Mark Wiedmer: Pat Summitt's banner night stirs crowd

Mark Wiedmer: Pat Summitt's banner night stirs crowd

January 29th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, left, stands with head coach emeritus Pat Summitt, her mother Hazel Head, seated, and future daughter-in-law AnDe Ragsdale as a banner in Summitt's honor was raised Monday before the Lady Vols' game.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Ten minutes prior to the Tennessee women tipping it off against Notre Dame on Monday night, the video began on the giant scoreboard above the basketball court bearing Pat Summitt's name.

Sharply dressed in a frost blue suit, her hair perfect, her pale blue eyes glistening in the bright lights, Summitt dutifully watched, just like the other 13,556 pairs of eyes inside Thompson-Boling Arena, including those of her mother, Hazel Head, who wore an orange-and-white striped sweater as she sat in a wheelchair by her daughter's side.

"She was a farm girl who didn't set out to change the world," the narrator began as the face of a teenaged Summitt filled the screen, "but that's just what she did."

After that, the audio to the video tribute got mostly lost in the deafening applause, though there seemed to be some recognition of her 100 percent graduation rate among those players who completed their eligibility as Lady Vols.

And her 1,098 wins, the most by either a men's or women's coach in Division I basketball.

And the quote that her players would surely say sums her up best: "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

But this night was mostly about the Lady Vols Nation coming together to raise a 12-foot by 20-foot banner honoring Summitt to the Boling Alley rafters. And to cheer their beloved former coach, who was forced to retire last spring due to Alzheimer's.

"Everyone in this arena absolutely loves her," said former Lady Vol Michelle Marciniak, whom Summitt was visiting on a recruiting trip in 1979 when the coach went into labor with son Tyler.

Now, as then, the Irish posted an early victory. Just as Marciniak signed with the Fighting Irish before transferring to UT after her freshman year, No. 2 Notre Dame knocked off the No. 9 Lady Vols 77-67 on Summitt's big night.

Yet even the Notre Dame players seemed as focused on the honoree as their third straight victory over UT. Much as the Lady Vols wore orange "We Back Pat" T-shirts during warm-ups, the Fighting Irish followed suit, though their shirts were white with blue letters.

"What a great moment for Coach Summitt," said ND point guard Skylar Diggins, who scored 33 points for the winners. "Having former players like Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings on the sidelines -- what a special night for college basketball."

There should have been many more such nights, of course, but with the 60-year-old Summitt still coaching rather than being honored.

Life isn't always fair, though. It too often too soon steals our best and brightest long before we're ready to let them go.

So Parker flew in from Russia -- where she's earning serious coin in a pro league -- to show her support. Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw -- who already have banners hanging from the Boling Alley's ceiling -- joined her, along with Marciniak, who was inducted into the Lady Vols Hall of Fame last November.

"I wanted to put them in real quick," said Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick of that quartet when ND surged to a 19-point lead. "But I'm just so proud they came back. It's a tribute to Pat and the program."

It's a tribute to Summitt and the character and compassion she cultivated in her players that former players such as Marciniak call and text her at least four times a week, coming to visit as often as possible.

"It's different," Marciniak said. "Sometimes you just sit with her, small communication. We cook sometimes. Italian marinated chicken. Creamed jalapeno corn. Teriyaki salmon open-faced on the grill. All the things anyone would love to eat."

A few months ago, Marciniak -- who co-owns SHEEX, a company that makes sheets and pillowcases out of athletic-performance fabrics -- told a website that she sometimes hears Summitt's voice after business meetings.

"She'll say, 'OK, you had a great meeting today. So now what?'" Marciniak revealed. "I hear her voice all the time. She's just so special."

And Summitt is special. Always will be. But if Marciniak, Catchings, Parker and Holdsclaw are any indication, her former players have also turned out to be pretty special in showing how much they still care about their incomparable coach.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com