Confession #1: I wasn’t ever a great basketball player.
My career at Division III Wittenberg University wasn’t one of distinction. So the opportunity to lead many Athletes in Action exhibition teams that played programs like Tennessee, UConn and Duke each fall felt like heaven. Walking into those historic arenas with a front row seat to watch gifted athletes compete never got old!
Confession #2: I never aspired to be a college basketball coach.
AAU and high school seemed about my speed, but not college. So no one was more surprised than me when I coached our 2000 exhibition team of former collegiate players on a tour that included 10 teams ranked in the USA Today Preseason Top 25.
What an honor to play against the likes of Kay Yow, Debbie Ryan and Andy Landers. Yet the night etched in my mind forever is our last game against Tennessee and Pat Summitt.
Nerves rattled my bones! Reading the local paper that day didn’t help (now I know why coaches don’t read the paper). I learned Tennessee had won their first exhibition game by 88 points. Yes, 88!
I took to my knees in the hotel room before the game pleading with God to strengthen our tired bodies and help us compete (this marked our 13th game in about 17 days)! Perhaps you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s an exhibition game and doesn’t even count!” Well, it counted to us and we took our job of helping them prepare for their season seriously. We wanted to compete.
From the minute we arrived at Thompson Boling Arena we felt the aura of Tennessee women’s basketball. A manager met our bus and showed us to the locker room (this rarely happened at other schools—definite touch of class).
But the most unforgettable moment was entering the orange-laden arena that night to see the over 6,000 people who came to an exhibition game (remember, they don’t count!). Pat came out shortly before the game and welcomed our coaches and team. Truly an honor to meet her and to compete in that unique environment.
Women’s basketball will never see another Pat Summitt. Partly because she entered the scene at a time in history when women’s basketball (and women’s sports for that matter) needed pioneers with determination, grit and work ethic to help it grow. But also because of how she stewarded the opportunity entrusted to her.
Gone are the days when a coach will stay at one institution for 38 years (due to both the fickleness of administrations as well as coaches). Coach Summitt’s program emanated class, integrity and excellence because she demanded it both on and off the court. And in so doing she created a culture that became the benchmark for every other women’s basketball coach in America.
“Thank you” seems so inadequate to express gratitude to someone whose legacy changed the face of women’s basketball forever. As a fan of the game and someone who seeks to make a positive difference in the lives of coaches and athletes, I’m grateful for Coach Summitt’s example. Her influence resulted in more opportunities for female athletes and more exposure for our great game—both of which have had direct impact on my life. I’m so glad she will continue to mentor and teach in her new role.
By the way, God answered my prayer and we did compete! Down by only 8 at halftime, we ended up losing by 33—which to us, strangely felt like some sort of victory. At least it wasn’t 88!