no alternative standards for the Holy Grail that is the National Title, no multiple choice answers to choose from when it comes to measuring success. Candace Parker, the latest in a long line of UT legends and the 2008 WNBA MVP and Rookie of the Year, puts it bluntly: “From the coaches down to fans, at the University of Tennessee it was ‘championship or bust.’”

More than wins and champions, Summitt’s players know and speak of something else this woman possesses: a righteous work ethic that is matched only by her generous spirit and devotion to her girls.

“She knows how to perfectly break you down and then build you right back up,” says Holdsclaw. “Outside the lines, she is caring and supportive. This Jekyll and Hyde act created a special bond between us. She was tough on me, and at times I thought I would break, but on the other hand I knew she cared about me as a person.”

Tamika Catchings, two-time Olympian and key member of the ’98 championship team, echoes the sentiment. “Pat’s greatest strength is being conscious of making us complete people. While she cares about us on the court, her motivation to wanting more for each of her players is her greatest strength.”

There’s never a day off from doing the right thing once an athlete steps foot on Summitt’s soil. Be late to a team function? Don’t even think about it. Entertaining thoughts of sleeping through your morning Spanish class? That’s a one-game suspension. I played my college ball at Stanford, but even I know Coach Summitt’s “Definite Dozen,” a list of principles that all Lady Volunteers learn to live by:

1. Respect yourself and others

2. Take full responsibility

3. Develop and demonstrate loyalty

4. Learn to be a great communicator

5. Discipline yourself so no one else has to

6. Make hard work your passion

7. Don’t just work hard, work smart

8. Put the team before yourself

9. Make winning an attitude

10. Be a competitor

11. Change is a must

12. Handle success like you handle failure

Do not be fooled into thinking these are just catchy phrases; these statements define a way of life at UT.

“These principles are something that I have carried with me throughout my career and always mention when I speak to groups,” Holdsclaw says. “The success I have had on the court and in life has had a great deal to do with what was instilled in me by these ideas.”

“If there is one that I’ve had to work on the most, it’s No. 4. Learning to be a great communicator. When you become a leader, much is expected of you,” says Catchings, who put Pat’s teachings to work in earning the WNBA MVP award this past season. “I’ve transitioned into different leadership stages throughout my career. I used to be a ‘lead by example’ leader. Then I transitioned into a ‘lead by example with a little communication’ leader. And now, I am more of a ‘lead by example and vocal’ leader. I had to take steps to get here, but I know that the root of me starting my leadership process came from UT and the Definite Dozen.”

“‘Handle success as you handle failure’ is the Definite Dozen principle that I try to most apply to my life,” says Parker. “I think it’s important to never be too high and never be too low. The definition of this would be to continue to work the same way—hard—and to be the best, with disregard of the results. So many times in our lives, people relax when they achieve success and stress when they experience failure. This Definite Dozen principle got me through the ups and downs of college and where I am now as a professional athlete.”

The prolonged success of UT as a dominant basketball powerhouse (16 SEC Conference  Championships and 18 Final Fours) is based on more than its coach’s ability to assess the effort and attitude of players, and her balanced approach of knowing when to push, back off or build her team up. Summitt’s classic philosophy of “defense and rebounding wins” has also been the backbone of the program. “The area that Coach’s leadership affected my game the most was my defense. It started in that first practice my freshman year and went through my senior year,” says Catchings, the four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

While it’s true that much of the country’s top high school talent has steadily made its way to UT throughout the years, Summitt’s specialty is challenging these  already gifted athletes and encouraging them to shine in a whole new capacity.

“I wasn’t rebounding to the standards of Coach Summit,” Holdsclaw recalls, “so every time I failed to meet this standard, it was on the line for me. This punishment started in individuals but was soon carried over to team practice. Every time I didn’t crash the boards, she would make me and the team run. So, after days of running I got the courage to go up to Coach and ask her if I could run alone. She looked me in the eye and said OK. Knowing her now, I understand why she said yes. She was making me personally responsible for my work on the team. I never knew that this moment would have pushed me to lead the team in rebounding for all my years at Tennessee.”

As if the call to duty is not enough for current players (Tennessee has not taken home the title since ’07-08), a greater sense of urgency surrounds the ’11-12 season than any other point in the program’s history due to the emergence of the invisible, and unlikely, foe of early-onset dementia.

While it needs no introduction, Alzheimer’s is still not fully understood. No two cases are identical but basic symptoms affect the brain. Cognitive abilities are slowed and deteriorate over time, in some cases rapidly, in areas of memory, attention, language and problem solving. There are medicines available that temporarily  delay symptoms but none that actively reverse effects, and despite  its steadfast search of a cure, the medical community is still at a  loss to identify the cause of why this terrible disease occurs in the first place.

Stunned by Summitt’s announcement on August 23, the basketball world and nation at large have been asking: Why did it strike her at the age of 59? Why has this happened to such a capable mind? And why is the victim one of our most treasured coaches?

On the other hand, the current roster of Lady Vols is left with more short-term questions, namely: What does this mean for the season?

The answers so far have been favorable, with Summitt vowing to stay on as coach for this season and hopefully the two after that. In the face of media scrutiny and the tremendous outpouring of support, she has also made clear that it will be basketball as usual for the team, adhering to her own rules (“Rule No. 8: Put the team before yourself”). The first day of practice on October 5 kicked off in smooth fashion like any other, with Summitt at the helm of what SLAM’s pre-season rankings listed as the No. 2 team in the country.

Still, the march forward is no longer outlined by the certainty of Summitt’s presence. Forget emerging storylines, like, Will the senior class walk away from UT with the dubious distinction as the only four-year group of girls not to reach a Final Four under Summit? Or if Summitt will survive as head coach for the entire collegiate careers of the newly minted freshmen. No, the real  focal point of drama in this  sobering reality is that Pat  Summitt has entered the winter season of her coaching career, and the enemy she is battling, the deterioration of her mind, plays by its own set of rules.

Who can know the fate of this storied program? Tennessee has been the indisputable champ since the era of NCAA women’s collegiate basketball was established in 1982. But now the future is no longer promised. Summitt and the Lady Vols program are confronted by an inconceivable ending. The burden for this team lies in its race to win all that it can against a disease that is the sixth-leading cause of death in the country.

In light of this revelation, all talk emanating from the program is about the players’ heightened motivation to “cut down the nets” come April.

For a coach who still sends out “Just thinking about you” texts to former players, maybe the Definite Dozen should be expanded to a Baker’s Dozen.

Rule No. 13? Win one for Coach.