REMEMBERING PAT SUMMITT, AN ALMOST EMPTY GYM, AND THE NIGHT MY FATHER CALLED FOR THE "GENTLEMEN VOLS"
All my life my heroes have been volunteers. Tennessee Volunteers. Orange and white clad athletes who have inspired me by running, throwing or catching passes or tackling or putting a ball in a basket. There is a long list of such heroes I have had for over 60 years from Johnny Majors to Condredge Holloway to Ernie Grunfeld to Bernard King to Reggie White to Peyton Manning to Tee Martin. But my number one Vol hero of all time was a country gal from Henrietta, Tennessee named Pat Summitt.
Pat came into my life on a cold January night in 1975 when out of sheer curiosity, I found myself in Alumni Gym on the campus of the University of Tennessee. I was a senior at UT and part of a non-capacity crowd of 53 people on hand to watch a basketball game between the “Lady Vols” and Middle Tennessee State University. It wasn’t the first “girls’ basketball game” I had ever attended. I had grown up watching girls play high school basketball in West Tennessee.
But the game I saw that night in Alumni Gym wasn’t a “girls” game. It was a women’s game.
The girls I had grown up watching play high school basketball were not allowed to use full court presses or fast breaks. They were in fact only allowed to play half-court games. Six girls to a team, three on offense and three on defense with half the girls just standing on one side of the court at any point during the game. Back in those bad old days, it was assumed that female basketball players were delicate flowers of the south who could never run from the baseline to the basket at the opposite end of the court.
But the game I witnessed that night between the Lady Vols and MTSU featured coeds who played just like men with two exceptions. First, they couldn’t dunk the ball. Second, they could actually make free throws.
I was very close to Pat that night. Literally just a few feet away. With only 53 fans in attendance, you could sit right behind the Lady Vols’ bench.
Several years later, after she became a legend, I approached Pat Summitt one night at a UT Alumni gathering. When I shook her hand I told her that I had been in attendance at that game in Alumni Gym. She hugged me and exclaimed, “Bless you! You were one of only 53 people! I remember thinking that night that instead of introducing the starting lineups, we should just go around the gym and have everybody in attendance introduce themselves!”
I kept attending Lady Vols games over the years. But suddenly I wasn’t one of 53 people. I was one of thousands in attendance first at Stokely Athletic Center and then at Thompson-Boling Arena and eventually at the court that became known as “The Summitt.”
I watched as this country gal from West Tennessee won basketball games. Over 1,000 of them. I watched her win national championships. Eight of them. And along the way, her players did something even more impressive than winning national championships. They kept graduating from the University of Tennessee. Not just some of them or even a lot of them. All of them. Pat had a 100% graduation rate during her nearly 40 years of coaching basketball at the University of Tennessee. A few of her players either dropped out of school or transferred, but every woman who played for her for four years graduated. Every single one of them.
I even followed Pat when she launched a full court press, not on a basketball court but in a courtroom. In 1976, she testified as an expert witness in a trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. The plaintiff in the case was a female high school basketball player from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She challenged the Tennessee high school rule that kept her from playing a full-court game. Pat testified that the rule was unfair to young female athletes, and after hearing her testimony, a federal judge struck down the silly half-court rule as a violation of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1972. That Act said simply: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Like a lot of laws, Title IX was simply words on a piece of paper. But Pat made those words come alive, first in the courtroom, and then on a basketball court. In the process, she did more than win basketball games and national championships. She changed the lives of millions of American women, literally opening the doors of sports arenas to them so that they could enter not just as fans, but as athletes.
I became one of Pat’s biggest fans. But there was one fan even more devoted to her. My father. His adoration for Pat and the Lady Vols was best demonstrated by something he said one night at a Big Orange Club meeting in Memphis. Pat was the featured speaker at the event, and at the conclusion of her talk, the moderator opened the floor for questions. The man sitting in front of my father and me raised his hand and was recognized. He then stood and asked Pat the following misguided question: “Coach, have you ever considered the Lady Vols playing their games as a preliminary to the men’s games? It would be real exciting to see both the Lady Vols and the men’s team play at Thompson-Boling Arena back to back, with the ladies going first, of course.”
Before Pat could give a diplomatic answer, my father was on his feet. Without even being recognized, he exclaimed, “Based on the relative success of the two programs, I think the Gentlemen Vols should play the preliminary game for the Lady Vols!”
The audience roared in applause and laughter. Pat just smiled, shook her head, and said “I’m not even going to touch that one!”
On Tuesday morning, I awoke to the news that Pat was gone, after a long and courageous battle with Alzheimers. She was quite simply the greatest Vol of all time. I will miss her, but for the rest of my life I will enjoy the memories not only of national championships, but of that first night in a nearly empty gym and of the evening when my father called for a preliminary game by the “Gentlemen Vols.”