Honoring one legend while remembering another
Two of a Kind
by Tony Basilio
Like life itself, there seems to be an interconnection between major figures in the sports world. Sometimes it's a symbiosis that works sport by sport, like Larry and Magic or Tiger and Phil et al. Sometimes it works with people we'd never have connected, had fate not chosen to intervene.
Take last week for instance. On a day when Pat Summitt was celebrating her historic seventh national title, former Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson departed this world. Two coaches from different sports and different backgrounds, yet both a part of a vanishing breed.
In the immortal words of my on-air partner Beano, both Summitt and Robinson are in a select company. Ironic that they would share the stage on April 4, 2007, since neither got involved in coaching with the idea of garnering a shred of national publicity. Humbling doesn't begin to describe what it must've been like coaching at a historically black college back in the early 1940s, as was Robinson's path to the summit. Back then, Grambling was called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Robinson not only coached football, he coached basketball as well. As for the former Pat Head, hers was a humble beginning that few of us ever take time to ponder.
"I can remember being a student on campus at the time she first got the UT job and seeing her build that program from nothing," said Beano, who was an undergraduate in Physical Education at the time. "Nobody came. They had no money. Nobody cared. Heck, she was even doing the team laundry and driving the van. I saw everything she had to go through to get the program off the ground. You talk about thankless."
Could Pat Summitt and Eddie Robinson ever conceive that one day they would see their names in lights and hear their names mentioned with the likes of the all-time legends in their respective sports? Though she's a women's coach, obviously coaching a different game than men's hoops, Summitt's amazing accomplishments are often compared with John Wooden and Dean Smith. And why not? There's simply not another figure in her sport worthy of the comparison.
As for Robinson, when he sat on the cusp of breaking the legendary Bear Bryant's all-time college football record of 323 wins in a career back in October of 1985, he received the ultimate compliment. Though many in the 'Bama nation and the sports world at large were trying to diminish his accomplishments as being a product of coaching against inferior competition, one voice trumped all others. Bryant's widow Mary sent him a telegram of congratulations and wished him well in his upcoming game versus Prairie View A&M. After that, thousands of well-wishers corresponded as well, and Robinson was recognized for the greatness he conveyed.
So it is with Pat Summitt. Latecomers to the Lady Vol party see the plush offices, the bling of the trophies, the parade of All-Americans, the nationally televised battles before sold-out arenas. That's all they know. They can't comprehend a time when Summitt had to scratch and claw for viability when she took over at Tennessee in 1974. If you ask anyone who the coach was at Tennessee before Summitt, chances are they didn't even know there was a coach. For the record, and only for the record, it was Margaret Hutson who held the post for four years and was an impressive 25-2 in her final season. Nobody knows because nobody cared.
Like Robinson, who landed an unprecedented nationally syndicated TV contract for Grambling back in the '60s, Summitt expended the energy to make them care. She not only carried the Lady Vols to viability but made women's college basketball a legitimate part of the national sports landscape. And like Robinson, she did it the blue-collar way, by preaching hallmark American values including ethical behavior and a commitment to excellence across the board, even in the classroom.
"[Coach] gave us a way of looking at life. [Coach] used to say first one to cry is a sissy. That was [Coach's] way of saying there are no excuses. [Coach] always wanted us to look for a way to succeed, not a reason to fail." That was a quote from Everson Walls on the life lessons garnered from playing for Eddie Robinson. "Coach" was substituted for "he" to make the quote unisexual since it easily could have been said for Pat Summitt. Players not only become better at their craft for having played for Summitt and Robinson. They become better people.
That, perhaps, is the best legacy of all.
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.