NCAA Talk

Pat Summitt used the sport to empower women at Tennessee and beyond

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Pat Summitt used the sport to empower women at Tennessee and beyond

Needing yet another men's basketball coach, Tennessee officials turned to the one person they thought would be perfect to take over the Volunteers program.

Pat Summitt said no.

She wasn't interested in the job in 1994 after Wade Houston was forced out, and she turned it down again when Jerry Green quit in March 2001. A Tennessee governor once joked he wouldn't have his job if Summitt ever wanted to run her home state.

Breaking the glass ceiling in the men's game, political office, that wasn't Summitt's motivation. She had the only job she ever really wanted.

"I want to keep doing the right things for women all the time," Summitt said in June 2011 after being inducted into her fifth Hall of Fame.

Summitt died Tuesday morning at age 64.

The woman who grew up playing basketball in a Tennessee barn loft against her brothers, and started coaching only a couple years after Title IX was invoked, spent her life working to make women's basketball the equal of the men's game. In the process, Patricia Sue Head

Summitt stood amongst the best coaches in any sport when she retired in April 2012 with more victories (1,098) than any other NCAA coach and second only to John Wooden with eight national championships.

Summitt used the sport and her demand for excellence to empower women and help them believe they can achieve anything, taking no backseat to anyone.

When I moved to Tennessee in 1976, girls played six-on-six, half-court basketball designed to protect them from getting hurt. Summitt, who took her Lady Vols to four AIAW Final Fours, refused to recruit Tennessee players. Tennessee high schools switched to five-on-five rules starting with the 1979-80 season.

The NCAA finally started running a national postseason tournament for the women in 1982. At the time, Summitt was known for having "corn-fed chicks" on her roster, big and strong but not talented enough to win national titles. After she won her first national title in 1987 in her eighth Final Four either in the AIAW or NCAA, she said, "Well, the monkey's off my back."

Back then only a student ID was needed to attend a women's game. And there was no demand for the results of those games. After graduating from Tennessee, I helped the sports writers by bringing notes from an NCAA Tournament game back to the office for someone else to write up. There was no urgency since there was no reader demand.

So Summitt worked to make it impossible to ignore her team or the women's game.

By January 1993, so many people wanted to watch then-No. 2 Tennessee visit top-ranked Vanderbilt that the contest became the first Southeastern Conference women's game to sell out in advance. With children under 6 allowed in free, having a ticket didn't guarantee getting through the door; at least 1,000 were turned away at the door - including Vanderbilt's chancellor.

The Lady Vols won 73-68, a game I covered in my first year as a sports writer for The Associated Press in Nashville.

"This was the biggest game in women's basketball, and that's what I've been waiting 19 years to see," Summitt said. "I'm glad I stayed around to see it."

Summitt scheduled opponents anywhere and everywhere, barnstorming the country to introduce people to women's basketball. Tennessee played Arizona State in 2000 in the first women's outdoor game played at then-Bank One Ballpark, drew the largest crowd ever to a regional championship in March 1998 when 14,848 packed Memorial Gym in Nashville with Tennessee trying to finish off the NCAA's first three-peat and helped Louisville set a Big East record christening the KFC Yum! Center in 2010.

The Lady Vols became must-see TV in the sport as Summitt put the women's game on the national stage with six national titles in the span of 12 years.

I remember when I got real up-close look at what drove Summitt.

Assigned to cover Summitt as part of AP's annual college basketball preview package in the fall of 1998, I spent nearly 30 minutes with the coach in her office.

Door closed, Summitt gave a glimpse of that famous stay-away stare. With undivided attention now on me, she wanted to know if I had talked with her mother, Hazel, for the story. She then showed me the engaging side, laughing when asked about a stretch of play during the 1998 title game that resembled the Showtime Lakers, beaming while reflecting on how well her Lady Vols showed women could play the game.

The Lady Vols lost 69-63 to Duke that season in the East Regional. The next day I left a message at Summitt's house and late that afternoon, she called back to talk about more life lessons and basketball.

"It's a game, and winning and losing both can be great ways to teach kids how to get ready for the real world," said Summitt, who had to stop the interview because her mother had given son, Tyler, a gift. She explained he would have to save some of that cash before buying something for himself. Then she resumed the conversation about the game.

That was Pat Summitt: Hoops and family.

She held everyone to the exacting standards she learned from her father cutting tobacco and helping bale hay on the family farm. Tennessee and Connecticut was the biggest draw in women's basketball with Geno Auriemma and his Huskies handing Summitt her lone title game loss in 1995. But Summitt canceled the series in 2007 and refused to say why other than, "Geno knows."

Summitt ended a nine-year championship drought with her seventh national title in 2007 followed by the eighth in 2008. She became the first NCAA coach to win 1,000 games Feb. 5, 2009, and received a new contract that boosted her annual salary to $1.4 million - far removed from the $8,900 of her first season.

She never got to the 40th season in that contract, her career cruelly and prematurely ended by early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. She finished 1,098-208 with 18 Final Fours, at the time tying the men of UCLA and North Carolina for the most by any college basketball program.

Not that numbers define Summitt, who once said, "Records are made to be broken."

Yes, all marks fade, but no one will eclipse Summitt's contributions to women's basketball.

DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto retiring after 18 years at helm

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USA TODAY

DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto retiring after 18 years at helm

DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto informed the university she will retire in the coming months after 18 years at the helm. 

"It truly has been our privilege and the honor of a lifetime to serve DePaul as athletic director and to witness the unprecedented growth from that  ‘little school under the el’ to its current world class University serving students from around the globe," Ponsetto said in a statement.

“The changing times over these past few months has led me to this decision. Having successfully battled two breast cancer diagnoses and currently in treatment for a third, I thought it was time to step away from the long days, working every weekend and the 24/7 demands that being an athletic director requires."

Ponsetto has been a member of DePaul's athletic department since 1974, when she was a four-sport athlete (tennis, volleyball, basketball, softball). After graduating in 1978, she became DePaul's first assistant women's basketball coach. She later spent seven years as the senior associate athletic director before taking over as AD in 2002.

Ponsetto guided DePaul into the Big East from Conference USA in 2003 and helped organize the new Big East in 2013. She oversaw the development of Wintrust Arena, now home to the basketball teams after decades of playing at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.

The women's team has made 17 straight NCAA tournaments under head coach Doug Bruno. The men's team hasn't made the tournament since 2004 and has just two winning seasons since (2006-07, 2018-19). Ponsetto has hired three coaches in that span: Jerry Wainwright, Oliver Purnell and Dave Leitao — who is in his second stint as head coach.

The NCAA put DePaul's men's basketball program on probation for three years last summer due to a recruiting violation, of one two controversies to surround the athletic department in recent years. In April, a sports psychologist formerly affiliated with DePaul filed a lawsuit claiming she was terminated after raising concerns of former softball coach Eugene Lenti's abusive behavior towards players. Lenti is Lenti Ponsetto's brother.

Ponsetto will stay in her role and assist DePaul in its transition to a new AD. The university plans to conduct a national search for her replacement this summer.

NCAA to allow student-athletes to make money off name, image, likeness

NCAA to allow student-athletes to make money off name, image, likeness

The NCAA still won’t be paying its players, but it will allow student-athletes to receive endorsements from third-parties.

The governmental body for college athletics has long been a strong proponent of its athletes being amateurs, but this marks a drastic change in that, even if the schools won’t be allowed to pay the athletes directly. The NCAA’s Board of Governors met this week and supported the changes with some caveats.

“While student-athletes would be permitted to identify themselves by sport and school, the use of conference and school logos, trademarks or other involvement would not be allowed,” a press release from the NCAA read. “The board emphasized that at no point should a university or college pay student-athletes for name, image and likeness activities.”

The rule changes aren’t officially in place and must be implemented by the three divisions of college athletics that fall under the NCAA. The next step is for each division to make the actual rules the board of governors supported. The goal is for that to be in place in January and to take effect for the 2021-22 school year.

“The board’s action is the latest step by the Association to support college athletes and modernize its rules regarding name, image and likeness,” the press release read.

The process for this started back in October and has remained on track for January 2021. 

Maybe the next time a player like Zion Williamson gets hurt busting his shoe open on the court, he can switch shoe companies and make some money off it?