The University of Tennessee's new athletic director, Dave Hart, will formally take over the Women's Department of Intercollegiate Athletics in June. Actually, he pretty much already has, and devoted Lady Vol fans, many of whom have been here from the days when Pat Summitt's teams were playing in Alumni Gym to crowds numbering in the dozens, believe that the men's side will undergo an instant upgrade when it absorbs the House That Summitt Built. They aren't sure they're going to like him or the new consolidated athletics department.
But like him or not, he's the new boss and he'll be making decisions that would have been unimaginable six months ago.
He's in a tough spot. Pat Summitt is probably the most respected public figure in Tennessee. He's a guy from Alabama.
Not all that long ago, there was serious talk about running her for governor. Her name pops up on every "Most Admired" list in existence. To understand this phenomenon, he needs to read her first book, The Definite Dozen, paying careful attention to the first three maxims on the eponymous list that is set before her incoming freshmen every season:
• Respect Yourself and Others
• Take Full Responsibility
• Develop and Demonstrate Loyalty
He also needs to learn the history of a program whose fans have been hearing persistent rumors that his marketing department intends to retire the iconic Lady Vols logo. He needs to fix that.
He'd also better study the events of last spring, when nobody but Summitt's closest associates knew about the dementia diagnosis she'd gone all the way to the Mayo Clinic to get. Relentless in her quest to find out what was causing her intermittent memory lapses, she endured a spinal tap to get a definitive answer. Before she went public three months later, she and her staff set up a system of shared responsibility designed to lessen her stress. The announcement was more Dylan Thomas ("Do not go gentle into that good night") than Ronald Reagan ("I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life"), and Hart should already know that rumors fanned by selective application of ESPN's bathos-seeking cameras of Summitt looking uninvolved are a distortion of reality.
He already knows that the atmosphere around UT athletics last spring was grim. Derek Dooley's modest gridiron successes hadn't come close to expunging the bitter taste of the Kiffin debacle. The Comet Bruce Pearl had fizzled, leaving Hart's predecessor Mike Hamilton to sort through a shockingly venal tangle of Kiffin/Pearl transgressions that inevitably forced his own resignation. Usually, when things break bad on the men's side, Lady Vols basketball provides a little balm, but the women finished 34-3 (average by Summitt standards) and failed to make the Final Four for the third straight season (unthinkable by Summit standards).
Lady Vol fans were gratified to see Women's Athletics Director Joan Cronan named interim AD for both departments until Hamilton's successor could be named. Not as pleasing was the plan to retire Cronan and merge the two departments in June 2012, something many on the men's side had advocated for years.
Hart's commitment to women's nonrevenue sports got an early test when the University of Texas offered Tennessee soccer coach Angie Kelley a job. Hart chose not to counteroffer and went after Brian Pensky of the University of Maryland, who had taken the Terps to the Sweet 16 in two of the last three years and was named 2010 National Soccer Coach of the Year. The hire was hailed as an undiluted triumph.
But when Pensky hired only male assistant coaches, questions about the new regime's commitment to the foundational principles of Lady Vols athletics were revived.
Hart needs to understand that when Summitt told people who kept pestering her about coaching men that she wanted to stay where she was needed, she meant it. She has never accepted the proposition that women's athletics are less important than men's.
I got a demonstration of that a decade ago when I interviewed her about the historic 1976 lawsuit that changed the way Tennessee high school girls played basketball. It had long been believed that girls were too delicate to endure the rigors of running full-court, so girls teams were composed of three forwards who played only offense and three guards who were defenders only, all of whom were forbidden from crossing the mid-court line. This meant that half of Coach Pat Head's recruits couldn't shoot and the other half couldn't defend.
Fresh off leading the USA women's team to a silver medal in the first Olympics to allow women's basketball, she wasn't about to put up with that, so she defied the state's high school coaching hierarchy and testified for the plaintiff in a civil-rights suit challenging the constitutionality of the half-court rule. To the astonishment of many, the famously crotchety and conservative judge Robert Taylor ruled against the TSSAA, thereby opening up college scholarships and career opportunities that had been unreachable for most girls.
Then we talked about Title IX, the 1972 law that bars schools receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of gender. Summitt shot me that famous blue glare and slapped a stack of documents dealing with then-President George W. Bush's Commission on Opportunity in Athletics down on her desk. The commission was seen by many supporters of women's athletics as a move to dismantle Title IX. I don't recall every word she said, but I clearly remember this:
"Write this down," she said. "Any woman who votes for George Bush ought to have her head examined."
About that time, Cronan popped in and reminded me that I had an appointment to talk to her, too, so I happy-danced down the hall thinking I'd struck a reporter's mother lode—Pat Summitt taking on the president? O frabjous day!
My butt barely hit the chair in front of Cronan's desk when she said, "You're not going to print that, are you?" Eventually I gave in, but I never said never, and I'm telling the story now to make the point that Hart isn't just dealing with a living legend who commands a $2 million salary, but also with a woman who would fight a bear—or a president—with a switch (to use one of her pet phrases) to protect the cause of her life. He needs to be her teammate.