Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pat Summitt was Simply the Best

Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Philippians 4:8

Pat Summitt passed away on Monday morning. At the age of 64 she died of complications from early onset Alzheimers. 

She was the epitome of excellence.

When I first began to follow women’s basketball, hers was the first name I knew.

And she was the one who changed the game.

Thirty years ago, when women’s basketball was rarely on TV, her teams were worth watching. They played with an intensity that matched her indomitable spirit.

She became the head coach at the University of Tennessee when she was just 22 years old. Thirteen years later, in 1987, when she won her first national championship, she was still a very young coach.

But now, I cannot help seeing Pat Summitt through the lens of the UCONN women. When we were in Connecticut, we lived in the same town as Geno. And we watched as UCONN went from the lowest ranks of the sport to the very pinnacle.

The first meeting between Tennessee and UCONN was in January of 1995, and it was the game that put UCONN on the women’s basketball map. The Huskies won that game and with it they claimed the number one ranking in the country. It was also a huge moment for the women’s game. It was nationally televised and it moved women’s basketball into the national sports consciousness in a new way. It brought a legitimacy to the women’s game that had not previously existed.

Later that spring UCONN and Tennessee met again in the NCAA championship. And that game did not disappoint.

Rebecca Lobo, the UCONN star, was in foul trouble in the first half and the Huskies trailed the Lady Vols by six points at half-time.

In spite of the January win, this seemed a bridge too far and a hill too steep for UCONN. Pat Summitt’s teams already had three national championships. They knew how to win. 

But Rebecca Lobo had an extraordinary second half and Jennifer Rizzotti had an amazing steal that put her on the cover of Sports Illustrated (okay, it was the cover photo only in the CT edition of the magazine, but still), and they won to complete their first perfect season (35-0).

The championship was played at the beginning of Holy Week, and that game became the central illustration in my Easter sermon that year: the first half was Good Friday, but the second half was Easter.

Pat Summitt would win her sixth championship before Geno Auriemma won his second, but from 1995 on UCONN and Tennessee, Pat and Geno, would forever be linked.

UCONN (women’s) basketball became a state religion in Connecticut. 

And Tennessee became the Evil Empire. In the minds of UCONN fans, Pat Summitt got special treatment from the referees. And special treatment in the seeding for the NCAA Tournament. When the pairings were announced, the key question was always about when the girls from Storrs would play Tennessee. 

It was an amazing rivalry.

In 2004 Sports Illustrated commissioned an interactive poll to determine who was the sports “Enemy of the State” for each state. Only one state chose a woman. Connecticut chose Pat Summitt as their number one sports enemy.

But eventually even the most committed UCONN fan had to admit that there was something special about the coach they loved to hate.

Jeff Jacobs, of the Hartford Courant, wrote a great story on the unique relationship between Pat and Geno. He asked Geno what Pat meant to women’s basketball.

"Our sport is synonymous with Pat Summitt, and Pat Summitt is synonymous with women's basketball," said Auriemma.

"We don't have a long history, women's basketball. The history before Tennessee and before Pat Summitt is checkered. There wasn't a lot of media attention. There wasn't a lot of interest in the game. There wasn't a lot of support from universities.

"During our short history, there was one person for a long time. Nobody else was even in that category. There was Pat Summitt. Nobody else. Other people took their turn at getting their 15 minutes of fame, but when people talked about women's basketball in America, it was Pat Summitt and Tennessee. When was the last time a women's team coach got on the cover of Time magazine? It just doesn't happen."

The UCONN-Tennessee rivalry lasted only 12 years. But every game meant something. Jacobs describes it this way:

“Moments after moments after moments. At one end was the Tennessee General. At the other was the rapscallion from Philly. UConn won 13 of the 22, including all four times in the national championship. Summitt got Geno once in the Final Four and another time in the Elite Eight and won their final three meetings before she called an end to the rivalry. Long, unseemly story short: It was Pat Summitt's greatest mistake.”

And then Geno summed it up:

"We had an opportunity to shape the landscape of women's basketball, the two of us. She did her part. I did my part. It didn't necessarily go over well with everybody else. But that's OK. That's how things grow. I knew we made it big, Connecticut and Tennessee, Geno and Pat, when they asked a bunch of coaches one year at the NCAA Tournament, who do you think is going to win the NCAA Tournament?
 "They said, 'I really don't care as long as it's not Tennessee or Connecticut.' That's when I thought we've got something pretty special going. I remember walking up to Pat before one of the national semifinal games. I said, 'You guys need to win. We need to win. We need to play each other because we've got a good thing going here, and we don't need anybody else breaking into this party.' She got a little chuckle out of that."
Every Tennessee player who completed four years of eligibility under Pat Summitt also graduated. 

Every single one. 

And they all loved her because she pushed them to be better than they had ever imagined they could be. 

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