Contributing editor Maria M. Cornelius writes about April 18, 2012. It’s been three years since Pat Summitt retired. Women’s basketball needs the spirit of Pat Summitt to return. Cornelius is a senior writer for Inside Tennessee. She wrote a book about Pat Summitt’s final season that will be published later this year.
Three years ago yesterday, I waited for a phone call I didn’t want to answer. Pat Summitt planned to step down as head coach at Tennessee and placed advance phone calls to sportswriters at InsideTennessee, the Washington Post and the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Summitt selected the three beat writers who had covered her program for years – me, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post and Dan Fleser of the News Sentinel. I was grateful for the phone call to say the least.
Those three media entities were granted the right to break the news first, the day before the official press conference. I knew the call could come any day that week.
The phone rang late morning on April 18, 2012, and Pat Summitt’s name appeared as the caller. I answered the phone, closed the door to my office and clicked on the recorder. I have dozens of tapes with the voice of Summitt. This was one I definitely wanted to record.
Summitt’s voice was clear and her tone was upbeat, but I knew it was a phone call she wished she didn’t have to make. Summitt had rocked the sport Aug. 23, 2011, with the announcement that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. She coached for a 38th and final season before taking the role of head coach emeritus, a title she still holds and should retain for life.
As I said in radio remarks on Fox Sports: “You are listening to a legend tell you she is stepping down.” The story I quickly wrote for InsideTennessee can be read here: Pat Summitt steps down as coach.
It stated: “The date of April 18, 2012, will go down as a momentous one in Lady Vols history because Summitt, the likes of which the game will never see again – a coach who started her career at the age of 22 while teaching classes at Tennessee and working on her master’s degree – made official what had been anticipated.”
Summitt changed the game. Under her stewardship, television became a major partner, attendance increased, and coaches’ salaries skied into six and seven figures. And yet the more famous she and her program became, the more grounded she stayed.
Reporters had her cell and home phone numbers – and she answered them or called back as soon as she could. She opened practice and handled media interviews after each session, even doing separate stand-ups so the three local television stations would have their own one-on-one interviews.
If radio showed up, she did another interview. Then, she talked to the print and Internet media. She especially enjoyed the student reporters from the campus newspaper. They often were somewhat in awe standing next to her and would stammer out a question. She would smile, compliment the question and answer in full.
Summitt never dodged a question, but she never took the bait, either. She refused to engage in a dogfight, as it were. That extended to how Summitt recruited. She didn’t cheat, and she didn’t run down other programs or coaches, even though she knew it was being done to her.
Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw correctly noted at the 2014 Women’s Final Four that a certain level of civility in the game exited with Summitt: “I think all women’s coaches really respect her and looked up to her, because they knew when she spoke, it was about what was good for the women’s game. She role-modeled how to be gracious in victory, as well as defeat. She was such a classy coach and, unfortunately, the game and sportsmanship lost a lot when we lost her.”
The 2015 women’s championship game, a rematch of UConn vs. Notre Dame, was one of the least-watched on ESPN in the last 20 years. The return of Tennessee to the Final Four – the Lady Vols’ last appearance was in 2008, marking Summitt’s eighth and final national title – would help considerably. Tennessee has a national following, and the orange-and-white flock to the Final Four.
Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick has vowed to continue Summitt’s legacy and that extends to recruiting. So far, so good. Warlick and her staff have recruited well and are poised for championship runs with the returning players and recruits due to arrive.
Summitt’s legacy class of Cierra Burdick, Isabelle Harrison and Ariel Massengale, all were drafted this week into the WNBA. They were freshmen during Summitt’s final season and are the last three to play for the iconic coach.
Harrison went to Phoenix as the final pick of the first round and would have gone much higher if not for a knee injury. Los Angeles selected Burdick as the second pick in the second round, and Atlanta took Massengale in the third round.
It was an appropriate ending for the trio, and I tweeted: “Developed, drafted and graduated.”
The game misses Summitt. And it always will. The greatest legacy would be for all coaches to follow Summitt’s example and do things the right way.