Women's Basketball Legend Still Bringing The Heat

Pat Summitt is in her 35th season as Head Coach of the University of Tennessee's women's basketball team, the Lady Volunteers. Nearly one-third of her former players are now coaches themselves, and tomorrow night Summitt hopes to pull off her 1,000th win. The hardwood legend reflects on her celebrated career, motherhood and offers wisdom from her journey.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, percussionist Eric Bobo tells us about the eclectic musical selection on his iPod.

But first, it's time for Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we hear from leaders from all walks of life who can share some wisdom with us.

Today's guest is a legend of the hardwood - Pat Summitt. She's the head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers, currently in her 35th season as head of the Lady Vols. She has the distinction of being college basketball's all-time winningest coach of either men or women.

And tomorrow night, she will pursue career win number 1,000 when her squad faces off against the University of Georgia. Coach Summitt joins me on the line. Coach, welcome, thanks for talking to us.

Ms. PAT SUMMITT (Head Coach, University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers): Hello, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, are you excited about this upcoming milestone, or are you, as they say, just trying to get the monkey off your back, get it over with, stop talking about it?

Ms. SUMMITT: Well, more than anything, we have a young basketball team this year, and we have seven freshmen. And it's, as I say, every moment is a teaching moment, and more than anything, I'm just trying to help this group figure out how they can be successful and play a 40-minute game because we're obviously playing our freshmen a lot of minutes. And you know, it's - when I think about the number of wins, obviously, that's a great reflection on all the players that have worn the Tennessee Lady Vol uniform and just performed the way they performed over the last 35 years.

MARTIN: Let's just give the listeners a little taste of the day at the office for you, shall we? Here's a clip of you last year in a game against George Washington University. Here it is.

(Soundbite of Coach Pat Summitt at a game against George Washington University, 2008)

Ms SUMMITT: Our outside defense is non-existent. We are so concerned with our player instead of putting pressure on the ball and having better help. And that's across the board. So, let's make sure that we are matched up in transition. These people will score if you don't defend.

MARTIN: Intense (unintelligible). I'm feeling my heart rate's coming up. I'm thinking, what did I do? Did I do something wrong? Intense.

Ms. SUMMITT: Oh, you wouldn't have played for me, Michel?

MARTIN: I would - I would love to have played for you, but - so, how do you describe your tone? I mean, people talk about you - intense, tenacious. What do you think your style is?

Ms. SUMMITT: Well, I think I am a very intense person, but I hope that, you know, that intensity can help bring out the best in everyone. And when you're working with a team, you know, you're only as good as your weakest player. And I know, for me, I'm constantly trying to challenge each player to play to their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. In particular, in the off season, they do that. But you know, to bring what they do best.

And sometimes it is a challenge because they will give in to fatigue. They will obviously, you know, struggle at times with their - if their offense struggles, then they don't defend as well. So, you know, it's - every moment is a teaching moment.

MARTIN: You're also famous for that stare-down. You know, people watch you on TV staring down players. You know, people get chills all across the country. I want to know where you developed the stare-down, and I also want to know if you've directed it at your son, Tyler.

Ms. SUMMITT: (Laughing) Well, definitely.

MARTIN: Does it work on him, too?

Ms. SUMMITT: Yes, I do. But the thing about that, I guess I got that from my father. He - my late father was - he was a man that was very focused and driven. And I grew up on a dairy farm. So, you know, cows never - they don't take a day off on the dairy farm. So we milked at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., and he just really - he demanded a lot from the five children, but in a good way. I don't think I would have this work ethic or this drive, or probably the stare. But with that, I think that just represents my focus and my intensity.

And, you know, I always have - with Tyler, my son, you know, I've tried to have a great relationship with him. But there are times, if I'm not happy with him, I know - one day, we were actually at the beach, and I was not happy with Tyler, so when I looked at him, I pulled my sunglasses down, and he goes, mom, put your sunglasses back on, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUMMITT: So, I guess, I guess I do have some steely blue eyes, as they say.

MARTIN: Maybe you could give some seminars on that for some of the parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now, you know, when people think of you, obviously - we've been talking about the coaching wins and your storied career, but one of the things people may not know, one of the stats people may not be aware of is that 45 of your former players - about a third of the women who've come through the program - are now themselves coaching. Why do you think that is?

Ms. SUMMITT: Well, I think when you are in an environment that is structured, and when you learn a game by understanding the offense and defense, and the motivation part of it, the communication part of it, hopefully, by the time they go four years through our program, I think they feel like they have a good foundation and knowledge of how to teach this game, how to inspire others, you know, how to be successful in the game of basketball. And they learn a lot of valuable life skills. And that's why I think so many of them have chosen to go on and be coaches in this profession.

And while people see my intensity, as I said, people don't care how much you know until you know how much you care and - until they know how much you care, and I think it's important that you have the one-on-one time with every student athlete. I have them over for dinner and spend quality time with them. We have family night to get to know how they grew up and maybe some of the challenges they had earlier in life, and then how we can reach out to them and be a family to them while they're here at Tennessee and even after they leave.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that in a minute. Particularly, if you don't mind, I'd love to hear more about how you balance, you know, being a mom to your own son and then trying to be, in effect, a parent figure, a life force for these other girls.

But before I do, I wanted to mention the great Lisa Leslie is retiring. And I do wonder - and as I think everybody knows, the WNBA has faced some rocky times over the last - it's been in existence for 10 years, and I do wonder if you ever think that women's professional basketball will ever be as viable a career option for your players as the men's side is for male college stars?

Ms. SUMMITT: OK. My thought there?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm(ph).

Ms. SUMMITT: Absolutely. There's such a difference in the opportunities for the men to make millions, while on the women's side the pay scale is very low. And people like Lisa Leslie or Candace Parker, or a number of players that go overseas, you know, we have a number of our players right now that are going overseas, so they can go to Russia or Poland and make a million, or a million two, where in the, you know, there's a big discrepancy in the amount of money that the men make versus the women, plus they don't have to go abroad in order to earn that type of salary plan.

MARTIN: Do you ever think that's going to change?

Ms. SUMMITT: I don't know. It takes a long time to change, you know, such a different gap there. I mean, there's such a wide gap between what women are being paid and what men are being paid. And obviously, a lot of that has to do with just the marketing part of it. And I think we - if we're going to continue our league, we have to really invest in marketing. And that right now, to me, is a big discrepancy.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols. She is college basketball's all-time winningest coach. Tomorrow night, she's going for career victory number 1,000. No pressure coach, not at all. Not that we want to keep reminding you it's your 1,000th.

But I did want to ask - and you know what it is? I am mindful of the fact that if you were a male coach, I probably wouldn't be asking you this. But a lot of women want to know, and they're thinking about, gee, how could I be a Pat Summitt? How do you do it all? How have you managed that all these years?

Ms. SUMMITT: Well, I think, first and foremost, just being at one place has helped, being at the University of Tennessee. And this university was one of the first administrations in the Southeast, and in the country, to really get behind women's basketball, and then obviously women's athletics. And I think that's significant when you have the support, and they gave us the resources, you know, to obviously market our program, to recruit nationally as opposed to just within the Southeast.

And you know, the fact that we have led the nation in fan support in the last several years. We've gotten out in the community, I think that's been a big part and a big plan for me when - you know, I probably have talked to every civic group in all of, you know, east Tennessee, just to invite people personally to come and watch us. And now we have, you know, we have an average of about 13,000, 14,000.

And you know, tomorrow night, I hope the place is absolutely packed because I think our community has embraced all of the university's athletics programs. But you know, certainly in women's basketball, we're very fortunate that we have the following that we have.

MARTIN: But one of the things - but what I was asking about is, you've done all that while raising your own son, and I wondered was that ever hard? How did you work that out? I mean, you're a parent figure for a lot of girls. Not to say these girls don't have their own parents because they do, but you're a very important person to a lot of these girls' lives, and then you've got your own son who you're very important to. How did you balance that all these years?

Ms. SUMMITT: Well, actually, my son traveled with me. I mean, when he was 14 days old, we had our first road trip, but he - I took him on the trips, and a lot of times I had to drive the van and have the players in the van with me, and I'd say, make sure you don't step on Tyler. (Laughing) He would be in his little basket in the back, and everybody would pass him around. So, guess what? He's spoiled rotten, I'm sure.

But you know, he went with me and traveled with me. He was in a private school, so up until, you know, he went to the ninth grade, the teachers were very flexible. And it was a great experience to have him with me all the time. And now he's playing in high school, getting ready to graduate, and he, believe it or not, wants to coach basketball, and he wants to coach women's basketball.

MARTIN: Does he have the stare? Can he do the stare?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUMMITT: No, he's not...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUMMITT: I don't know if he can give that stare.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to share with us coach, especially for a younger you or - not that you're not young, but you know what I mean - somebody like you coming up, or others who might be listening?

Ms. SUMMITT: Well, I just think for, you know, my passion obviously is in the women's game. But I just think that you - life is incredibly short, and as we go through each year we realize that, as we lose loved ones we realize that. And you know, I want to live each day to the absolute fullest and give it my very, very best.

And I want to encourage all the people around me to be what they want to be, and not to sell themselves short. But for these young women to have the self-esteem and the confidence to do whatever it is they want to do in life. And to have that courage. It takes courage. It takes hard work, but you know, don't ever think that you can't do what it is that you have in your mind that you want to do, whether, you know, that's to go in the political arena or you know, to start your own business or you know, to be a professional athlete.

MARTIN: Do you ever think about that yourself, I mean, going into politics?

Ms. SUMMITT: Well, I have a lot of people suggesting that I go into politics. But you know, my brother was a state representative for a number of years, and I guess, just being around it, I think I might struggle in that arena.

MARTIN: How come?

Ms. SUMMITT: Well, to me it is political. And you know, it's a - I just don't see, day to day, where I would be inspired. I'd probably be frustrated, and I like constantly seeking to bring a group of people together toward a common goal. And I think I can do that better with working with the young women that I work with here at the university.

MARTIN: You think that - this is politics I'm asking - do you think we'll ever see a female president?

Ms. SUMMITT: You know what? It would not surprise me.

MARTIN: OK. Pat...

Ms. SUMMITT: It would not surprise me.

MARTIN: But it won't be Pat Summitt?

Ms. SUMMITT: No.

MARTIN: OK. We'll check back with you in a year and see what's going on.

Ms. SUMMITT: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Pat Summitt is in her 35th season as head coach of the Lady Vols at the University of Tennessee. She is the winningest college basketball coach in NCAA history. Tomorrow, she goes for career win number 1,000 against the University of Georgia. And she joined us on the line from her home in Knoxville. Coach, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SUMMITT: Michel, thanks for having me.

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