Losing a 16-point lead in the final 15 minutes of a national semi-final game—the way the Lady Vols basketball squad did recently against Michigan State—seems like a disastrous way to end a season.
But let's put things in their proper perspective. A point I made last week in this column is that everything is relative in the world of March Madness. And with Pat Summitt and her Lady Vols, it's important to look at where she is now relative to where she was 31 years ago before we pass judgement on this season.
Rewind the clock to 1974, when a young, bright-eyed future Olympian was finishing one college basketball career in the UT system and beginning another one. Pat Head was tabbed by Athletics Director Bob Woodruff to babysit the new UT Lady Vol basketball team. This was more than just a ground-floor opportunity; this was somewhere in basketball's dingy basement.
In those days, Summitt did everything, including driving the team bus. She coordinated all the travel plans. She even did the laundry after practices and games, all while existing on a salary somewhere barely north of the poverty line.
They played their games in those early days before dozens of fans, despite an overabundance of complimentary tickets. The routine consisted of one musty gym after another, night after night of second-class accommodations, cheap meals in fast-food restaurants, doing the laundry and, somewhere in the equation, coaching basketball. Remember, knowing these things about the all-time winningest coach in the history of women's hoops is necessary if we wish to see what took place in the 2005 Final Four in Indianapolis in its proper perspective.
The 1970s eventually gave way to the '80s, and the Lady Vols emerged as one of the premiere programs in the NCAA. Gone are the days of musty gyms. In the rearview mirror are the late-night trips to the laundromat. And then it happened—the Lady Vols earned their first national championship crown. Summitt and her girls reigned o'er all of women's collegiate basketball.
The Lady Vols were First Class, with all the trappings of most of the top men's programs in the country. They had an administration that slowly let go of the purse strings, allowing Summitt and staff to build something unique in the game. Only Summitt didn't have designs on building just a program, but on building up the sport itself. It would have been easy to kick back and simply enjoy the fruits of her 15 years of labor. Instead, she chose to grab the game by the bootstraps and pull it up to the top with her.
Indeed, Summitt became a spokesperson for her sport. It was the onset of her crusade to spread the gospel of women's hoops to a hungry populace. Much to the chagrin of many fans of UT men's hoops—who saw her travel schedule as excessive and unnecessary— Summitt took her brand of basketball to the masses by logging hundreds of thousands
So now flash forward to Pat Summitt, 31 years later in a tourney that had seen her celebrate a milestone victory just a few games earlier. Her mighty Lady Vols were facing the upstart Michigan State Lady Spartans. More than 38,000 paying customers attended the event, which had been sold out for close to a year! A national TV audience was watching on ESPN. The women's tourney even relegated the Boston Red Sox/New York Yankee season opener of Major League Baseball to ESPN2. Women's basketball had arrived, and once again, Summitt was gladly driving the bus.
Then she suffers a painful, no doubt personal loss to the Lady Spartans. Dropping a game is one thing, but losing to a team that is coached by a couple of your former running buddies in Al Brown and Sameka Randall must really sting. Consider that coaches like Al Brown wouldn't be able to make a good living in women's basketball without the sacrifices of those early years.
It wasn't an easy out for Pat Summitt in 2005. Then again, she never has been about taking it easy. Want somebody to blame for the Lady Vols "Dive in the Dome"? Look to Summitt. She wouldn't want it any other way.