Like a lot of farms, we had an inside basketball hoop on one end of the top floor of our bank barn where I grew up. If you were lucky, and most of the square bales of hay were tightly packed in both end haymows, and none of the machinery or other odds and ends were parked in that space, you could always shoot some hoops. Of course, you had to watch out for the door in the floor to the left of the hoop where we threw hay down, but at least there was a wooden ladder there to climb to the stanchion barn below and retrieve an errant shot.
My brother Mitch and cousin Richard gave the court its hardest workouts, but I’m thinking that’s where my sister Jean perfected her rebounding, boxing-out skills, too.
This year’s Sports Illustrated’s Sportswoman of the Year developed her ball skills in the hayloft of her family’s barn, too. And, like most other farm children, University of Tennessee women’s head basketball coach Pat Summitt and her three brothers had to wait to play until after their chores were done.
SI writer Alexander Wolff adds this story of the young Patricia Sue Head: “She was barely 12 the day her father first left her alone in a field, with a tractor and a hay rake — and orders to figure out how to use them.”
Summitt, selected this year along with Duke University’s men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, is the first female college basketball coach to win the honor.
Beyond her accomplishments on the sidelines — eight NCAA championships, a record of 1,071-199 to start this season, and 100 percent graduation rate for the Lady Vols who have completed their eligibility at Tennessee — Summitt is lauded for her grit, hard work and perseverance.
And she’ll need every bit of those attributes as the 59-year-old faces early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, which she announced to the world in August.
“I’m not givin’ up, I’m going to do everything I can do,” Summitt said in a video interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel. “It’s not going to keep me from living my life.”
The more I read about Pat Summitt, the more I realize she is an amazing woman. She started as Tennessee’s head coach six weeks before her 22nd birthday, barely older than her players, drove the team van and washed uniforms. She ruled with an iron fist, browbeating her recruits like her hard-nosed father drove his children. Then, she learned how to challenge rather than criticize, Wolff writes in the Dec. 12 SI, and got to know her players as people so she could find better ways to coach them. That doesn’t mean she turned soft, and the story is legion about the new player who, when running endless “suicide” drills, couldn’t take it any more and simply kept running… out of the gym.
But the strictness and emphasis on hard work — and teamwork — let her players achieve their full potential. You can see her coaching, no, make that life philosophies in her “Definite Dozen” (see the list at the end of this column).
Joining his mother onstage to accept the Sports Illustrated honor, Tyler Summitt, a junior walk-on to the men’s basketball team at UT, said, “From the time I was born, there was just this emphasis on ‘team before yourself,’ and ‘put others first,’”
Things will change for the woman who has succeeded by sheer determination. She won’t be able to tackle this one alone. And that’s where the family she has spent her whole life building comes in. Just like the rich support of neighbors and strangers alike we often see in our rural communities.
We could learn a lot from this farm girl.
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Pat Summitt’s Definite Dozen:
1. Respect Yourself and Others
2. Take Full Responsibility
3. Develop and Demonstrate Loyalty
4. Learn to Be a Great Communicator
5. Discipline Yourself So No One Else Has To
6. Make Hard Work Your Passion
7. Don’t Just Work Hard, Work Smart
8. Put the Team Before Yourself
9. Make Winning an Attitude
10. Be a Competitor
11. Change Is a Must
12. Handle Success Like You Handle Failure