The resume of University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt reads like a litany of excellence. Her Lady Volunteer basketball teams have won eight national championships and reached 16 Final Fours. Summitt herself won an Olympic silver medal in 1976 as a player and coached the United States to their first Olympic gold medal in 1984.
Earlier this year, Summitt won her 1,000th college basketball game. She was already the all-time winningest coach in men's and women's college basketball. Sprinkled amongst these achievements are numerous conference titles and coach of the year honors.
On Thursday night, Summitt visits Conseco Fieldhouse to host the Indiana Fever's Inspiring Women Night. She will set her legacy aside to help honor local women who have made an impact on the Indiana community.
"The concept of the WNBA recognizing women is a great way to bring exposure to what individuals are doing in their communities," Summitt says. Amongst the 13 women honored at halftime during the Fever's game against the Connecticut Sun is Judi Warren, who was named the very first Indiana Miss Basketball in 1976, and coach Donna Cheatham, the all-time wins leader in Indiana girls basketball. As an addition to the halftime ceremony, tickets are available for two receptions and an opportunity to meet Summitt.
Summitt's participation also reunites her with Tamika Catchings and Fever head coach Lin Dunn. Summitt was recruited by Dunn to play basketball for the University of Tennessee-Martin. Catchings played for Summitt from 1997-2001, leaving such an impression on the coach she still raves about her. "Tamika is a top five favorite," she says. "Coaches aren't supposed to show favoritism, but she is one of the hardest workers to play the game, both in college and in the pros. She has incredible passion, drive and toughness."
Catchings' passion, drive and toughness are traits Summitt sees in the Indiana Fever. As she tours the league watching her former Tennessee players or catches a game on television, few teams have impressed her as much as the Fever has. "They look great," Summitt says. "They play well together. They have a true team understanding of committing at both ends of the floor. I really believe they have a chance of competing for a championship."
Summitt has established ties in the state of Indiana that go beyond Tamika Catchings and Lin Dunn. Over the years, she has mined the state for basketball talent to help keep her juggernaut rolling. Amongst the former high school standouts who have made Knoxville a temporary home are several Miss Basketballs including Abby Conklin, April McDivitt, Shyra Ely and Shanna Zolman-Crossley. Currently, Hoosiers Sydney Smallbone and Briana Bass are members of the Lady Vols program. "There are a lot of players in Indiana who grow up playing basketball. That gives them the opportunity to go to any program they want if they are invested," Summitt says. "Indiana players have a great skill set. And they're competitive. When recruiting, it's not just important to find good athletes but good basketball players and competitors."
But Summitt also has a dubious connection to the state. Last March as the NCAA women's basketball tournament was just tipping off, Tennessee went down in the opening round for the very first time in the tournament's 27-year history. The opponent with the honor of ousting the two-time defending national champion: the Ball State Cardinals. "The team learned a valuable lesson during the post season," Summitt says. "Players put on the Tennessee uniform and think they are going to win because of the eight championships. It doesn't work that way. The experience left a great impact on us. You have to be committed every day. This team's lack of competitiveness almost drove me over the edge. Everyone wants to beat us and this young team didn't understand that. It was a long season for coach Summitt and her staff."
Summitt's legacy may have helped bring the game to where it is today, but the coach sees ways the sport can grow at all levels. "Part of that success is you have to invite people to watch you play," she says. "You need to create an environment that is appealing to all age groups. And you never stop doing it. Part of the reason Tennessee has led the nation in fan support over the last seven or eight years is because our student athletes are out in the community being active in thanking the fans and letting them know they are appreciated. That's so important in the women's game." She also feels athletes need to understand it's not enough to show up in the gym and practice, but they should be trying to learn something new while there. She encourages players to meet with their coaches and discuss skills they need to develop, something Summitt does at the end of every season with her players. She also believes players need to focus more on defense when they practice.
Summitt has helped advance women's sports over the decades. And now, during Thursday's game, she will help honor the women who did their part in building Indiana women's athletics. It will be a history lesson for the young competitors in the audience, many of them young girls with dreams of building a legacy of their own.