KNOXVILLE — Mere words don’t seem to capture the magnitude of Pat Summitt’s career.
Perhaps a four-digit number will.
The Tennessee women’s basketball coach now has 1,000 wins, an achievement unparalleled by anyone in four-year-college history. Summitt reached four figures Thursday night in Thompson-Boling Arena with a 73-43 Southeastern Conference trouncing of Georgia.
“It is such a large number that it’s almost hard to comprehend,” said Western Carolina coach Kellie Harper, who played under Summitt from 1995 to ’99.
But the Hall of Fame coach with a 1,000-187 record has spent her career making the unfathomable seem attainable.
In her 35th season at UT, Summitt has won 84.2 percent of her games and eight national championships, including the last two.
“Certainly Pat has done a wonderful job,” said long-retired UCLA men’s coach John Wooden, whose 10 national titles are an NCAA record. “I’ve seen her team play and seen them practice. She’s just an outstanding coach.”
Retired men’s coach Bob Knight is closest to Summitt in victories with NCAA programs, with 902. The only one at any level of college with more wins than Summitt is Three Rivers Community College men’s coach Gene Bess, still active at age 74 with a 1,075-282 career record.
Summitt’s Lady Vols have won 27 Southeastern Conference tournament and regular-season championships and made 27 straight appearances in the NCAA Sweet 16.
But the numbers tell only half the tale.
With her famous icy stare and intense demeanor on the sideline, Summitt has achieved an iconic status to even the casual sports fan and helped revolutionize women’s basketball.
“She’s one of the greatest sports figures in American history,” said Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com’s women’s basketball coverage. “I don’t think that’s an understatement.”
Creating a MONSTER
Summitt’s first win received little fanfare.
In fact, only 53 people showed up to watch coach Pat Head, then 22 years old, and her Lady Vols team beat Middle Tennessee State 69-32 at UT’s Alumni Gym on Jan. 10, 1975.
Head, now Summitt, joined the staff the previous year as a graduate assistant under head coach Margaret Hutson. When Hutson stepped down to pursue her doctorate, the 1974 UT-Martin graduate was tapped as her replacement despite no coaching experience.
To those who knew Summitt then, that shortcoming was inconsequential.
“I think all of us knew even in the early stages knew that she was a great coach and a great person,” said UT women’s athletic director Joan Cronan, who coached the Lady Vols in 1969-70. “I think it’s been absolutely phenomenal that she’s been able to do it at one place.”
Associate head coach Holly Warlick remembers when Summitt recorded her 500th win against Ohio State in the inaugural State Farm Tip-Off Classic at Jackson, Tenn., in November 1993.
“We thought that was big,” said Warlick, a 1976-80 Lady Vols point guard.
But now her mentor has doubled that total.
“When you look at it and see what’s happened, it really is unbelievable,” said Warlick, who has been alongside Summitt for more than 850 victories. “But when you go through the process you don’t really realize it, because I think Pat’s created a monster here, so we’re supposed to win every game.”
Summitt’s Lady Vols have come close. They are 454-44 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Finding a way to win
Summitt’s teams have a reputation for succeeding down the stretch.
“In the last two minutes, somehow, some way, they’re going to find a way to win,” Voepel said.
Guard Alexis Hornbuckle did that in the 2008 national semifinal game against LSU in Tampa, Fla. With seven-tenths of a second remaining in regulation, Hornbuckle ripped down an offensive rebound and put in the winning bucket, sending the Lady Vols to the national championship game against Stanford.
“We’ve had our backs against the wall in certain years,” Warlick said.
This season has been no exception. Trailing by 20 points at halftime, the youthful Lady Vols pulled off the biggest comeback in program history to beat Rutgers 55-51 on Jan. 3.
“When you think of the number 1,000, you think of a program that’s just been really, really dominant,” Voepel said, “but the other side of that dominance is they’ve always responded when somebody challenges them.”
They have won even when they weren’t the most dominant team. In 1997, the Lady Vols lost nine times during the regular season but won the national championship.
Adapting to trends
Summitt’s longevity and sustained success stem largely from her ability to modify her coaching and recruiting techniques as the game and players change. Women’s basketball has matured greatly since the years when Summitt drove her team to games.
As schools’ athletic programs have placed more emphasis on women’s basketball, parity among teams has increased, recruiting battles have intensified, and new powerhouses have emerged.
Amid this culture shift in the sport, Summitt and the Lady Vols have maintained their winning ways. Even in its nine-year national championship drought (from 1998 to 2007), Tennessee posted 30 or more wins in all but one season (2001-02).
Summitt has likewise weathered the onslaught of competition after teams have placed a target on her program.
“I think what’s phenomenal about Pat is she continues to grow and continues to want to get better,” Cronan said. “I think that’s what makes her so good. She doesn’t say, ‘Well, I’ve won five championships. I’m always going to do it this way.’ She’s always looking for new ways to be better at the game, at management (and) at leadership.”
Not that she can’t be a bit stubborn at times. Even as she was going into labor with her son, Tyler, while flying home from a recruiting trip in 1990, Summitt refused to land anywhere but on Tennessee soil.
She’s just as unwavering in what she expects of her teams.
“She’s changed some of her style,” Harper said. “She’s changed her coaching methods. When I say she’s changed, she’s changed the things she’s needed to change. She’s never changed her philosophy of demanding perfection. I think that’s why she’s continued to be successful, year in and year out.”
Tough on the road
Summitt didn’t coast to this coaching milestone, either. She consistently has scheduled a grueling nonconference slate.
“We’re trying to win every game, and we’re playing such a tough schedule,” Warlick said. “I think if we had lightened the schedule a long time ago, she may have already got (1,000 wins) sooner, but that’s not our style.”
Indeed, Summitt doesn’t shy away from the tough matchups, even when it means bringing her team into hostile environments. And her Lady Vols have been successful in such situations.
Entering this season, Tennessee has won 398 games against ranked opponents and 323 on the road. This year, Tennessee has the No. 1 strength of schedule in the nation.
“The scheduling is part of her makeup,” Voepel said. “She doesn’t ever do anything the easy way. She’s got eight trophies for that schedule.”
Just the beginning
Even on the cusp of 1,000 victories, Summitt’s drive to coach didn’t diminish.
She rarely deviated from her postgame ritual of methodically poring over game tape, multiple times if necessary. She is fiery as ever in practice and during games, tearing into players for a lazy pass, an ill-advised shot or a lackluster effort. And the challenge this year of directing a bunch of freshmen has only stoked an already fervent flame inside her.
“It’s almost an insatiable desire to work,” Voepel said. “She likes to work, and that’s why I don’t know when she’s going to retire. She really likes to do it.”
That’s no surprise. Hard work was a way of life for the young girl known as “Trish” growing up on the family farm in Henrietta, Tenn. When she wasn’t playing basketball in the hayloft with her three brothers, she was chopping tobacco or plowing the field.
Winning basketball games must seem easy by comparison. But how much longer can she do it?
At 56, Summitt is still relatively young in coaching circles, leaving one to only guess how far she’ll distance herself from the pack when she finally does call it quits.
“I was actually joking with somebody,” Voepel said, “that if she wanted to coach as long as (82-year-old Penn State football coach) Joe Paterno, maybe we’d be talking about 2,000 wins.”
That’s not completely far-fetched.
Not for Summitt, at least.
Neely on Summitt's accomplishmentsEast Ridge High School athletic director Catherine Neely has over 1,300 wins coaching girls volleyball and over 600 wins coaching girls basketball. Mrs. Neely is a fan of Pat Summitt and hopes to be present when the coach wins her 1000th basketball game.