It had been nine years since Pat Summitt and the University of Tennessee women's basketball team had clipped a net, hoisted a trophy, and returned to Knoxville in proper celebratory fashion.
True, the Lady Vols had gone nine for nine in Sweet 16 appearances and had made four trips to the NCAA championships during that time. But this was a program that since 1974 had compiled a win-loss record of 946-180. And its coach, Summitt, was the winningest in college basketball history.
Summitt said she could just hear the naysayers that night: She's way past her prime. The game has passed her by. But as is often the case, she proved her detractors wrong. On April 3, in the finals of this year's tournament, the Lady Vols routed Rutgers 59-46, and Summitt picked up her seventh NCAA title. Only John Wooden, the legendary UCLA men's basketball coach, has more.
For a coach defined by her numbers, as well as by the ferocity that flashes onscreen when she stares down a sloppy play, the biggest gun in Pat Summitt's arsenal may be her adaptability. For 33 years, she has controlled a game that has changed radically since she played it herself. And she has done so by constantly reattuning herself to her players' needs.
Each fall, Summitt has freshman recruits complete a personality profile—a detailed assessment of who they are as people and as players. "I want to figure out their strengths, their style of play," she says. "I want to know if they're the type that wants the ball under pressure, or if they want to pass it off." Selecting players, she looks for competitiveness and a deep desire for improvement. "If the student-athlete is not competitive," she says, "they should not come here." But it's her channeling of that drive that has defined careers, both hers and her players'. "When you're in the room with her," says Shelley Collier, captain of the 1986-1987 national championship team, "you just stand up. She doesn't even have to talk."
Time out. Yet when Summitt does talk, her players listen. In a tournament game this year against the University of North Carolina, the Lady Vols were down by 12 in the second half, with eight minutes to play. Summitt called for a time out. Other coaches might have barked commands, pulled out a notebook, drawn lines. But Summitt calmly inquired: "What type of defense do we want to run?" The team answered. "Can we make a stop?" (Could they hold them scoreless on their next possession?) Forward Candace Parker upped the ante. "Can we make five consecutive stops?" They could, the team said. And they went on a 20-2 run to win the game.
There was a time when Summitt, 55, might have acted differently. She has learned to be more communicative, she says, and less confrontational, even though her trademark intensity—the burning stare, the shouting from the sidelines—remains. "I've had to adjust," she says. "I used to take it out on my players. You have to be very secure to stop and think about what the players need from you."
The determination, it seems, derives from one simple fact: Summitt hates losing. "I despise it," she says. "It eats at me. I get physically sick." The competitiveness goes back to her childhood in Henrietta, Tenn., where she shot hoops with her brothers in the family barn. She played college ball, then qualified for the World University Games in 1973. A year later, she injured her knee and gained 25 pounds. "I knew I had to get that weight off," she says. "I told myself, 'I will make the Olympic team.' " She did, earning a silver medal in Mexico City.
When Summitt started at Tennessee in 1974, there was no Title IX, no national recruiting budget, not even an NCAA-sanctioned tournament. She had no money to spend on scholarships and no revenue from ticket sales.
What she did have was an intuitive sense of the game. She also studied the coaching greats, attending clinics by UNC's Dean Smith and soliciting advice from Indiana's Bobby Knight. She took what she liked, adapted it, and transformed a sport.
But Summitt's coaching transcends athletics. She is famous for requiring players to sit in the front three rows of lectures. "Class," she says, "is more important than a game." Indeed, of every Lady Vol who has completed her eligibility under Summitt, not one has left without a diploma.