Pat Summitt (1984)
Feb. 2, 2009
By Graham Hays
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Time seems to slow watching a freight train chug through Knoxville. As it passes almost into the shadow of the Sunsphere, the gold-topped landmark constructed to celebrate the 1982 World's Fair, neither the train nor the city tucked in the folds of the surrounding hills seems in any rush to find the future.
It's only upon closer inspection that the city speeds up and comes to life, most notably where the state university climbs from the banks of the Tennessee River. There, century-old academic buildings and the towering grandeur of Neyland Stadium mix with the newest of new, like Pratt Pavilion, the state-of-the-art basketball practice facility that sits next to Thompson-Boling Arena.
This is the world Pat Summitt quite literally inhabits as she becomes the first coach in college basketball history to win 1,000 games. And it's a place where basketball has changed little since shortly after a 21-year-old Summitt received a letter from Helen Watson, chair of the department of physical education at Tennessee, asking her to take the coaching position. That was years before the Sunsphere graced the city's skyline.
Summitt's classroom might have changed since then, from whichever physical education building was available on a given day to a sparkling showpiece like Pratt, but she still considers herself a teacher first. She instructs both the game and the discipline she learned on her father's tobacco farm.
So asked how the 24-year-old version of herself, months removed from playing for the United States in the 1976 Olympics and beginning her third season as Tennessee's coach, would fare if handed the reins of this season's youthful Lady Volunteers, Summitt paused to ponder for a moment and eventually concluded things probably wouldn't be that different in the present.